Monday 25 September 2017

Nairobi siege 'could have ended earlier'

A cobbled-together operation by the military hamstrung the efforts of armed police, who had the terrorists cornered

MOURNING: Relatives are bereft next to the body of BN Sudarshan, who was killed in the Westgate shopping mall
MOURNING: Relatives are bereft next to the body of BN Sudarshan, who was killed in the Westgate shopping mall

Mike Pflanz, Zoe Flood and Ben Farmer in Nairobi

AS a group of al-Shabaab gunmen prepared to attack Nairobi's Westgate mall last weekend, Esther Nyauncho was in one of its supermarkets with her boyfriend, Ravi Ramrattan. Wandering through the aisles, they did what every modern couple do to save time. "I went to the dairy section, and he went to the meat counter," she said.

It was a decision that was to spare her life – and cost him his.

When gunfire and grenade blasts erupted through the building shortly after 12.30pm, Ms Nyauncho, a 25-year-old financial analyst, fled with others to a storeroom, where two hours later she emerged unharmed.

But in the meantime, the only sign of her partner, a 30-year-old Oxford-educated economist from Trinidad, was a text at 1.19pm saying he was still in the meat section, and that it was "not safe".

A Sunday Telegraph reporter came across Ms Nyauncho that Saturday outside the shopping centre, looking dazed and desperately searching for information about Mr Ramrattan. Yesterday, exactly a week later, she was attending his funeral – one of scores of sad farewells now going on across Nairobi, Kenya and the wider world.

Set in an upmarket district of the Kenyan capital popular with expatriates, Westgate was always a likely target for terrorism. It symbolises everything that fundamentalist Islam sees as a challenge: fashion, fun, and the spread of Western modernity into places that once knew only poverty.

It was where teenage Kenyan hipsters in low-slung jeans and oversize sunglasses went to sip milkshakes, and where expat families with children would meet for a latte and cake or a glass of wine. Inside was also a casino, a cocktail bar and a cinema.

Now, Westgate is a place half-destroyed. Bomb squad soldiers yesterday continued to inch along shop by ruined shop searching for booby-trapped explosives.

The full horror of the 80-hour siege of Nairobi's premier shopping centre, and its chaotic climax, can today be detailed for the first time.

It has also emerged that:

• Armed private security agents and elite Kenyan police cornered the terrorists early on, but were forced to pull out in the confusion of a separate army assault.

• Spies warned of a specific attack on the mall as long ago as September 2012.

• The attackers may have tried to flee the centre via a services tunnel.

What would become one of international terrorism's signature attacks is now thought to have begun as long ago as last September in the ungoverned wastes of Somalia's hinterland.

There, al-Shabaab, with advice from its al-Qaeda superiors, assembled an international squad of volunteers and provided them with detailed plans of the Westgate mall The team staged rehearsals and sourced weapons, while radical imams gave blessings for the attack.

Meanwhile, in a non-descript apartment opposite Westgate rented by the gang, the terrorists began a surveillance operation. It was immediately obvious that the time to strike would be a weekend, probably lunchtime.

On the Saturday of last weekend, across all floors of the mall, ordinary people were enjoying what should have been routine family fun. Among them were a number of Britons and East African Asians. Zahira Bawa and her daughter Jennah, 8, from Leamington Spa, were doing their weekly shop in the Nakumatt supermarket. Mitul Shah, 38, a British businessman, was on the top floor with Ruhila Adatia-Sood, 24, a popular Kenyan radio presenter, preparing to judge a children's cookery competition.

Ross Langdon, 32, a British-Australian architect, and his heavily-pregnant Dutch girlfriend, Elif Lavuz, 33, had just finished a pre-natal class and were grabbing a burger. Within hours, they were dead in each others' arms, among a death toll now put at 67.

The attackers, between 10 and 15 of them, came in three waves. The first leapt from a silver saloon car and began spraying bullets along the front of the mall, where there is a smart outdoor cafe. The second group headed on foot for the basement car park. A third party drove another vehicle up the ramp at the side of the building, onto the rooftop car park, and right into the Junior Super Chef competition.

There, they began firing indiscriminately. Mr Shah died trying to shield children from the gunfire. The floor was awash with blood.

The idea that this was simply a very violent robbery faded quickly, as the gunmen on the roof and their accomplices downstairs lined up survivors and demanded that Muslims came forward. If they proved their faith, they were released, although many Muslims ended up dead too.

Survivors said the terrorists were unnervingly composed as they went about their slaughter. They spoke English and Swahili poorly, wore black keffiyehs, combat trousers, and toolbelts strung with grenades.

As shoppers realised they were being targeted, those unable to flee stayed quiet.

Stories of extraordinary survival emerged. One French mother escaped after her six-year-old son, a Briton, confronted one jihadist and told him: "You're a bad man." Apparently chastened, the gunman gave him and his sister a Mars Bar each and let them depart with their mother, who had been shot in the thigh. As he departed, he said: "Please forgive me, we are not monsters."

On a balcony outside the supermarket, Katherine Walton, 38, an IT specialist from the US, lay beneath a stand cradling her three daughters, aged four, two and 13 months.

During a brief lull in the fighting, Abdul Haji, a Kenyan businessman who had rushed to Westgate to try to rescue his brother, waved to four-year-old Portia to make a run for it. She did, the photograph of their escape appearing on front pages of newspapers around the world last week.

Downstairs, outside, the injured who escaped were bundled into cars, onto the back of pick-up trucks, and into ambulances. Hundreds of others who managed to flee stumbled away.

Meanwhile, inside the mall, what was to become an 80-hour siege had begun. Last night, though, security sources, diplomats with knowledge of the operation and eye-witnesses said that it need not have lasted that long.

The first rescuers to respond were a small team of Kenyan-Indians from a local plain-clothes unit. Alongside a handful of armed police, they helped hundreds of people escape before engaging the terrorists and pushing them into a corner on the ground floor.

"Done properly, we could have ended that thing on Saturday," a person involved said.

Instead, Kenya's army, which had taken four hours to group and prepare, crashed in through both the ground and top floor entrances, without a clear understanding that some of the men in the mall wearing holsters and body armour were not attackers. No overall command had been appointed. A senior policeman was shot dead in a friendly fire incident.

Within 30 minutes, late on Saturday afternoon, both the initial responders and the army had pulled out.

Using staff staircases and hidden corridors, and strolling from shop to shop, the attackers then hunted down anyone else who was still alive.

Details about what happened inside the mall on Monday and Tuesday are sketchy. The Kenya Army, its elite units including 40 Ranger Strike Force and 20 Parachute Battalion, repeatedly attempted to gain access to the building. A terrorist sniper forced them back. Soon after, a series of large explosions, one after the other, echoed from the bowels of the building.

A fire took hold and by Tuesday morning caused the collapse of the rear car park, pancaking three floors down to the ground, killing anyone who was left alive inside.

At 8pm on Tuesday, Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya's president, broadcast live to the world that "it is over".

© Telegraph

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