Weeks after a four-day siege of a popular upscale mall in Nairobi, Kenya, in which at least 67 people were killed and up to 200 injured, it is still very unclear exactly what happened.
The basic narrative that has emerged is that on Saturday, Sept. 21, unidentified gunmen attacked the Westgate mall. The siege, which the Islamic terrorist group al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for, lasted until Sept. 24.
From there, the questions begin. Rumors, speculation, conspiracy theories, and a few facts have swirled around Nairobi, because the Kenyan government has provided so little information in the aftermath of the attack. Or the government has provided information which conflicts with other sources.
Here are some of the burning questions that remain unanswered:
Who carried out the attack?
The Kenyan military recently identified four terrorists who they allege took part in the attack.
However, from the start of the attack, the Kenyan government indicated anywhere from 10 to 15 militants were involved. The government then said five militants had been killed – but no bodies were ever shown to the media. At least 11 other people were arrested after the attack, suspects who apparently were not at the mall during the incident. Some, including an American-Somali woman, spent several days in jail before being released. The math leaves perhaps up to 10 militants unaccounted for.
A mother and young children played dead during the terrorist attack at a Kenyan mall. NBC’s Ron Allen reports.
What about the ‘White Widow’?
Was the so-called “White Widow,” Samantha Lewthwaite, “the world’s most wanted woman,” involved?
Lewthwaite is a British woman and a Muslim convert whose husband Germaine Lindsay was one of three suicide bombers responsible for the July 7, 2005 London bombings.
Interpol issued a “Red Notice,” or internationally wanted persons alert, for the British mother of three at the request of authorities in Kenya for her alleged involvement in a plot to attack tourist destinations near Mombasa, Kenya in 2011.
There are witnesses who said they saw a white woman among the gunmen, even leading them. There are others who said in the weeks and days leading up to the attack, a white woman who ran a store inside the mall often brought in packages. Sources have said the gunmen had an arsenal of weapons and ammunition stashed in advance inside the mall.
One soldier NBC spoke with told us he heard, but did not see, what sounded like a woman shout out a prayer and then set off an explosion, presumably killing herself.
The truth remains a mystery. Interpol has not located Lewthwaite and there is no indication she was in Kenya at the time of the attack. And Al-Shabaab’s alleged Twitter account denied that women were involved with several Tweets.
Did any of the gunmen escape?
Witness accounts are incomplete and uncertain. Many people believe some of the attackers escaped. Men were reportedly seen changing into women’s clothes not long after the attack began. Then they were supposedly seen walking out with the crowd being rescued.
Analysts also report there was a period of great confusion and tension among various Kenyan security service units. The first to respond were police. Later an elite paramilitary unit arrived. Finally, hours into the standoff, hundreds of Kenyan army soldiers arrived.
They are reports of arguments among security commanders, friendly fire fatalities, and a stall in the operation, perhaps hours long, that may have given the gunmen an opportunity to regroup, or even escape.
Sneha Kothair-Mashru was having coffee with friends at the mall in Nairobi, Kenya, last week when gunfire rang out. She hit the floor and played dead in order to survive. NBC’s Ron Allen reports.
Whatever happened to the hostages?
The best answer from the government essentially has been that it’s impossible to determine who was held hostage, for how long and when. Right up until the siege ended, there were reports of as many as 10 hostages, perhaps more.
However, of all the survivor stories to emerge, none has been about being a hostage in the most literal sense. No one has told a story about being in the presence of the militants for an extended period of time. The stories have been about perilous escapes and rescues. So, were there any hostages? If not, why did it take four days to dislodge the still undetermined number of gunmen?
Also, still unanswered is how many people died in the mall. The government has said 72 people were killed; 61 civilians, six Kenyan soldiers and five attackers. However there are reports, unconfirmed, of bodies still being pulled from the rubble. There also are unconfirmed reports investigators have found evidence of torture and brutality, the nature and extent of which is unclear.
Who looted the mall?
Kenyans are disgusted by reports that massive looting allegedly took place during the siege. Shopkeepers returning to the mall days later report expensive merchandise gone, safes and cash registers busted open, and lots of empty beer bottles everywhere. Jewelry, cell phones, even the clothing adorning mannequins picked clean.
So far the evidence of what happened is circumstantial. Hundreds of civilians escaped, fleeing for their lives. The government claims all the militants were killed.
That leaves the Kenyan Defense Forces, hundreds of them involved in a multiple-day standoff in an upscale mall. It’s a force that some have said is corrupt and under paid. The worst of the conspiracy theories is that the military prolonged the siege to give themselves more time to “shop.” An investigation is underway.
Gunmen stormed a crowded shopping mall frequented by Westerners in a brazen midday attack
Will we ever know what really happened?
Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta has vowed to get to the bottom of it all. An investigation is underway. But many Kenyans doubt they’ll ever see a report, or see anyone held accountable. There’s every indication that confidence in the Kenyan government is extremely low.
And there’s another potentially big problem, both the president and Vice President William Ruto have been charged by the International Criminal Court in The Hague with crimes against humanity. They’re accused of allegedly inciting some of Kenya’s post-election violence in 2007 – 2008 that left perhaps over 1,000 dead and many thousands displaced. In fact, the vice president had to get permission from the court to adjourn his case so he could leave The Hague and fly home after the mall attack.
Kenya’s leaders are fighting the case. Many African leaders are critical of the court claiming it has an anti-African bias. All of its prosecutions have been on the continent.
But as Kenya tries to recover, and the U.S. remains very concerned about terrorism gaining traction in East Africa, many wonder if Kenya’s leaders are up to the task of leading an investigation.