Inside terror complex, hope springs eternal as heroes rise to the occasion

Wednesday January 16 2019

14 Riverside Drive, DusitD2, Dusit

A woman hides behind a car at the scene of an explosion at a hotel complex in Nairobi's Westlands suburb on January 15, 2019, in Kenya. A huge blast followed by a gun battle rocked an upmarket hotel and office complex in Nairobi on January 15, 2018, causing casualties, in an attack claimed by the Al-Qaeda-linked Shabaab Islamist group. PHOTO | LUIS TATO | AFP 

NATION TEAM
By NATION TEAM
More by this Author

Nancy, whose full name we will not reveal yet, to protect her identity, was inside the 14 Riverside Drive complex that houses the five-star Dusit D2 hotel and several offices when a loud explosion tore through her office a few minutes past 3pm yesterday.

Terrified, she ran to a safe corner and hid, and thus began the longest wait of her life. Outside, masked gunmen had overrun a security barrier, thrown grenades at guards, stormed a restaurant and shot at patrons.

The complex, one of the poshest addresses in Nairobi, had become a war zone, and Nancy was caught up in the combat.

COMMUNICATION

By 9.30pm last night, she was still holed up in her hideout, but remained in constant communication with the Nation through text messages.

After an hour of explosions and automatic rifle gunfire, an eerie silence enveloped the complex.

“Silence,” she wrote to the Nation. A minute later, she texted to indicate that the silence had been short-lived. “More explosions, more gunshots.”

Outside, security officers and commandos massed on the building. We told Nancy to calm down as the situation appeared like it would be brought under control soon, but just as we sent out our text, she screamed on text: “Uuuwii! This is terrible. Thank God I remembered to stay away from windows.”

Another explosion had ripped through the building, shattering windows. The day was progressing really badly for Nancy.

Barely an hour earlier, she had been in high spirits, looking forward to an idyllic evening before the short journey home. But then, at exactly 2.52pm, security guards at the parking lot noticed three vehicles hurtling towards the complex.

One of the guards tried to stop the vehicles as the interior parking lot was full, but the vehicles did not stop. Instead, one of the vehicles, registration number KCN 340E, bore down on the guards before screeching to a halt next to the barrier.

ASSAILANTS

Three armed men stepped out and ordered the guards to open the barrier. The guards, instead, scampered. Left to their own devices, and with the their target just a few metres away, the attackers opened the barrier and drove in.

Inside the complex, Nancy went on with her duties, unaware of what was happening outside.

At the parking lot, two other people — the driver and a passenger — disembarked and joined the other three for the short march towards DusitD2 hotel.

As they approached the hotel lobby, one of the cars parked outside exploded. Then hell broke loose.

The assailants then hurled a grenade at Secret Garden, a restaurant within the mixed-use development.

They gained entry to the establishment through its kitchen door and opened fire as they made their way into the dining area. The police later said that a suicide bomber appeared to have detonated a bomb inside the restaurant.

Officers from the Gigiri Police Division were deployed to the scene as Gigiri OCPD Richard Muguai requested reinforcement from other police stations and the specialised units.

A team drawn from the Directorate of Criminal Investigations units — including the Flying Squad, the Bomb and Hazardous Disposal Unit, and the Special Crime Prevention Unit — made its way into the suites, followed by other units. A few minutes later, they were joined by the elite Recce Squad from the General Service Unit.

ESCALATING

Unlike during the Westage Mall attack of 2013, the multi-agency operation yesterday appeared well coordinated. One hour after the attack, and as Nancy informed us that silence had enveloped the complex, a specialised unit from the Kenya Defence Forces joined in the operation and also evacuated people trapped in adjacent buildings.

The specialised units from the National Police Service and the military first obtained a map of the building from its administrators before moving in. They then evacuated people from the ground floor before escalating the operation to the upper floors of the building, where they believed many were holed up.

By 8.30pm, Inspector-General of Police Joseph Boinnet said six of the seven floors had been evacuated.

“We are hoping to bring the situation to normalcy within the shortest time possible,” Mr Boinnet said, adding that the battle installations were on guard to flush out the criminals hiding in the building.

At about the same time, Nancy wrote to inform us that she suspected that the reason her rescue was taking too long was that the attackers had sought refuge near where she was hiding.

By press time, 30 people were being treated in several hospitals in the city, including MP Shah, Aga Khan, Kenyatta, and Avenue. Doctors said that most of them had shrapnel and gunshot wounds. There was no official confirmation of the number of casualties.

Among those trapped inside the development was a daughter of former Kakamega senator Boni Khalwale.

Mr Khalwale was at the scene all afternoon, and the wait for his daughter’s rescue was as frightening as it was endless.

SURVIVOR

“My daughter is in there. We have been communicating since 3pm, and she has told me she had to hide in one of the rooms in her office,” Dr Khalwale told the Nation at 5pm.

At 7.40pm, the senator tweeted that he was still at the scene, waiting for his daughter.

The two had been in constant communication, with the former senator joining curious onlookers as well as the press team in observing the rescued, hoping that one of them was his daughter.

Ms Grace Kamau, a survivor, said she and her colleagues at Shell BG Group were forced to hide in a store until the multi-agency team came to rescue them.

“We heard a loud bang and I just saw stones flying. My colleague and I ran out and told others to get out. As we were on the stairs, they started shooting so we came back up the stairs. We entered a store and we heard gunshots. We stayed there until the police came,” Ms Kamau told the Nation.

Tuesday’s attack came three years to the date after the El Adde attack in Somalia in which over 100 KDF soldiers were killed.

Soldiers targeted by the January 15, 2016 dawn attack were from the 5th and 9th battalions of the KDF, and although the government never announced the number of casualties, former Somalia president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud put the figure at 200 while speaking in an interview, only to backtrack on the figure shortly afterwards, saying he had been misquoted.

WESTGATE

On January 27, 2017, terrorists attacked the KDF camp in Kolbiyow, approximately 18 kilometres from the Kenyan border. Kenyan soldiers fiercely fought back, but tens of them are said to have died in the raid, which came just three days after Kenyan troops captured Badhaadhe town.

And in January 2018, Al-Shabaab militants destroyed two police vehicles in Nyongoro, Lamu County, where at least three police officers and one civilian were killed. The police Land Cruisers were ambushed while escorting buses from Lamu to Mombasa.

Eerily, Tuesday's attack came a day after a court in Nairobi ruled that Mohamed Admed Abdi, Omar Liban and Hussein Hassan Mustafa have a case to answer with regard to the September 21, 2013 terror attack on the Westgate Mall, which claimed 71 lives.

The three will be back in court on January 21 for the mention of their cases, and will be required to counter accounts by prosecutors that they were actively involved in the attack that was characterised by a siege lasting more than 48 hours.

Reporting by Bernard Mwinzi, Stella Cherono, David Mwere and Elvis Ondieki