Part 3: Nairobi Mall Shooting Failure: How rescue operation was botched

A policeman uses his dog for cover as gunshots ring at the Nairobi mall siege.

ImageArgwings Odera

In retrospect, the September 21 bloody attack on a Nairobi mall, Westgate, could have been ended within hours of the same day was it not for conflict in command from the top. Sources confirm that they will convey this to a tribunal appointed by President Uhuru Kenyatta to probe failures before, during and after the killings.

“The killing of our man (special force team leader Martin Munene) by our people (soldiers of the Kenya Defence Force) threw a spanner in the works giving Al-Shabab (attackers) time to cause more mayhem.”

Munene had received a telephone call while in a Kiambu road pub frequented by Kenyan Special Forces. He was the field commander of a company of the special Recce unit carved from the elite General Service Unit, an outfit of the Kenya police.

A key insider says the call emanated from the Commander-in-Chief himself, President Uhuru Kenyatta.

The President was anxious after receiving calls about the attack and the fact that his nephew Mbugua Mwangi and other close family members were trapped in the mall which was under attack.

The Recce Company’s order was to access the mall and do everything within their means to get inside ArtCafe and rescue those inside first. The mall was now under siege from the attackers inside and policemen outside who wanted to prevent looters from escaping in what was at that time still thought to be a mall heist.

After saving a mother and two children, it is here where the whole episode reaches a poignant moment.

Munene and his special force fighters managed to reach the shot-up café. He knew who to look for. Silently his team moved from one bullet-riddled body to another, making slashing actions across their throats with the forefinger.

The unspoken message: dead!

Uncle Uhuru, his natural beloved nephew … the President was in a state needy of consolation for the Commander-in-Chief of Kenya. It was natural to let him mull in a brief moment of grief even as Munene and his Recce squad found more people alive and hiding in the art café. They freed them, leaving the dead, including Mbugua and his fiancée unmoved, their objective; to advance forward to free more people and confront their enemy.

The Inspector-General of Police David Kimaiyo tweeted the police assertion as being in full command of the operation.

“It is when Uhuru (the President) received confirmation from Recce (that his nephew was dead), that everything changed,” says the witness.

The President is the Commander in Chief of all the armed forces.  The Chief of Defence Forces (CDF), General Julius Waweru Karangi, is the principal military advisor to the president.

The chain of command is from the President, directly to the CDF who outranks all service branches, including the police and has operational authority over the branches like the elite “Green Berets”  Company 20 Paratrooper Commando that took over operations at Westgate. The CDF is not subordinate to the Secretary of Defence, Rachel Omamo, and vice versa, both have constitutional direct links to the Commander-in-Chief.

How did the Commander-in-Chief give two fighting units operational command over a single objective, free Westgate from the clutches of attackers?

This is something ripe for the tribunal the president has announced will probe failures around the shopping mall killings.

However, this is what happened.

The KDF soldiers rumbled into Westgate shopping mall with huge equipment including assorted anti-aircraft guns, tanks and all national military parade arsenals. Their arrival was unannounced, unexpected and unwelcome to the team working on the attack.

As far as the special forces of the Recce were concerned, they were working on direct orders from the commander in chief. They had killed three and three more were about to be arrested.

An argument ensued.

Munene’s gun was fired at making it explode and scatter into pieces along with his helmet.

A short silence and the remaining Recce fighters surrendered.

In military operation, you retreat or surrender when you lose your commander. If this happens within friendly force, your unit submits to the overriding authority on the ground until you are relocated duties.

“Toka … toka (get out),” Munene’s men were ordered out of their strategic positions at gunpoint by the KDF soldiers.

Bereaved, they milled out slowly to be met by reinforcements from the Israeli anti-terrorism outfit.

The KDF ordered them to leave the ground and stand in the fringes keeping the public away from coming near the mall.

Then began a massive botch up and cover up that included elements like fire.

Part 4 to be continued: Who exploited grief to botch up Westgate Mall rescue?

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About Argwings

Freelance Investigative Journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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