How an unarmed Irish soldier rescued hundreds in Nairobi
Published 03/11/2013 | 02:00
On Saturday, September 21, the worst terrorist attack in recent years unfolded when al Qaeda-linked militants stormed a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya. At least 70 innocent men, women and children were massacred over the coming days as the hopelessly unprepared and poorly trained Kenyan security forces struggled to wrest control of the Westgate Mall from the grip of al Shabaab killers. However, the death toll would have been far higher if it was not for the heroic actions of a former Irish special forces soldier who is working as a security consultant in East Africa. Today, in an exclusive interview with the Sunday Independent, he tells Paul Williams how his military training helped save the lives of more than 500 innocent people caught up in the horror. As a result of his bravery, his life is now potentially in danger from Muslim terror groups. He continues to work as a security consultant in the region and he spoke to us on the condition that we preserve his anonymity. For the purpose of this interview we have changed his name to Jack.
TIME AND DATE: 12.41PM,
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 21:
JACK was sitting in his office in downtown Nairobi when his phone shivered and bleeped to announce the arrival of another text message, one of hundreds he receives daily while supervising the security of 5,500 oil company employees spread across East Africa.
Jack's phone is always to hand, 24/7, as he stands ready to deal with the wide variety of crises synonymous with this turbulent continent.
The former Irish Army Ranger squints at the curt half dozen words on the screen which minutes later would propel him into a terrifying hostage drama that would make headlines across the world.
"Terrorist attack under way in Westgate Mall."
The chilling message came from the security consultant's colleague, another former special forces soldier who happened to be in Kenya's most cosmopolitan shopping mall, just a 10-minute drive from Jack's office, when the hostage drama unfolded.
Up to a dozen al Shabaab terrorists armed with machine guns and assault rifles had stormed into Westgate and began summarily executing men, women and children.
Scrambling to his feet, Jack replied: "What? Now?".
There was no doubt in the response. "Now".
Twenty minutes later all that will stand between the Irishman and death will be his specialist military training – and a hint of good luck.
He will dodge bullets and exchange gunfire with the terrorists who turn a busy shopping mall into a slaughter house. The narrative of this story could easily spring from the pages of an adrenaline-soaked Andy McNab thriller. But this is the real deal, in all its blood-soaked, terrifying detail.
Eye witnesses, CCTV, text messages and press photographs all bear testimony to the outstanding bravery shown by the professional soldier and former Army Ranger during the Westgate Mall slaughter.
Jack has been hailed a hero by experts who analysed his actions – and the hundreds of terrified shoppers and staff he risked his life to rescue on that fateful Saturday afternoon. But the modest security consultant dismisses his new-found status.
He told the Sunday Independent: "I am not a hero, not at all. I just used the years of training I got as a member of the unit (Army Ranger Wing) to rescue two of my clients.
"I was doing what I am paid to do."
Jack spoke exclusively to the Sunday Independent when he returned to visit his family in Ireland last week.
Tall, lean and steely-eyed, the 37-year-old relates the extraordinary story of what happened in the Westgate Mall with the stoicism of a military professional. There is no hint of gloating machismo or provocative jingoism when he relives his experiences of that fateful afternoon.
"I knew when I got that text that my colleague was not messing around that this was a real situation. I wasn't going to ring him back because if he was hiding from gunmen the phone ringing or vibrating could compromise him.
"As the security consultant for the company I am employed with, it is my job to draw up standard operational procedures (SOPs), which are in place for the protection of personnel in every type of emergency situation from natural disasters to kidnapping, terrorist attacks and war.
"I mobilised our crisis management team and within minutes we accounted for most of the company's employees and their families in and around Nairobi.
"People are contacted and instructed to go to pre-arranged safe locations.
"Because it was Saturday I knew straight away that there had to be some of my clients in the Westgate Mall. Our team established that a company employee and his wife were somewhere in the complex."
Jack's fears were confirmed when he received a text from the company employee who is having lunch with his wife in the Onami Restaurant, which is situated in a corner of the mall's second floor.
The employee, who had worked in the Middle East and is accustomed to living in warzones, informs Jack that he has heard gunfire and a loud explosion. The former ranger instructs him by text not to leave the restaurant and lock himself in somewhere safe within the premises. Jack reassures him: "We are close. . . coming to get you."
Twelve minutes after the initial alert, Jack and his boss, also an ex-soldier, leave their office and speed off towards the Westgate Mall.
"We had just one mission and that was to rescue our client and his wife. As part of my job I have to know the layout of buildings frequented by company employees and I knew the mall inside and out.
"We arrived there at 13.06pm and were met with chaos. The Kenyan security forces had not set up a cordon and there was no proper command and control of the situation. Both of us could hear bursts of assault-rifle fire and the thump of exploding grenades. It was clear that the terrorists were organised and heavily armed while we had no weapons.
"We decided to enter the building via the underground car park and hoped that we might pick up some weapons on the way.
