Saturday, September 28, 2013

Hard questions emerge over handling of terror attack

Kenyan army soldiers light candles during a 24-hour prayer vigil for victims of the Westgate mall massacre near the Westgate Mall on September 28, 2013 in Nairobi. Photo/AFP

Kenyan army soldiers light candles during a 24-hour prayer vigil for victims of the Westgate mall massacre near the Westgate Mall on September 28, 2013 in Nairobi. Photo/AFP 

By FRED MUKINDA
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Did the masterminds of the Westgate terror escape within an hour of launching the attack? Could the terrorists who remained behind to continue the senseless killing and repulse security forces also slip away unnoticed?

And what is the fate of the hostages thought to have been held in the siege? What about the destruction of the mall, did the military bomb it? And who looted the shops?

These are some of the hard questions that Kenyans are seeking answers to as sources reveal new accounts that have not been formally released by the government, further intensifying the mystery that surrounds the four-day siege.

Multiple sources, including some police officers who made the initial response to the distress call, confirmed that the first group of terrorists may have escaped within an hour into the attack.

Some are said to have changed their clothes, dropped their weapons, and ran out alongside terrified civilians. The government has repeatedly denied that any of the attackers escaped despite eyewitness accounts and confirmation by police officers, who spoke to the Sunday Nation in confidence.

REMAIN UNACCOUNTED FOR

The terrorists believed to have been left behind also remain unaccounted for — days after the siege ended. This brings to question the exact number of those involved in the deadly assault.

On Monday, as the military launched what was described as the “final assault” to take back the mall, Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph ole Lenku said there were between 10 and 15 terrorists inside holding at least 30 hostages. More than 1,000 people were said to have been evacuated.

Later, Mr Lenku announced that five terrorists were killed after the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) took over the building on Tuesday. However, he remained tight-lipped on the whereabouts of the bodies and the identity of the terrorists. Also unclear is the fate of the remaining terrorists, who should be at least 10 based on the figures provided.

“Five suspected terrorists were killed during the operation and the ongoing forensic investigations will ascertain their identities. When complete, these investigations will answer the questions being raised about their nationalities and gender,” said Mr Lenku.

The government is also yet to release details of a suspected terrorist, who reportedly died in hospital from bullet wounds last Saturday, a few hours after the attack began.

Fresh details about how the remaining terrorists could have escaped further deepen the mystery. Security officials who spoke to the Sunday Nation suspect the al-Shabaab killer gang that repulsed an elite military squad may have escaped through an underground tunnel that connects the mall and an adjacent building — about 100 metres away.

“The tunnel is big enough for an adult to walk through comfortably,” said our source, who declined to be named for his own safety.

The identity of the attackers also remains a grey area with conflicting reports about the involvement of a woman.

Mr Lenku initially denied a woman was part of the attackers, but he later admitted the possibility of British fugitive Samantha Lewthwaite, nicknamed the “White Widow” or “Dada Mzungu” (White Sister), leading the attack, after his Foreign Affairs counterpart Amina Mohammed made the claims in an interview with a US TV station.

Interpol has now issued a “red alert” notice for the capture of the “White Widow” at the request of the Kenyan authorities. The woman is, however, not seen in the CCTV footage of the attack viewed by the Sunday Nation. But some eyewitness accounts indicate a woman was leading the terrorists.

Latest intelligence reports seen by the Sunday Nation show that the mastermind of the Westgate massacre is suspected to be a 50-year-old Kenyan, Abu Sandheere — an associate of slain Al-Qaeda leader Fazul Abdulla.

At least 67 people, including six security officers, are said to have died in the attack while 175 are recorded to have been injured. It is suspected more bodies are buried under the rubble — something the government does not seem keen to acknowledge.

Even then, the puzzle of missing persons has left more unanswered questions. Red Cross figures show that at least 61 people have been reported missing.

But Mr Lenku said: “According to police records, there are no formal or official reports of missing persons who could have been at the mall during the time of the attack.”

The destruction of Westgate, including the collapse of a section of the building, has raised further questions as experts told the Sunday Nation that it must have been caused by a “huge explosion”.

On Monday, the Interior minister explained that billowing smoke was from burning mattresses lit by the terrorists to distract the security forces. However, sources within the military later said the fire was started by the Kenyan security forces. 

When the final onslaught was launched on Monday, it was confirmed the terrorists may have been holding some hostages. However, after the siege ended on Tuesday, there was no information on the fate of the hostages.

Instead, Mr Lenku talked of an “insignificant number” of bodies — a reference that stirred outrage on social media.

Retired military captain Simiyu Werunga said the terrorists either bombed the building or KDF was responsible for the explosion.

“Booby traps cannot bring down a building and neither can ordinary rifles. It requires extra firepower to do that. Probably there were bombs and when these guys (terrorists) felt they were being cornered they exploded the place.

The other scenario is the military did it, because we are talking of Special Forces who use fire power superior to rifles. But we cannot be sure because we didn’t see them,” he said.

Capt (rtd) Werunga said besides bombs, the explosion could have been caused by rocket propelled grenades. His views were supported by two other security experts, who cannot be named because they are serving officers and cannot comment on such sensitive matters.

According to Capt (rtd) Werunga, the terrorists had enough time to assemble improvised explosive devices and make bombs.

“The security officers gave them enough time to do it, bearing in mind that whatever they required had allegedly been brought to the building before they struck. From Saturday to Monday, that was enough time. If so, they must have strapped them from pillar to pillar. One explosion would trigger off the next and so on,” he added.

Another security officer indicated that Nakumatt supermarket and chemists within the mall provided perfect ingredients to make a bomb.

Reports of confusion during the operation have also raised questions on coordination during such attacks. An elite police unit drawn from the Recce squad of the GSU had apparently pinned down the terrorists on Saturday before KDF arrived.

This changeover allowed the terrorists to regroup and in the confusion, led to the shooting of a GSU commander. The mission was effectively taken over by KDF chief Julius Karangi even though Inspector-General of police David Kimaiyo was nominally in charge.

Some people who entered the building after the siege was over have also said that Automated Teller Machine had been vandalised, probably with explosives, and money stolen. Inside the banks, it was reported that some safes had been tampered with by force. However, the military has denied the claim. (See separate story).

On Friday, Mr Lenku said those who operated business in the mall had been allowed access to take inventory of their property.

The BBC spoke to Ms Irene Anyango, manager of a jewellery shop at Westgate, who claimed that 90 per cent of her stock had gone missing.

“It’s not the mall you used to see... things are spoiled, glasses are broken, everything is everywhere,” the BBC quoted her as having said.

Forensic and ballistic experts —including some from US, Israeli, Britain, Germany and Canada — are combing through the rubble to establish the nature of weapons used as well as identity of attackers and hostages.

The number and identity of those arrested has also been contradictory. Last week, there were reports that at least 11 people were in custody, including a Briton arrested at the airport. No evidence has so far been found to link him with the attack. Three had, however, been released.

Well placed security sources said only two suspects were arrested in the mall. One of them, Mr Gitonga Ali, is being treated at the Forces Memorial Hospital while the other is said to have died from gunshot wounds at the Aga Khan Hospital.

Mr Lenku said police were holding eight suspects as they sought to unmask the faces behind the worst terror attack since the 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi in which more than 200 people died.

Pathologists are expected to begin work at the destroyed mall on Monday when it is expected the forensic experts would have finished combing through for evidence. “Westgate mall remains a scene of crime and access remains limited,” said Mr Lenku.

Reports that hostages held by the terrorists were tortured have been confirmed, but what really happened remains a mystery.

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