After the ululations, it will be time to ask the hard questions

Tuesday September 24 2013

Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) soldiers arrive at the Westgate mall in Nairobi on September 22, 2013. Three KDF soldiers were killed in the attack. PHOTO/AFP

Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) soldiers arrive at the Westgate mall in Nairobi on September 22, 2013. PHOTO/AFP 

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Kenyan security forces have rightfully earned plaudits for a gallant performance tackling the bloody siege at Westgate Shopping Mall.

From the moment the Al-Shabbab terrorists struck just before lunchtime on Saturday and killed dozens before taking hostages inside the upmarket mall, policemen on patrol and from nearby police stations who were first on the scene bravely entered the complex and led hundreds of terrified victims to safety.

The policemen from various units were lightly armed with handguns, with only a few bearing assault rifles. T

hey had no uniform or protective gear such as helmets, visors and bullet-proof vests. They came to provide heroic early pictures as they shepherded shoppers to safety or made their way down corridors and up staircases within the building to make for iconic images that could have come straight from some Hollywood action movie.

The policemen first on the scene thought they were responding to an ordinary robbery. It took a while for the full gravity of the situation to sink in and the heavy-hitters from the special squads of the Kenya Police, General Service Unit and Anti-Terrorism squads to be brought in, followed by special forces from the Kenya Army.

While Kenyans may have been enthralled by the firepower assembled, there must have been reason to worry when the siege dragged on even as the authorities issued assurances that they were in control of the mall except for a few pockets where the terrorists were holding hostages.

That a bunch of dozen or so terrorists could hold at bay all that the Kenya Defense Forces and the Kenya Police plus the military advisors or special forces (it was never clear which) from Israel, the United States and Britain could throw at them should have sent the message that the picture was not as rosy as painted.

It certainly cannot be easy tackling terrorists who are shielding behind innocent men, women and children; ready to die for their cause and probably laying booby traps and explosives that could blow the whole edifice sky high.

But it seemed that the reassuring messages from the press briefings and the various tweeter handles run by the security agencies set out to provide positive spin on a dicey situation.

By Tuesday afternoon, for instance, there were still reports of gunfire from the Westgate Mall despite ‘confirmation’ the previous night that security forces had vanquished the terrorists, freed all the remaining hostages and were in full control of the complex.

Well after on Tuesday, a message from the Kenya Police twitter account announced that the operation was still in the ‘last stages’, a significant retreat from the previous night’s assurances that Westgate had been liberated.

The Kenya Defense Force and the other twitter handles were also all on messages about ‘mopping up’ operations, but remained conspicuously silent on whether all the hostages had been rescued and whether there were still gunmen providing resistance.

That seemed a familiar follow up from Sunday night when the security forces indicated that they were in the ‘final push’ to conclude the operation, only for the siege to last throughout the night and onto the whole of Monday.

Conflicting and contradictory information from the various twitter handles set up by different agencies involved in the operation did not help matters.

The Kenya Defense Forces (@kdfinfo), the Kenya Police (@policeKE), the Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government (@InteriorKE), and the Kenya National Disaster Operation Centre (@NDOCKenya) were all providing updates on social media. So were individually twitter handles run for Interior Secretary Joseph ole Lenku (@jolelenku) and Inspector General of Police David Kimaiyo (@IGKimaiyo).

Most of the time they had only inane information, and were intent on re-tweeting each other’s messages, congratulating themselves, and appealing to the media and bloggers to stop giving out unofficial information.

What the official tweets did not reveal is that the operation did not appear to be going as smoothly as projected. According to knowledgeable security sources, the multiplicity of security agencies from the Kenya Defense Forces and the Kenya Police converging at Westgate early resulted in territorial wrangles over command responsibility.

That was why early on in his first press briefing, President Uhuru Kenyatta felt constrained to clarify, and repeat, that overall operational command lay with the Inspector-General of Police.

By that time valuable time may have been lost, and hence the delays in launching a quick assault on the first night or at least by the Day Two.

As the siege wore in, it became clear that the military had assumed overall command. They were to lead the operation, and also emphasised in that it was only them responsible for the public information flow.

The military tweets, unlike the others, seem to focus in the heroics of the KDF soldiers to the exclusion of other agencies.

At the press conference on Monday afternoon where Interior Secretary ole Lenku and KDF commander General Julius Karangi gave an assurance that the mall had been taken and ‘most’ hostages freed, police Inspector-General Kimaiyo seemed to have been relegated to the periphery.

The gung ho message from the press briefing may have served to re-assure Kenyans that the siege was ending and imbue them with patriotic fervour, but it seemed to leave more questions than answers.

By Tuesday evening, well after a press briefing from State House initially promised for morning had still not been convened, there remained a loud silence on the whereabouts and numbers of the hostages reportedly rescued when the troops took control of the building.

The casualty count was also unclear. The Monday press briefing had reduced the number of dead from 69 to 62, citing double-counting.

However at the same there were was news that soldiers securing the building had retrieved 10 more bodies, which should have increased the fatalities to over 70.

This would not include any bodies that might have been recovered in the overnight operation on Monday night onto Tuesday morning.

Another major mystery fueled by conflicting reports was on the fate of the terrorists. Initial reports from the beginning indicated that Westgate was seized on Saturday by between 10 and 15 gunmen. When the mall was liberated, the numbers of those killed or captured kept on fluctuating. It was also unclear whether any of them had escaped in the confusion.

[email protected] @MachariaGaitho on Twitter.