"It was gloomy down there and we moved tactically from pillar to pillar, popping our heads out momentarily to scan the car park for gunmen.
"At the glass doors leading from the car park into the mall I was about to grab a radio from a security desk when the first shots were fired directly at us.
"They fired four shots in our direction. I could hear them crack and thump above my head, which suggested they were particularly close. I have been shot at many times over the years and am well aware of the sound of fire coming in my direction. We decided to retreat back out through the car park and find another entry point. On the way I met an old man in a confused state still carrying his shopping bags and I led him back into the car park.
"When we withdrew to the ground level we ran around the building to the loading area at the rear of the Nakumatt supermarket where a lot of the killing was done.
"I saw a few people taking cover behind trucks, but when I got up close I discovered there was 150 to 200 of them, staff and customers. It was a scene of chaos and panic and no one knew what to do.
"There were police there, but they were doing nothing. We took control of the situation and started sending the people in pairs down the service road to safety.
"Then we delegated others to keep the flow of survivors moving. As we are doing that we notice a stream of men, women and children coming out with gun-shot and shrapnel wounds and we kept them moving towards safety. We could still hear the gunfire coming in sporadic bursts from within the mall.
"You are assessing the situation as it changes second by second. From the controlled rates of gunfire it was clear that this was a well-trained terrorist group who were conserving their ammo.
"The shooting was coming from different parts of the building, suggesting that they were mobile.
"These people had gone into the mall well prepared, with the sole purpose of killing and maiming as many as they could and they expected to be killed. There were more shots fired this time from an upper-level car park just above us. We spotted a bloodied hand waving down to us through a wooden fence."
Jack receives another text message from his client in the restaurant upstairs.
"Shooting inside (restaurant) now," it read.
Jack recalls: "We were calm and at ease, but the running commentary in my head was that I had to get to my client; time was ticking away and every minute puts me another minute away from him.
"There were a number of armed Kenyan police and security forces huddled at the corner of the loading area which led to the service stairwells on the north-west corner of the building.
"We asked several of them to give us weapons, but they refused. They also didn't appear too keen to get involved in any fight: they were leaderless, scared, badly trained and unpredictable, which meant that they could easily have turned on me and my buddy if we tried to take weapons from them.
"One of them was drunk but he wouldn't part with his gun either.
"We knew that we had to crack on so we rounded up two off-duty and two regular police officers, all of whom were armed and told them they had to cover us as we entered the building.
"Again we asked them for their weapons so that we could do the job ourselves, but they refused. We said: 'Please give us the pistols, we're trained and we know what we are doing. . . if we shoot anyone we'll let you claim it'. It didn't work. We had to pull these guys with us by the scruff of the neck because they were paralysed with fear. I was hoping that if one of them was shot I could pick up his gun."
The unarmed security specialists, flanked by their reluctant Kenyan police support, moved up through the emergency stairwell securing the doors to each level.
Bursts of gunfire and exploding grenades join the bland shopping mall music as a bizarre soundtrack to the unfolding horror.
Jack and his partner cautiously enter the second floor of the mall from the stairs. Their client in the Onami restaurant is still perilously distant from them, in the opposite corner of the huge shopping complex.
Jack and his partner enter the Java Cafe, which is closest to the emergency stairwell, and release several people who have been hiding there since the shooting began.
They escort the terrified customers and staff through the secure cordon to the emergency stairs.
Jack receives another text from the company employee he is trying to reach.
The message reads: "We are secure, hiding in restaurant store room 15 people."
The Java Cafe faces on to the rooftop car park of the second floor from behind a bamboo partition.
The al Shabaab attack had interrupted a children's cookery competition, which was taking place in the car park. Jack takes up the story.
"Outside the restaurant I could see the top of a canopy and an ambulance parked where I now know the children's competition was being held. I jumped across a small wall topped with bamboo into the car park.
"The only way I can describe the scene before me is that it was like walking through the gates of hell. There were bodies littered everywhere between the trestle tables full of food and cookery counters.
"As I moved through the covered area I count at least 30 people dead and more wounded. There is blood, brain tissue, body parts everywhere. People are bleeding to death from horrendous injuries.
"A pregnant woman had been shot in the stomach and then in the face. There were dead children in overturned buggies. They were men, women and children from all ethnic and religious backgrounds.
"A mother was rocking her child in her arms and begging for help but I had to keep pushing on because there was nothing I could do with so many dead and wounded.
"Then beyond the canopied area I notice another group of maybe 150 men women and children huddled in the corner of the car park panic-stricken and screaming.
"Beside them was a Russian-made hand grenade that had failed to explode when it was thrown at them.
"I tried to calm the people down, telling them I was the police and eventually started moving back into Cafe Java where my buddy processed them towards the stairs and safety. As we were doing so, we were fired on again from the roof above the car park as the terrorists took pot shots at us. We kept asking people for guns. It kept going through my mind that I still wasn't any closer to my client and I had no weapon."
