Around noon on Saturday, Sept. 21, gunmen stormed Westgate, an upper-class shopping mall in the Kenyan city of Nairobi, and began shooting down civilians in what led to a 3-day siege of the building that left 67 dead. While some details of the recent event are still unclear, stories from survivors and vague statements from both police and terrorists offer disturbing insights to the atrocity.
The Somali-based, al-Qaeda linked terrorist organization Al-Shabab perpetrated the attack. Roughly 16 gunmen, dressed in army fatigues and armed with AK-47s and grenades, were involved.
The mall quickly fell into utter chaos as the shooting began. Patrons of the centre, high ranking diplomats and ordinary shoppers alike, began taking cover by barricading themselves in rooms and basements as security guards reportedly used shopping carts to transfer wounded children to the outside. Survivors say that in the initial hours of the attack, Muslims were escorted out of the building by gunmen, who asked religion-specific questions to identify them from non-Muslims.
No one knew where the gunmen were. In a cell phone video taken during the attack, civilians can be seen running back and forth, confused, unsure of where to go as shots and screams ring out in the background. Kenyan police, joined by international British security forces, arrived shortly after the slaughter began and started the daunting task of clearing the mall floor-by-floor, room-by-room, hunting down gunmen while simultaneously evacuating trapped shoppers. Gunshots and explosions continued throughout the day. The Red Cross announced an urgent need for blood donors to come forward as the injured flooded hospitals.
After nightfall, several still-trapped civilians used the darkness to cover their escapes. By the next morning, it became clear that the gunmen had taken live hostages, as five were released in good condition though visibly shaken. The terrorists demanded the Kenyan government pull its peacekeeping forces out of Somalia, where Al-Shabab is based. Kenya declined.
Tuesday evening local time, the Kenyan government reported that its forces had killed 5 gunmen in combat and arrested the remaining 11. The siege had concluded, but not before leaving 61 civilians dead, over 200 injured and three floors collapsed. Many of the victims have yet to be identified, although Bill Clinton has stated on the behalf of Elif Yavuz’s family, who was a vaccines researcher for the philanthropist empire Clinton Global Initiative, that she, her husband and her unborn child are among the dead. Yavuz’s child was due in two weeks and she had chosen Kenya as its birthplace for its “superior health care.”
Child stands up to gunman, survives
It is unclear whether or not children were killed in the attack, but several reports confirm children have sustained gunshot wounds. One article by The Independent tells the brave and touching story behind what has become one of Westgate’s most iconic photographs – a young boy, candy bar in hand, and his sister standing scared by a bloodied body.
Elliott Prior, the four-year-old British boy pictured, burst into anger at a gunman after seeing his mother shot in the thigh, shouting, “You’re a bad man, let us leave!” The Jihadist, in a miraculous moment of compassion, sympathized with the child, giving him and his sister a Mars bar each, the same bars seen in the photograph, and allowing them to leave with their mother, Amber Prior. Amber, in a quick witted move, grabbed two other children on her way out, one of whom had received gunshot wounds when his own mother was killed moments earlier.
Al Jazeera interviews Al-Shabab spokesperson
Al Jazeera America published an interview with an Al-Shabab spokesperson two days after the attack began, revealing the organization’s disturbing rationale. Westgate Mall was targeted, the spokesperson says, because it “is a place where tourists from across the world come to shop, where diplomats gather. It is a place where Kenya’s decision-makers go to relax and enjoy themselves. Westgate is a place where there are Jewish and American shops… we have to attack them.”
When pressed to justify killing innocent civilians, the spokesperson responded that “Kenya should first be asked why they bombed innocent Somali civilians in refugee camps, why they bombed innocent people in Gedo and Jubba regions. They should be asked that first before us.” Despite the massive death toll, he claims Al-Shabab “are not perpetrators. We are only defending ourselves and defending our rights, the rights of the Somali people.”
More aggressively, however, and giving cause for fear, he added that if Kenyan troops do not withdraw from Somalia, then “attacks like this will become common in Kenya. It is possible if they don’t withdraw attacks like this will happen in Kenyan cities and towns every day.”