Did Kenyan Soldiers Loot Mall During Fight With Terrorists?

Oct 2, 2013
Originally published on October 2, 2013 11:00 am

More than a week after Islamic militants stormed an upscale mall in Nairobi, Kenya, President Uhuru Kenyatta has vowed to set up a commission to look into lapses in intelligence and security. At least 67 people died in the four-day siege, which ended with dozens still unaccounted for.

Days after the attack, a man who manages a clothing store in the Westgate Mall sorts through damaged shoes, shirts and ties. He's visibly shaken from his trip back into the place he escaped under gunfire. Much of the damaged clothing is from bullet holes.

"These are all waste now," he says. "Even it if it is small hole, it is waste." He says there's no insurance for a terrorist attack, and some of the most expensive suits and shoes are missing.

Other shop owners reported Rolex watches, diamond jewelry and mobile phones looted, allegedly by Kenyan soldiers during the fight against the terrorists. The allegations have shaken people in Nairobi, who just a week ago were hailing the soldiers as heroes.

"We wish to affirm that government takes very seriously these allegations of looting," Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku said at a press conference.

Lenku was on the defensive, and not just about what his soldiers allegedly did during those four days in the mall, but what they did not do. A leaked intelligence report indicates that security chiefs and Cabinet ministers were warned about Westgate as an al-Shabab target. They were even warned of one likely mode of attack, where operatives "storm the buildings with guns and grenades."

Lenku's response: "With regard to the issue of our information or our intelligence, that is our business."

Probably the most sensitive questions still lingering in this shaken city are about how the fight was waged. Why did it take the Kenyan army four days to kill five militants? And what happened to the other five to 10 terrorists?

Kweya Obedi is the Nairobi county director of the Red Cross. He was leading a team of volunteers who rushed in on the afternoon of Sept. 21 to rescue people from where they hid inside shops. Even by that point, he says, some hours after the initial assault, the terrorists had been mostly pushed back by the special Israeli-trained unit of the police called the Recce group, experienced in hostage rescue.

"The police had better control of the situation," Obedi says.

But then a commander of the special unit was killed, reportedly by friendly fire, and the special police were sent out to guard the perimeter while the soldiers took over the operation. That, business owners say, is when they believe the looting took place.

It's still unclear why Kenya's poorly paid military took over the situation while the special police were sent outside, but several people familiar with the operation say that's when the pace of attack slowed. By 10:30 that night, the situation had gone from a full-court press on the gunmen to a siege or standoff that would stretch on for another three days.

"When the military came in there was no proper plan for takeover. That allowed the terrorists to regroup," says George Musamali, a retired officer who now runs a Kenyan security company.

Musamali criticized the military for allowing terrorists to regroup and rearm. He and others said the military declined to fight at night, which may have allowed the terrorists to hunt and kill more people in their hiding places.

Now, Kenya's president has declared a commission of inquiry to investigate the security lapses, but Musamali says that in Kenya, commissions are seen as ways to evade the problem.

"In Kenya we are used to these kind of inquiries," he says. "We never see the results."

The challenge for Kenya's controversial president, who next month goes on trial in The Hague for allegedly instigating tribal violence in the last election, is not to be seen to favor a military elite dominated by his own tribe.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Kenya is still reeling from a sophisticated and deadly attack on Nairobi's premier shopping mall. At least 67 people died in that four-day siege of the Westgate Mall by foreign militants, who came in mostly from neighboring Somalia. Bodies are still being found in the rubble, and people are still missing. Kenyans are now asking about lapses in security and about stories of looting in the mall by their own soldiers during the rescue. NPR's Gregory Warner reports on the lingering questions there.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Karim sorts through the shoes and shirts he collected from the men's clothing store he used to manage in Westgate. I met him at shop's other location in town. Visibly shaken from his trip back to the mall he escaped under gunfire, he asked that I not use his last name, because he didn't have permission from the shop owner to speak.

KARIM: These all damages, here.

WARNER: Wow. There's a bullet hole in the suit.

KARIM: Yeah. These are waste now. Even it if it is small hole, it's waste.

WARNER: There is, Karim says, no insurance for a terrorist attack, and some of the most expensive suits and shoes are missing. Other shop owners reported Rolex watches and diamond jewelry and mobile phones looted, allegedly by Kenyan soldiers during the four-day fight against the terrorists. The allegations have shaken people in Nairobi, who were just last week hailing these soldiers as heroes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

JOSEPH OLE LENKU: We wish to affirm that the government takes very seriously the allegations of looting.

WARNER: At a press conference, Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku was on the defensive, and not just about what his soldiers allegedly did during those four days in the mall, but what they didn't. A leaked intelligence report indicates that security chiefs and Cabinet ministers were warned about Westgate as a terrorist target, and even warned of one likely mode of attack, where operatives, quote, "storm the buildings with guns and grenades." But soldiers seemed woefully unprepared for that event. Minister Lenku said only:

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

LENKU: With regard to the issue of our information and our intelligence, that is our business.