The situation suddenly grows more urgent when Jack receives another text from his man in the restaurant.
"Shooter in kitchen of restaurant, we're in store room in stairwell."
Jack keeps a wary eye on the glass doors of Cafe Java, expecting to see a terrorist appear with an AK 47. But then his luck changes.
"A civvie came up and asked if I had been looking for a gun and when I said yes he handed me an automatic pistol that he had tucked under his jacket. It had 15 rounds in the magazine.
"I went back to my buddy and told him: 'I'm armed and I am going to Onami for the clients.' He grinned and nodded: 'See you in Valhalla.' I grabbed one of the policemen and told him he was coming with me to provide cover."
Jack texts his client with a brief but reassuring message: "I'm coming to you now." The moment when Jack moves into the shopping mall is captured on the CCTV footage from the Java Cafe.
He and the Kenyan cop move down the side of the mall on their way to the restaurant.
As he moves past a chicken takeaway terrorists open fire on him for the third time, shattering the glass facade of a nearby shop. They could see us moving but couldn't get a proper line of sight on me. I spun around and fired back in the direction of the gunfire and told the cop behind me to move. I ran past him and fell on my arse and landed on hundreds of spent AK 47 shell casings.
"We reached the corner of the cinema, which is opposite to the corner where the restaurant is situated. As the policeman cowered behind a pillar it was obvious he had had enough. He took his phone out and said he was calling his boss for back-up, which made me think: 'A bit fucking late now pal'.
"I knew the situation was now critical. These guys had been engaged and they would now try to close in and kill us. I told the cop to at least stay there and cover me while I moved into the middle of the mall seeking cover behind the support pillars.
"I put my head out and saw two terrorists coming towards me with their weapons at the ready. They were looking in the direction of the spot where they had just fired on me.
"When they were about 15 metres away I stepped out and fired three shots in their direction and continued on for the restaurant. I could see one of them run away."
According to subsequent reports, one of the terrorists was killed by Jack's fire. But the former soldier says that he didn't stick around to chase after the killers.
"I wasn't going to follow them because I wasn't there to save the world. My only concern was to my clients."
Jack first checked the emergency door to the stairwell beside the Onami restaurant as a possible escape route, but found it locked.
He bangs on the door of the restaurant and tells those inside to open up.
Inside, Jack locates his clients in the storeroom huddled with other terrified customers. He reckons that there are around another 100 people here to be rescued.
"I organised the people into three groups and directed them to turn right outside the restaurant and into a service corridor that led around the back of the cinema.
"That led to the other side of the restaurant and a straight run towards the Java Cafe where my buddy had secured an escape route.
"The terrorists fired another burst in our direction as the first group went to the rear of the cinema. I was following in the middle group and spotted a gunman about 50 metres away.
"I fired four rounds in his direction in two double shots but don't know if I hit him.
"I had five rounds left in the weapon and I needed every one of them.
"When the people got to the chicken takeaway I shouted at them to run towards Cafe Java.
"I told my client to keep his hand on my shoulder and his wife to hold on to his belt.
"I kept covering as we ran to the cafe.
"I had to scream at everyone to calm down when we got to the Java to prevent a stampede. But we got them through and down the stairs to safety."
One hour and 15 minutes have now elapsed since Jack received the first text alerting him to the Westgate hostage drama. A car came to collect his clients and they were driven to safety. By now, the scene outside the shopping centre was chaotic as the security forces had little control of the situation. There was no cordon around the building and no command and control system in place. The injured and dying had been left on the floor of the rooftop car park for an hour with no assistance from medics. Jack and his partner, both specially trained combat medics, wanted to go back and help.
"We asked the security forces again for weapons and body armour and offered to lead an assault on the car park to secure the injured, but they refused. Eventually, we rounded up a few guys and tactically returned to the rooftop. We began working on the worst injured to stop bleeding and try to patch them up. The ones who were screaming were left till last because at least we knew they were alive."
A now famous photograph has circulated the globe showing Jack working on the injured in the midst of the dead – his recently acquired handgun visible in the belt of his jeans. He thinks he worked on 10 people before paramedics eventually came to take them to hospital.
The twisted al Shabaab murderers had claimed at least 70 victims for their mindless cause although that figure, says Jack, is likely to be higher. The bodies of children lay next to their parents. Jack counted three pregnant women among the dead in the car park. Each one had been shot first in the stomach and then once in the head.
Says Jack: "Al Shabaab picked the softest target possible and they went in there to massacre everyone without mercy. No amount of training or combat experience prepares you for the sight of innocent children and pregnant mothers being slaughtered.
"But I think the security services around the world will have to learn from this outrage because despite the media hype, this was a well-organised, well-trained group, which showed it can take terror to a whole new level."
There isn't much time for reflection in Jack's perilous world and he has since returned to work in Kenya.
His mission to protect lives continues.
- Paul Williams