The Killing in Kenya: Making Sense of the Westgate Mall Siege – By Thomas Rovito, Edited by Kaitlin Garrity

On Saturday at noon local time, approximately 16 Al-Shabaab terrorists stormed the Westgate Premier Shopping Mall with small arms and grenades. After breaching the building, the militants allowed Muslims to leave the premise as the shooters started to gather hostages and execute infidels. Police arrived on scene within 30 minutes and entered the building within the hour. The clearing of the building became bogged down as insurgents dispersed with hostages in the mall. Both the government of Kenya and Al-Shabaab released updates on the siege using social media outlets, including Twitter with #westgate. On Sunday, the Kenyan military forces attempted to land a helicopter on the roof and breach the mall from the roof, which resulted in further fighting between government forces and Al-Shabaab. Monday’s operations resulted with explosions shaking the mall. Finally, on Tuesday, government forces completed mop up operations. President Uhuru Kenyatta told the world that 61 civilians had died and 6 members of the Kenyan military succumbed to wounds while retaking the mall. He also reported that 5 terrorist were killed and 11 were captured. However, witnesses claim some may have fled with the hostages at the start of the crisis. Over 200 people were wounded and several persons are still missing. Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed claimed on PBS Newshour that the act by the terrorists “was professional,” and two American citizens and a female British national may have been part of the Al-Shabaab force. The crisis was an unquestionable act of terrorism.

Al-Shabaab Militants in the Westgate Mall, courtesy of the BBC
Al-Shabaab Militants in the Westgate Mall, courtesy of the BBC

How and why could a terrorist attack like this occur in the middle of Nairobi? Previous attacks, according to the BBC, “have forced security checks to be beefed up in most public places.” Security is paramount, as access to public places often requires a frisking check. The security at Westgate was vigilant, employing round the clock vigilance and inspecting each car that came in. Despite these security measures, many are questioning how the terrorists could even breach the target. The militant employed overwhelming suppressing fire from automatic weapons and grenades to gain access to the Westgate Mall. Adding to the chaos was about 1,000 people fleeing the mall. But this operation brings up more questions, such as why the terrorists chose the mall, how did they get the weapons into Kenya, and why was there such a stagnated response. The mall was probably chosen as it was popular for the secular Kenyan elite, in addition to foreigners. Some members of President Kenyatta’s family died as well as the Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed’s friends. The BBC writes that “at least 18 foreigners are among the dead, including six Britons, as well as citizens from France, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, Peru, India, Ghana, South Africa, and China.” Al-Shabaab must have concluded that such an attack would gain it publicity and new recruits. Speculation suggests that the militants may have gotten the arms from Kenya across the Somali border, by using refugees as mules, smuggling the arms on ships, or bribing border officials. Kenya originally deployed troops across the border to establish a buffer zone to prevent kidnapping by Al-Shabaab forces across the “very porous border” and have also supported the African Union mission to support the fledgling Somali government. This drew the wrath of Al-Shabaab, which despite being affiliated with Al-Qaeda, is primarily a regional actor in Somalia. The only demand Al-Shabaab gave to the government for the hostages was to remove all troops from Somalia, a politically infeasible request for Kenya to fulfill. The response took so long because of the sheer size of the mall complex, the large number of civilians, and the coordination required between Kenyan military units. According to Sudarsan Raghavan of The Washington Post, the mall is “a labyrinthine 350,000 square foot complex, affording the militants food, supplies, and numerous hiding places.” Thousands of people were shopping at the time of the attack, making it harder for the rescuers to identify friend from foe. Multiple Kenyan military and police units deployed to the scene, including regular police, and paramilitaries, and Kenyan Defense Forces. This plethora of units jumbled intelligence coordination and command and control, leading to further delays. These underlying currents further exacerbated the crisis.

Floor Plan of the Mall, courtesy of the BBC
Floor Plan of the Mall, courtesy of the BBC

How has the international community responded to the incident? General Julius Karangi of the Kenyan Defense Forces noted during the conflict that “We are fighting a global terrorism here.” On the ground, British, French, American, and most notably and actively Israeli advisors had assisted Kenyan forces. President Obama has claimed, “We [The U.S.] will provide them with whatever law enforcement help that is necessary.” A figure in the Department of States had claimed the U.S. has been providing, “technical support and some equipment,” as well as military personal to “help” the Kenyans. The U.S. should now co-opt with the Kenyans to close the security void. Americans can offer intelligence and resources to gather intelligences (signal – SIGINT, human – HUMINT, and image – IMINT) to solidify the border, which would in turn limit the flow of arms. The Kenyan military can also work on internal improvements, such as networking between branches (much like the U.S. after 9/11), and cutting down on corruption. We must mourn those lost, and we must improve and adapt so that such a tragedies can be mitigated or stopped in the future.

BBC. “Nairobi Siege: What We Know.” Africa. September 23, 2013. Accessed September 23, 2013.
BBC. “Nairobi Attack: Kenya Forces Comb Westgate Site.” September 24, 2013. Accessed September 24, 2013.
Ifill, Gwen, Amina Mohamed, and Margaret Warner. “Kenyan Foreign Minister Says ‘Two or Three’ Americans Involved in Mall Attack.” Transcript. PBS Newshour. September 23, 2013. Accessed September 23, 2013.
Kulish, Nicholas and Jeffrey Gettleman. “Kenya’s President Says Mall Attackers Are ‘Defeated’.” The New York Times. September 24, 2013. Accessed September 24, 2013.
Lough, Richard and Ducan Miriri. “Militants Say They Are ‘Holding Out’ in Kenya Mall.” Reuters. Accessed September 24, 2013. Accessed September 24, 2013.
Raghavan, Sudarsan. “Militants, Kenyan Security Forces Locked in Protracted Battle at Mall and on Twitter.” The Washington Post. September 24, 2013. Accessed September 24, 2013.
Warungu, Joseph. “Nairobi’s Westgate Attack: Questions for Kenya.” BBC Africa. September 23, 2013. Accessed September 23, 2013.


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