WARNER: But maybe the most sensitive questions still lingering in this shaken city are about how the fight was waged: why it took the Kenyan army four days to kill five militants, and what happened to the other five to 10 terrorists. Kweya Obedi is the Nairobi county director of the Red Cross. He was leading a team of volunteers that rushed in that first day to rescue people from where they hid inside shops. And even by that point, he says - this was some hours after the initial assault - the terrorists had mostly been pushed back.

KWEYA OBEDI: The police had better control of the situation.

WARNER: This was a special Israeli-trained unit of the police called the Recce Group, experienced in hostage rescue.

OBEDI: Because at the time, they were trying to push, push, push, push.

WARNER: Push the militants back so the people could be freed. But then a commander of the special unit was killed, reportedly by friendly fire, and the special police were sent out to guard the perimeter while the Kenyan military took over the operation. That, business owners say, is when they believe the looting took place.

It's still unclear why Kenya's poorly paid military took over the situation when the special police were sent outside, but several people familiar with the operation say that's when the pace of the attack slowed. By 10:30 that night, the situation had gone from a full-court press on the gunmen to a siege or standoff that would stretch on for another three days. George Musamali is a retired officer who now runs a Kenyan security company. I reached him by cell phone over Skype as he was outside Nairobi.

GEORGE MUSAMALI: Now, when the military came in, there was no proper plan for takeover. That allowed the terrorists to regroup.

WARNER: He criticized the military for allowing terrorists to regroup and rearm. Musamali and others said the military also declined to fight at night, which may have allowed the terrorists to hunt and kill more people in their hiding places. Now Kenya's president, Uhuru Kenyatta, has called for a commission of inquiry looking into the security and intelligence lapses, but Musamali says in Kenya, commissions are always seen as ways to evade the problem.

MUSAMALI: In Kenya, we've seen these kinds of inquiries happening. But we've never seen the results of these.

WARNER: The challenge for Kenya's controversial president - who next month goes on trial in The Hague for allegedly instigating tribal violence in the 2007 election - is not to be seen to favor a military elite that's dominated by his own tribe.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Gregory Warner in Nairobi. And, Gregory, stay with us a few minutes to talk about the connection there with Somalia and one of its Islamist groups, al-Shabab. How are Somalis living in Kenya - and there are very many of them in refugee camps there - how are they faring?

WARNER: Well, you're right. There's over half a million Somali refugees in Kenya. And, you know, the issue for a lot of Kenyans is they feel that those Somalis are taking advantage of their generosity. Al-Shabab is the group that claimed responsibility for the attack on the mall. It's a Somali-based terrorist group. After every al-Shabab terrorist attack in Kenya, there's some sort of backlash against the Somali community living in Kenya. This time it's no different, although it's nothing like earlier this year, when there was a campaign of mass arrests and shakedowns and even rapes by police, until the high court of Kenya called a halt to that. So this Kenya-Somali tension is always ready to be exacerbated. Now, after the Westgate attack, some parliamentarians have suggested that all Somalis be made to be leave Kenya, that all Somali refugee camps be closed because the terrorists are supposedly using those camps to infiltrate the country.

MONTAGNE: Well, is there evidence to that effect?

WARNER: Well, the most recent suspect arrested in connection with the Westgate attack was a human trafficker who allegedly smuggled in some of the terrorists. The question is by closing the camps, are you punishing a few bad guys along with all the other refugees, who are mostly women and children? But there's an even more tricky catch-22 here for Kenya, because if - and it's pretty hard to imagine that all Somalis would suddenly leave the country, and it's probably illegal. But if in the wake of this horrific attack, say, 25,000 people were encouraged to leave, that could have a huge destabilizing effect on Somalia, which already has a million-plus internal refugees. And an unstable Somalia breeds more jihadists. So you're left with a situation where Kenya could kick out its refugees in the name of safety and end up fomenting more Somali terrorism.

MONTAGNE: Which could come back to haunt Kenya. Now, al-Shabab said it attacked Kenya because Kenya sent its troops to fight against al-Shabab in Somalia - essentially, the militants' home turf. And from day one of this attack, President Kenyatta has been saying Kenyan forces will stay in Somalia. He's not backing down. What do Kenyans think about that decision?

WARNER: Well, Renee, as soon as we hang up the line here, I'm going to go to another funeral for a Westgate victim that I knew. And I've been to a couple of these. The language at these funerals does definitely touch on politics. There is a natural desire to hit back at Somalia. But if you step away - as I've done - from the fancy funeral and the people in their suits and you talk to the gardener or the cleaner or the limo driver, and keep in mind that there is just a deep distrust of official information here. You might hear from them that this wasn't al-Shabab at all, or it was al-Shabab in league with the president and the army. And this is stuff that, to the West, sounds like conspiracy theory. But it's fed by these unanswered questions that I talked about, like the alleged army shooting and the intelligence failures and this unexplained four-day siege.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Gregory Warner, speaking from Nairobi. Thanks very much.

WARNER: Thanks, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.