A machine gun and grenade assault on one of Nairobi’s biggest shopping malls left at least 39 people dead and more than 200 others injured in the worst terrorist attack in the country since the 1998 bombing of the US Embassy.
The hooded gunmen and a woman, who claimed to be Al Shabaab, stormed the mall at around noon and opened fire on shoppers and workers at close range. Only those who identified themselves as Muslims and were able to recite Muslim prayers were spared, according to witnesses.
Children were among those shot in cold blood by the militants. Security forces surrounded the 350,000sq-feet mall, as others pursued the gunmen inside.
Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack last evening to retaliate Kenya’s role in the war against militants in Somalia.
A new Twitter account claiming to be that of the terror group, and which is similar to the one that had been suspended, also supported the mall attack. The operator of the account even posted a picture of a Kenya Defence Forces officer, taken from behind, standing outside the mall— a clear indication that whoever tweeted could have been in Nairobi.
President Uhuru Kenyatta addressed the country at 11:10pm and vowed to crush the militants.
“My Government stands ready to defend the nation from internal as well as external aggression. I urge all Kenyans to stand together and see this dark moment through. Donate blood. Provide information to the authorities. Comfort and reassure the affected families. Let us ashame the Devil and his works by demonstrating our timeless values of love, compassion and solidarity,” he said.
He said security forces were conducting a multi-agency response to secure Kenyans from terrorists.
“But let me make it clear. We shall hunt down the perpetrators wherever they run to. We shall get them. We shall punish them for this heinous crime.” The President asked Kenyans to condole with the bereaved and support the injured, saying he had lost close family members in the attack .
President Kenyatta’s son, Jomo, was among shoppers at the mall before the attack began and was rushed to safety. His sister, Christine Wambui Pratt, was rescued from the mall much later.
The militants were said to be holding several shoppers hostage; others hid in various locations at the several-storey mall as the situation unfolded several hours after the terror began at midday.
Last night, the Presidential Strategic Communications Unit announced that a gunman who had been arrested and taken to hospital had died.
Sporadic gunshots could still be heard from the mall hours after the initial attack that shocked the nation.
A guard with Securex Company who was at the main entrance when the gunmen stormed the building, Ms Ukhevi Rasoa, said she heard gunshots from the delivery gate.
“Then I saw shards of glass dropping from the windows of a restaurant in the building. When I rushed there, I saw three hooded people dressed in black, including a woman, at the main gate shooting everywhere. They were youthful. One of them wore a black vest with goggles and earphones. The lady wore a pink vest, had goggles and was also hooded. It was around 12.30,” Ms Rasoa told the Sunday Nation.
A driver who operates at the mall, Mr Jackson Kyalo, said one of the terrorists stepped on his head as he asked people lying on the floor if they were Muslims.
“He said they had come to seek revenge as our government had allegedly said al-Shabaab and Muslims should be killed. I survived through God’s mercy,” Mr Kyalo said.
Another security guard, Mr Joseph Saruni, said his colleague he identified only as Maurice was shot dead as he watched.
By the time we went to press, security personnel were hunting down the militants shop by shop. It also emerged that top security officers led by Kenya Defence Forces boss Julius Karangi, Inspector-General of Police David Kimaiyo and spy chief Michael Gichangi were holed up in a meeting at Ukay Centre late into the night to discuss how to safely evacuate tens of people held hostage in the mall.
Helicopters hovered over the mall located in a heavily built-up neighbourhood. Foreign security services were also seen involved in the security operation.
It was not clear how many terrorists were involved in the attack; witnesses put the number at between five and 10.
Mr Kimaiyo, Interior Secretary Joseph ole Lenku and Garissa Senator Yusuf Haji, a former defence minister, were among the first to arrive on the scene.
Witnesses said the attackers were armed with AK-47 rifles and wore ammunition belts. They were also armed with grenades and carried a substance thought to be acid.
“They were young and slender. They chanted Allahu Akbar (God is Great) as they entered the building,” another witness said.
The scale and execution of the attack were unlike anything seen in the country since Nairobi witnessed the first major al-Qaeda attack on civilians on August 7, 1998, when they blew up the embassy.
This is al Shabaab’s biggest attack outside Somalia’s borders since a twin attack in Kampala, Uganda, on people watching World Cup final in June 2010 on television.
The assault attracted international condemnation. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon called President Kenyatta to express his shock over the events.
Victims and eyewitnesses spoke of a chaotic response by the police before Kenya Defence Forces personnel arrived and took over the operation.
Police lobbed tear gas canisters into the building earlier on in a bid to flush out the attackers — choking people trapped inside and leaving some of them unconscious.
Some shoppers hid at the mall’s second-floor cinema complex where the terror was compounded by the darkness. Others found refuge in crannies of the mall that opened in 2007 and is one of the largest in the country.
People interviewed by Sunday Nation said the attack was preceded by persistent power blackouts in the morning.
Mr John Wangendo, a taxi driver, spoke of a narrow escape. “I was on the ground floor when I heard gunshots. I rushed to the toilet where I remained for four hours. The shooting continued as I hid in the toilet. Teargas canisters were lobbed into the building, forcing us to come out. I didn’t see where I was going due to teargas. I am happy I am safe.”
By last night, three elite units of the security forces were leading the effort to track down the militants.
Commandos from the Kenya Defence Forces were flown in from Gilgil to lead the effort together with the General Service Unit’s Recce squad and members of the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit.
Eyewitnesses repeatedly spoke of hooded youths who communicated in halting English and Somali and spoke of carrying out revenge for Kenya’s operation against Al-Shabaab in Somalia.
The group has been on the backfoot in Somalia for the last three years and lost control of key cities like Mogadishu and Kismayu following a two-pronged assault led by African Union troops from Kenya, Uganda and Burundi. But the militants have retained the capacity to strike within and outside Somalia’s borders.
A few hours after the assault began, injured victims were wheeled out of the mall on stretchers and shopping trolleys. Many of the victims had multiple gunshot wounds. Some walked out with bloodied clothing serving as improvised bandages.
Internal Security Principal Secretary Mutea Iringo said security had been beefed up at malls across the country. The management of Village Market, which is popular with diplomats from the UN complex nearby, announced they had closed down as a precaution.
At Westgate, the bodies of those killed were strewn all over the mall. A camp was set up at a nearby Hindu temple to attend to those who required first aid and others rescued from the building.
Those interviewed accused security personnel of taking very long to show up , while those who did were poorly armed.
“Some came with pistols while the attackers were heavily armed. They feared entering the building until some reinforcement was brought,” a survivor said.
One of the policemen mistakenly shot at the ground at the main gate where survivors boarded ambulances to hospital, forcing onlookers to scamper for safety.
The attack was staged on the day designated by the United Nations as an International Day of Peace.