What Happened in Kenya’s Westgate Mall?

It turns out, what happened in September, 2013, is not what we’ve been told. The official line goes something like this: that up to a dozen armed jihadis attacked, killed hundreds, holed up with dozens of hostages and blew the place up, and were taken out in a determined assault by Nairobi SWAT.

“Fucking Americans!” Hassan Abdi Dhuhulow spat, and gunned down Ross Langdon, 32 who died in a futile attempt to protect his eight-months-pregnant girlfriend Elif Yavuz. Neither was American.

What actually happened was more remarkable:

  1. There were only four young gunmen, Somali expendables from as-Shabaab, lightly armed with AKs and hand grenades, presumably F1s.
  2. They seemed to enjoy playing with the defenseless people at the mall. For example, they’d ask people questions, and shoot them, depending on the answers. They took pleasure in shooting women and children and praised themselves to their god, and praised their god, every killing. In one case a Hindu man and his wife survived because he knew the words of the shahada, the mohammedan profession of faith. (Learning that shibboleth may be a survival skill. Saying the words doesn’t really make you moslem: you have to grow a beard, start wearing a shalwar kameez, insist on bagging your women, and develop urges to murder children).
  3. While the police hesitated, like the cops at the Columbine, Colorado school shooting in the USA, individual non-police gun carriers and a few bold individual policemen entered the mall in pursuit of the four gunmen. These guys are the ones you see saving those who were saved.
  4. Aside: hail to the photographers. A reporter can write a terrorist attack story from his hotel bar, and it’s clear that many of them did in this case, but the photog has to go there and put his or her quivering young body in the range of hostile fire. They’re men and women after our own hearts.
  5. The mall had only five exits including a single department store loading dock, and the mohammedans occupied two of them by force, each with a loose two-man team. This may not have been their plan — they don’t seem to have been very bright — but that’s how it shook out.
  6. The survivors used a variety of survival strategies: since no good guys were armed until the gun carriers and cops started filtering in, fight was out of the question, so they mostly depended on flight and concealment. A number of survivors, especially wounded survivors, played dead. Some who played dead were caught out and executed by laughing terrorists.
  7. There was a racial aspect to the attack as well as the religious one. Whites and Asians (including South Asians) seem to have been marked for death, although the killers said they were only killing Americans and Kenyans, and released some victims who claimed (truthfully or not) to be other nationalities. However, they didn’t ask the nationality of most of those that they killed.
  8. It seems likely that some of the attackers had been living as refugees in Kenya, as they spoke English and Kenyan Swahili. We are reminded of the old saw that one in ten refugees is an agent for a hostile power.
  9. Many of the survivors spoke about how calm the attackers seemed. We smell khat. 
  10. Nobody was more scared than the street cop who realized, as an ethnic Somali with an AK, he might be mistaken for the attackers by his own guys, despite his police uniform. But he went in and saved people anyway, despite being seriously wounded by the terrorists. You would hope the Kenyan republic gives him the medal he earned.
  11. When the Kenyan police and army finally attacked many hours later, they did it by an uncoordinated strike through separate entrances, and when they two forces met, they engaged each other. After that, the elite police SWAT-like unit took their casualties and went home, and the Army and other police proceeded to trash the place.
  12. The rescuers were too late to save much of anybody: most of the casualties were killed in the initial attack, or bled out during the hours it took officialdom to nerve itself up to move.
  13. All the significant damage to the mall was caused by the Kenyan military and police — this was all gravy from the point of view of as-Shabaab.

Ad hoc security: (l-r): non-Kenyan security professional with M9; Kenyan licensed carrier with Glock (note IDPA patch!); Kenyan citizen or (given lax trigger discipline!) plainclothes cop with CZ-75. The CZ is very popular in Kenya both with police and civilians. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola

The Kenyan security services did not cover themselves in glory here. Once again, we learn some timeless lessons:

  1. Afterward, the intelligence services find out they should have seen it coming, but oops.
  2. The rescue that matters is self-rescue and self-started civilian rescue. The cavalry only comes in time in Hollywood.
  3. Most untrained people are passive even in the face of certain death. 
  4. Talking to terrorists doesn’t work. The guys who stood up to remonstrate with the terrorists would agree, except they’re all dead.
  5. In the imagined “gun-free zone,” even the most inept miscreant with a gun is king. We’ve seen ten clowns with rifles tie all Bombay in knots for days, and here’s a mass-casualty (and mass-headline-producing, the terrs’ metric) event caused by four shooters with minimal training and basic equipment.
  6. Kenya’s policy of issuing concealed carry licenses to trusted individuals worked to the benefit of all here. Contrary to popular expectation, the licensees worked well with each other and with the police. We hope Kenya will consider expanding the policy.
  7. An ad-hoc, self-organized response right here right now, is not only “not necessarily bad,” but might be a lot better than the perfect, coordinated SWAT raid an hour from now. (And as we’ve seen, the raid was not perfect and coordinated).
  8. Once your forces are on scene, there is no more reason for delay — only excuses and pretexts. To be sure, the murders of those people at the Westgate Mall were on the heads of as-Shabaab, but a significant number of the dead would have been surviving wounded with speedy and resolute action, which was lacking.
  9. The time to make sure your radios are interoperable is before the attack. If you haven’t done that, and Kenyans hadn’t, you can pretty much guarantee they won’t be, and they weren’t.
  10. Finally: don’t expect the security forces to investigate themselves after a cock-up of this magnitude. After the initial raid at Waco, the ATF leaders of the raid shredded their raid plan and lawyered up. After the final incendiary attack, the FBI destroyed mountains of evidence. So it should surprise no-one that the promised investigation of the Westgate attack has never materialized in Kenya. It won’t, and if it does, it will be an empty whitewash.

The source for this is a remarkable and thoroughly reported analysis in Foreign Policy by Kenya-based reporter Tristan McConnell. McConnell has pieced together this story from dozens of interviews with survivors, and his conclusions are bitter and blunt:

Far from a dramatic three-day standoff, the assault on the Westgate Mall lasted only a few hours, almost all of it taking place before Kenyan security forces even entered the building. When they finally did, it was only to shoot at one another before going on an armed looting spree that resulted in the collapse of the rear of the building, destroyed with a rocket-propelled grenade. And there were only four gunmen, all of whom were buried in the rubble, along with much of the forensic evidence.

During the roughly three-and-a-half hours that the killers were loose in the mall, there was virtually no organized government response. But while Kenyan officials prevaricated, an unlikely coalition of licensed civilian gun owners and brave, resourceful individual police officers took it upon themselves to mount a rescue effort. Pieced together over 10 months from more than three dozen interviews with survivors, first responders, security officers, and investigators, the following account brings their story to life for the first time since the horrific terrorist attack occurred exactly two years ago.

We haven’t seen such a remarkable job of forensic reporting since Mark Bowden’s series of newspaper reports that became the book, and later the Ridley Scott movie, Black Hawk Down. It is to be hoped that McConnell has book-length ambitions also; he certainly must have more human-interest details in his hours of interviews. Some pieces of the puzzle are lacking still (how did the attackers die?) but McConnell has done more to shed light on this disastrous failure of public policy and police response, as well as its aspects of human tragedy, than any five other writers.

More than a hat tip: our attention was called to this by fellow combat vet (in, we think we have this right, the SADF in the 80s) Peter Grant, who writes science fiction books in the spirit (and he’d probably admit, shadow) of Heinlein, and who blogs at Bayou Renaissance Man. Here is his post on Westgate.

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