Nairobi’s Westgate Mall Attack: A Simple Explanation of a Tragic Event

ByJohn Campbell

The basic narrative of what unfolded at the Westgate Mall still stands. An undetermined number of Al-Shabab operatives entered Nairobi’as upscale Westgate Mall on Saturday, September 21 and killed at least 70 persons, including women and children.

The murderers apparently questioned some shoppers, killing those they thought to be Christians while sparing Muslims. At other times they appear to have indiscriminately killed as many as they could. Many, most, or perhaps all of the murderers then slipped away, some apparently after changing clothes. Initial reports claimed that the murderers numbered less than a dozen and included non-Africans, however there remains no hard evidence as to the attackers numbers nor composition. It is also unclear when the murderers vacated the mall, though nominally the “siege” lasted for four days.

Film footage has emerged showing Kenyan army soldiers engaged in widespread looting. According to shopkeepers, expensive merchandise went first. Numerous witnesses say that the murderers took nothing except the occasional soft drink. Customers — fleeing the premises as fast as they could — took nothing. Yet the mall appears to have been picked clean and was littered with liquor bottles, leaving the onus of suspicion on the Kenyan army. According to the New York Times, one survey shows that 77% of the participants believe the Kenyan Army was responsible for the looting.

The Kenyan army, like most in Africa, is poorly trained and poorly paid. Military and police accountability is low. Many Kenyans appear to be outraged by the looting, and President Uhuru Kenyatta has launched an official inquiry. But official inquiries in Kenya usually do not result in concrete action.

Meanwhile, members of the Kenyan parliament are calling for the government to shut down the Somali refugee camps. Blame the victim? Perhaps. But the killings do appear to have been the work of Al-Shabab, even if the looting was done by Kenyans.

It is worth remembering that in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on New York’s Twin Towers, and in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, there were accusations that police and fire personnel engaged in looting. Looting also appears to be ubiquitous in war zones.

Sometimes mankind is “a little lower than the angels.” Sometimes, much lower.

This article originally appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations blog "Africa in Transition" and was written by Amb. John Campbell, the Senior fellow for the Africa Studies Program.