As I expect you have heard, there was a terrorist attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi yesterday beginning shortly after noon. Almost 24 hours later the siege is still continuing. About ten al-Shabaab heavily armed fighters (including one woman) stormed the upscale shopping center used by wealthy Kenyans and expatriates. At this time the death toll is 39 (as I was checking the news reports as I was editing this post, I see that the death toll is now 59) with at least 175 more wounded. Over a thousand people escaped even as others are probably still hiding in the building and perhaps 35 are still being held as hostages.
The dead include Juan Ortiz from Peru who was formerly the Director of Change Agents for Peace, International (CAPI), a Nairobi based NGO supported by the Norwegian Quakers and AGLI’s sister organization in our peace work in the region. His thirteen year old son was shot in the leg and is in the hospital. A member of Lumakanda Friends Church told Gladys that her nephew was used as a shield by one of the terrorists, who was somehow shot and wounded so her nephew escaped alive. The terrorist was captured and taken to the hospital but later died. The nephew’s friend with whom he had gone to the mall was killed. Ruth and Donald Thomas, long time Quakers who live nearby, had gone there in the morning to do some shopping, had coffee at the café, and left less than two hours before the assault began. Our son, Douglas Shikuunzi, was planning to go the mall in the afternoon, but when he heard about the assault, when home instead. As in all massacres like this, some perish and others survive – as the Kenyans would say, “According to the will of God.” The space between life and death is so narrow.
The anchor store for the four-story, 80 outlet mall was Nakumatt, the largest supermarket chain in the country. Gladys and I had sometimes shopped there before Nakumatt opened their new stores in Eldoret and Kakamega. When Kenya invaded Somalia in October 2011, al-Shabaab had indicated that they would initiate revenge attacks in Kenya and have been doing so with small grenade attacks in Nairobi and elsewhere and more sustained attacks in northeastern Kenya near the Dadaab refugee camp, filled with over 500,000 refugees from the two decades of chaos in Somalia. Al-shabaab specifically threatened to attack a mall in Westlands, called a “leafy suburb” by Kenyans because the people are rich enough to have big yards with lots of trees.
Security was tightened up when Kenya invaded Somalia. The guards — one male for the men and one female for the women — at the supermarkets had wand detectors and they quickly ran these over the bodies of the people entering the supermarket. I felt it was only a formality since I had no idea what they would do if they found a gun or bomb on someone entering – they are unarmed. In some supermarkets, guards at the parting lot gate would use a mirror to look for bombs under the vehicle. Again I had no idea what they would do if they found one and it is clear that anyone who had a bomb in the vehicle would just crash the gate and drive to the entrance and set off the bomb. It seems some of the dead were these security guards. Of course there is no way to defend consumer businesses against a well-armed group of ten or so fighters intent on creating chaos and killing people.
According to reports, the attackers asked people who were lying on the floor if they were Muslims or not. They told the Muslims to stand up and leave – in some cases they asked the Muslims to say a Muslim prayer to prove that they were in fact Muslims. Some of those who escaped indicated that they thought that at least some of the attackers were Somali. Because of former attacks inside Kenya, the large group of perhaps two million Kenyan Somali have been targeted by the Kenyan security forces and discriminated against by the general public. Somali people are known for their success in business — there are some Somali merchants in the neighboring town of Turbo near where we live.
Clearly this attack at Westgate Mall was blowback from the Kenyan invasion of Somalia. High government officials quickly claim that this will not deter them from their course of action in Somalia, but while al-Shabaab is “outgunned” in Somalia, they can pick off soft targets like the mall whenever they are organized well enough to do so. So the battle will continue, both in Somalia and Kenya (and also Uganda where al-Shabaab killed over 200 people three years ago as they watched the finals of the World Cup soccer match).
But since I have see this happen myself in the United States after 9/11, will the Kenyan government use this attack to curtail civil liberties, challenge anyone who opposes them as unpatriotic, and lead again to a repressive regime as occurred during the Moi years?