For 19 hours, the lobby of Nairobi’s DusitD2 complex was on Tuesday turned into what intelligence sources call “an active command and control centre”.
On the floors above were six armed terrorists, who had entered the place at some minutes past 3pm, and more than 700 workers trapped in offices within the complex.
If anything went wrong, the planners of the rescue mission agreed, the death toll would be unimaginable.
By 10am on Wednesday, when the siege was declared over, the senior officers looked tired and somnolent.
A new CCTV footage shows that a suicide bomber detonated his explosive vest at exactly 3.05pm, after standing for a minute on the footpath next to the Secret Garden Restaurant.
Seconds earlier, the man is seen walking briskly before stopping, his back turned to the restaurant.
Two workers pass him by while customers at the restaurant are too busy with their lunch or their laptops to notice him.
Seconds after the blast, there is commotion and shooting, forcing people back into the building.
Sources in the rescue mission recounted the intricate details of the rescue mission that saved more than 700 people to the Nation.
“When the shooting started, those inside thought it was a bank robbery,” a senior intelligence officer said.
Shortly thereafter, Director of Criminal Investigations George Kinoti arrived at 14 Riverside Drive together with the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit and the Flying Squad crime prevention teams. The Recce Squad had been put on standby.
“It was after they opened the vehicle abandoned at the drop arm barrier that they discovered that the attack pointed to terrorists,” our source says.
Inside the vehicle was a phone and literature pointing to terrorism. A few metres away, a grenade had exploded, deflating the tyre of a parked Toyota Yaris.
“At that point, the Recce Squad was activated,” our informant says.
The squad is a Ruiru-based paramilitary unit comprising elite soldiers, who are Kenya’s equivalent to the British SAS, America’s Delta Force, or Israel’s Sayaret Matkal.
By then the terrorist had killed eight people at the restaurant, most of them from injuries after he detonated his explosive vest.
The arrival of the Recce Squad around 4pm changed the matrix as they entered the complex where the terrorists were holed up, with the GSU Commandant Douglas Kanja coordinating the efforts together with an operation intelligence team from the NIS Counter Terrorism unit.
The GSU air cavalry unit had brought in some of the Recce Squad members.
“The KDF (Kenya Defence Forces) special forces were also put on standby,” sources told the Nation.
The KDF soldiers were stationed near the Chiromo students’ hostels, a stone’s throw away from the scene.
The idea was to avoid a repeat of the mistakes made in the 2013 Westgate rescue effort when GSU officers withdrew after the arrival of the KDF.
The Recce Squad also claimed that KDF soldiers shot at them, and that there was no clear line of authority.
This time, sources say, it was “agreed” that Mr Kanja be in charge of the overall operation at the central command centre at the lobby.
A police command centre was also established outside, headed by Deputy Inspector-General of Police Edward Mbugua, a former presidential escort commander.
With the arrival of the Recce Squad, the regular police, who had engaged the terrorists, were asked to pull back.
“Unlike Westgate, there was no time for ego wars. All the teams were collapsed into a multiagency unit,” an informant said.
At the central command was a senior property manager who informed the team about the layout of the complex.
Also present were “two or three” counter-terrorism experts from the West. They also had access to the CCTV room, which gave them an edge over the terrorists.
“From the word go, we knew that we were dealing with an amateurish group,” our source says.
With the help of electronic surveillance, the Recce Squad had picked out the terrorists, and by midnight, had pushed them to the seventh floor.
“By this time we had separated the hostages from the terrorists, and what remained was to get everyone out as we staged the last fight on the seventh floor,” the informant said.
Dusit has reinforced steel and glass doors, and with most the hostages barricaded behind the doors, the terrorist could not reach them.
With 21 killed during the attack, police believe they performed much better than in previous attacks.
The question remains: Did they drop the ball and were these terrorists on the police radar?
“We’ve disrupted many others, only that we don’t tell the public,” the source says.
By last evening, police had arrested seven suspects, most of them in Nairobi, as they continued gathering details on the raid.