© 2021 KALW
KALW Public Media / 91.7 FM Bay Area
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
NPR News

Did Kenyan Soldiers Loot Mall During Fight With Terrorists?

Bullet holes in the glass door of a shop in the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya.
Bullet holes in the glass door of a shop in the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya.

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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.