Casual Killers, Reluctant Cops: Inside the Terror Attack at Kenya’s Westgate Mall

Security footage offers a disturbing view of a bloodbath

Casual Killers, Reluctant Cops: Inside the Terror Attack at Kenya’s Westgate Mall Casual Killers, Reluctant Cops: Inside the Terror Attack at Kenya’s Westgate Mall

Uncategorized October 20, 2013 0

A video still showing one of the attackers aiming his assault rifle during the attack on the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. CNN... Casual Killers, Reluctant Cops: Inside the Terror Attack at Kenya’s Westgate Mall
A video still showing one of the attackers aiming his assault rifle during the attack on the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. CNN video

Casual Killers, Reluctant Cops: Inside the Terror Attack at Kenya’s Westgate Mall

Security footage offers a disturbing view of a bloodbath

There are still lots of questions about the four-day siege of the Westgate shopping center in Nairobi, Kenya, that resulted in the deaths of more than 70 people last month. But now surveillance camera footage, leaked to the media, offers a rare insight into the terrorists’ methods.

Calm attackers, desperate victims

CNN says that it could identify no more than four individual attackers in the hours of CCTV footage it reviewed. If this is correct, it begs the question why Kenyan security forces weren’t able to get the situation under control sooner. There are some reports of attackers posing as victims after the initial attack and escaping, but this has not been backed up with evidence.

In the videos, the attackers appear calm and relaxed. They stroll through the mall slowly, talking to each other and on their mobile phones. Victims are targeted almost in passing and not always in a very determined way: you see at least one case of an attacker shooting a man from close range and wandering off, despite the man still being alive. At a later point in the video another attacker passes the injured man and shoots him again, this time fatally.

The civilians present in the building react with panic to the attack and try to find refuge from the attackers in shops and behind counters of restaurants. The footage shows dozens of people running from shots and crawling for cover. In most cases, the cover provided by counters, shelves and furniture is insufficient to protect from rifle rounds.

There is little sign of coordinated resistance from security personnel, except a scene showing possibly a plainclothes Kenyan police officer and a white person — both with handguns — coordinating to protect a dozen people hiding behind the counter of a bar.

In at least one case, people inside a store tried to secure themselves by letting down the metal shutters which normally secure the shop at night.

Attackers used only basic equipment

The attackers are shown wielding Kalashnikov assault rifles. Some media reports also mention submachine guns and Heckler & Koch G3 rifles. The assailants apparently also threw grenades during the initial phase of the attack. These weapons are widely available in the region from corrupt security officials and via gun runners from Eastern Europe and China drawing on leftover stocks from Africa’s many civil wars.

Despite the foreseeable deployment of heavily armed army units, the attackers didn’t seem to bring any kind of body armor or heavy weaponry. It is still unclear if they used explosives, with competing claims that the collapse of parts of the shopping mall was due to explosives brought by the attackers, or a consequence of a failed attempt by the army to blast its way into the building from the top.

In any case, corresponding reports allege that the attackers stashed some guns and ammunitions in a shop days before the attack and later retrieved these weapons in addition to those they brought with them.

Managing social media

Frequently, the attackers are shown talking into mobile phones, presumably communicating with supporters or superiors outside the shopping center. This would corroborate tweets from a known Al Shabaab Twitter account during the attack, claiming to relay first-hand information from the scene.

It is also likely that accomplices of the attackers monitored classic and social media to relay any intelligence about activities of the security services to the attackers inside the mall. This is common practice during such attacks nowadays and underlines the responsibility of the media and individuals on the Internet to refrain from exposing the locations of victims and security personnel.

It remains unclear if this insecure mode of communication between attackers and supporters contributed to the arrest of a number of suspects by Kenyan law enforcement after the attack. But during the four days of the siege, security services were obviously unable to block the communication or intercept it for their own advantage.

Given the heavy reliance of official communication on public mobile phone networks in many African countries, just shutting the network down to deny the terrorists this advantage seemed to be impractical at Westgate.

Questions raised

The security camera footage from Westgate will provide a trove of information to law enforcement about the attackers, their tactics and planning. But it also raises a lot of question about the response of security services to the crisis. It remains unclear how four lightly armed men were able to keep hundreds of soldiers occupied such a long period of time. There are of course valid possible reasons, like the presence of possible hostages, but these have not been communicated by Kenyan police or Western officials at the scene.

But there are even more embarrassing details captured on the hours of surveillance footage from Westgate. Some Kenyan soldiers seem to have taken time off from battling the terrorists to loot stores in the heavily damaged mall — the video linked above actually shows soldiers leaving the supermarket inside the complex with full shopping bags. Traders claimed after the end of the siege that thousands of dollars worth of merchandise has vanished from the upscale mall, mostly in the form of liquor, jewelry and electronics.