Kenya siege: How Westgate mall was taken back

Kenyan soldiers move in formation, clearing the top floor balcony and interior of Nairobi's Westgate Mall on September 24, 2013. President Uhuru Kenyatta Tuesday evening declared the siege over. PHOTO | ADFP | Carl de Souza 

Bloodied but unbowed. That was the rallying verdict late Tuesday after Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta declared victory at the end of a four-day siege at an upmarket Nairobi shopping mall that had riveted the world.

"I report with great sadness that 61 civilians lost their lives. Six security officers also made the ultimate sacrifice to defeat the criminals,” Mr Kenyatta said, in the aftermath of the daring Saturday capture of Westgate by Al-Shabaab terrorists.

Five of the terrorists were killed in the fire-fight inside Westgate, while 11 suspects were in police custody, Mr Kenyatta said in a national address.

But the President's statement was silent on the fate of hostages held during the ordeal, while none of the soldiers who spoke to journalists talked about them.

Mr Kenyatta revealed that three floors at the mall had caved in towards the tail end of the rescue mission, trapping an unknown number in the rubble.

The official end to the siege came as the Nation Media Group got details of how the rescue operation unfolded.

Westgate Mall was retaken by 20 Special Forces troopers from the Kenyan army after a two-hour fire-fight on Monday afternoon, our sources said.

The special team took advantage of a diversion created by their compatriots outside the mall to distract the terrorists, giving them the slight edge they needed to launch the final assault.

A terrorist sniper on the third floor had kept the assault team at bay for nearly 24 hours.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta speaks a a press conference in Nairobi on September 25, 2013 together with deputy president William Ruto (left) and Defence Secretary Raychelle Omamo. Mr Kenyatta announced that the siege of Westgate was over, but said losses from the attack by Islamist gunmen were "immense" and at least 67 people had died.


An elaborate show involving lots of smoke and shooting by solders and police officers diverted the attention of the shooter, who appeared to be in command, for the few crucial seconds a Kenya Defence Force sniper needed to take position and shoot him, according to officers privy to the operation.

The killing of the shooter, who seemed to be the leader, allowed the soldiers to access the third floor where they battled the rest of the terrorists for the better part of Monday afternoon before declaring victory.

The shooter was said to be among the seven terrorists who were left standing after storming the mall on Saturday at around noon.

The diversion saw police officers and soldiers surrounding the mall open sustained gunfire for nearly 10 minutes. The rapid fire and tear gas outside the mall surprised the terrorists, who had held a combined assault team of engaged for 24 hours.

Kenyan soldiers work to clear on September 24, 2013 the top floor of the Westgate mall in Nairobi. AFP

During the press conference, Kenya army chief Gen Julius Karangi said they were not going back because they knew where the terrorists were in the mall.

“They can surrender because we have no intention of going back. We are aware of their nationalities. We are fighting global terrorism here,” said Gen Karangi.

In the fire-fight, 11 soldiers were injured and rushed to hospital where six died.

The soldiers claimed that the first thing the terrorist did was to capture the security control room where they had a full view of inside and outside the mall through the Westgate CCTV system.

The move put at a disadvantage the advance hostage rescue team and at one time help was sought from specialised Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) and National Intelligence Service (NIS) experts to hack into the CCTV system to “have eyes” into the mall.

A paramedic from Westgate mall rescues a child on September 21, 2013 after Al-Shabaab terrorist took shoppers hostage in a four-day siege. JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

This gave Kenyan forces a full view of where the terrorists were and their formation inside the mall. With “the eyes” inside, assault team studied the floor plan of Westgate and chose the time when they believed the terrorists would be exhausted after hours of vigilance.

The assault team is said to have switched off the lights to the mall which blacked out the CCTV that terrorists were using to run the show from inside the control room.

The troops used dogs to sniff for bombs before entering the areas. “Our mission was to identify and shoot,” a Kenyan soldier said.

In addition to the issue of hostages, questions also remained about the smoke that was seen from the building on Monday.

People look at a list of the Westgate mall attack victims outside the MP Shah hospital in Nairobi on September 24, 2013. PHOTO | AFP | Simon Maina

Interior secretary Joseph Ole Lenku attributed the smoke to terrorists burning mattresses at Nakumatt supermarket on the ground floor. The Nation however obtained photographs of burnt out vehicles in the mall compound.

It is also not clear whether the Kenyan military was responsible for bombing one of the columns of the mall, which in turn could have contributed to the collapse of some of the floors. Some international news agencies has earlier reported the floor of the upstairs parking lot had collapsed after soldiers tried to blast their way in.

An armoured millitary tank is seen moving out of the Westgate mall on September 24, 2013, the day the horror four-day siege ended. JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Major investigations start Wednesday amid indications that the attackers surveyed the mall for several weeks. Also, given the nature and quantity of the ammunition used by the gunmen, detectives say they could have been brought to the mall over a period of time. Work is also in progress to establish the identity of the people captured on the CCTVs.

The attackers also appeared to have clear understanding of the building’s architectural plan.

Detectives are also investigating leads that some of the attackers had rented a boutique on the first floor for at least three months. It is suspected they may have stocked up on ammunition and heavy fire power during that period.

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