My 7-hour ordeal in the Westgate terror attack – DPP Noordin Haji

DPP Noordin Haji recently narrated how he was held under siege at West Gate mall after terrorists raided the premise on September 21, 2013 leaving many dead.

The attack was the second most deadly after its bombings in East Africa in 1998. At Westgate, sixty-seven people died, 150 were wounded over four days..

For seven hours Haji and others sheltered in a toilet. He constantly fed information to security sources about the siege and tried to calm the panicked people with him. He’s sorry didn’t have his gun.

For the first time, Haji has spoken about the Westgate ordeal in an exclusive interview with the Star, one that sheds light on the man, his resourcefulness and determination. He called it the lowest moment in his life.

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DPP Noordin Haji
DPP Noordin Haji

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This is his story:

Haji, then a director at the National Intelligence Service responsible for counter-terrorism, had gone to Westgate to buy gifts for his counterparts in Sudan. He was headed there for a series of meetings.

“After shopping at Nakumatt on ground floor, I went to the washroom when I heard gunshots rending the air. Having been on the front line in Somalia for years, I immediately knew this was a terror attack.

A few of us ran to the nearby toilet where I then informed my father, my brother Abdul Haji and my colleagues in the security sector that a terror attack was unfolding.”

“I’m stuck at the Westgate. Seems like a terrorist attack. Pray for me,” was the message Haji sent to his father, Garissa senator Yusuf Haji, and his younger brother Abdul.

Abdul Haji was in Yaya Centre when he got the message and immediately ran down to the basement parking, driving at breakneck speed to Westgate.

“I broke all the traffic rules getting there but I made it. All I wanted was to save those trapped inside, including my brother Noordin,” Abdul recalled. He himself rescued two women and three children amidst the gunfire — those photos went viral.

The gifted spy chief Haji — an ethnic Somali and observant Muslim — risked his own life to save others as security chiefs leading the operations relied on him to communicate what was going on inside the mall.

Westgate Mall,Westlands

“We were quite a number who ended up in the washroom and tried to find a place where we could shelter. I got rid of my wallet, I put it in the ceiling, hoping that if they came in they would not recognise me.”

He and the others planned how they could help other people if the terrorists stormed in. Haji recounts this in his characteristically modest manner.

For seven hours Haji kept communicating with various security agencies who were battling the attackers, some who were stationed outside Nakumatt.

“At some point I thought they were coming for me because a few weeks before the attack KTN’s Jipo Pevu had splashed my pictures all over, describing me as an an undercover intelligence officer. It said I had been receiving death threats, presumably from al Shabaab,” Haji told the Star.

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Director of Public Prosecution Noordin Hajji during an interview with The Star. Photo/Monicah Mwangi

 At last Haji escaped from his hiding place when he smelled tear gas [assuming it came from the police, not the attackers] after the security forces had arrived — but not before he saw many bodies, the floor awash in blood.

“The saddest thing is that I didn’t have a gun. I felt a bit helpless but then I was used to gunfire and carrying a gun in my line of duty.

When we went to Kismayo as we were negotiating a peace deal with different Somali factions there, we always under attack. We were always within firing range and because of that when I was caught at Westgate I was a bit calmer. I tried to calm down the others sheltering in the toilet,” the DPP said.

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Kenyans mark Westgate siege anniversary

Kenyans held prayers and lit candles in Nairobi on Monday to mark the second anniversary commemorations of the Westgate shopping mall attack by militants from Somalia’s Al-Qaeda-affiliated Shebab.

In the Nakumatt supermarket inside the mall, where many of those who died in the attack were killed, staff held prayers, as shoppers went about normal business in the redecorated building.

“We are commemorating a time where many of our friends were lost, many of our friends had their destinies shattered,” said preacher Dennis Pamba, as staff in the supermarket lit lines of white candles to remember those killed.

The attack began on September 21, 2013, when four gunmen entered the mall, spraying shoppers and staff with machine gun fire and tossing grenades into crowds of Saturday shoppers and diners. The attack left 67 dead.

“Though they killed the 67, they never killed our spirit,” said supermarket manager David Muturi.

“My appeal to all Kenyans all over the world is people to come and shop at Westgate, Westgate is safe… we will continue with the same spirit.”

Apparently inspired by the Mumbai attack of 2008, the gunmen hunted down shoppers in supermarket aisles and singled out non-Muslims for execution. They then fought it out with Kenyan security forces before the siege was finally declared over four days after the first shot was fired.

The Shebab said the attack was revenge for Kenya’s sending of troops to fight the extremists in Somalia.

They have launched a string of subsequent attacks in Kenya, including their biggest attack to date earlier this year — the massacre of 148 people, most of them students, at Garissa university in the northeast.

All four gunmen were believed to have died in the mall, their bodies burned and crushed by tonnes of rubble after a section of the complex collapsed following a fierce blaze started by the fighting.

The Westgate mall, Nairobi’s most upmarket shopping centre and a magnet for the east African nation’s growing middle class and expatriates, reopened in July after extensive renovations.

Prayers were also held on Sunday in Nairobi’s Karura forest at a site where a memorial stone and a plaque bearing the names of the dead, as well as newly planted trees, was unveiled a year ago.

Photo Credits : AFP

Kenya’s Westgate mall, scene of Islamist massacre, ready to reopen

Owners of Kenya’s Westgate mall, closed after Somali Islamists massacred 67 people almost two years ago, vowed Tuesday it would be safe as journalists toured the mall ahead of its reopening.

The mall was badly damaged in the four-day seige in September 2013, when four gunmen from the Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab walked into the upmarket mall, tossing grenades and killing shoppers and staff.

On Tuesday, painters were putting finishing touches to the inside of the mall, which is to set to reopen on Saturday.

In the mall’s main hall, where shoppers once played dead as gunmen stalked the corridors killing those they found, the stores appeared back to normal, missing only the shoppers that owners hope will return.

“Exactly 22 months ago we had one of the saddest days in Kenyan history,” Nairobi governor Evans Kidero told reporters outside the building, once one of the Kenyan capital’s most prestigious shopping locations.

“As a nation we cried, we mourned but… Westgate is back.”

The rear of the mall, once a multi-story carpark with a flat rooftop where gunmen shot shoppers at a children’s cooking competition, collapsed following a fierce blaze started by the fighting. That section was not open Tuesday.

Atul Shah, who heads the main regional supermarket chain Nakumatt — whose store in the mall was where many of the victims were hunted down in aisles and killed — said they were ready to reopen.

“Nakumatt is back, and so are the other tenants who were here previously — and a few new ones,” Shah told journalists who visited the mall Tuesday, promising the “majority” will open business on Saturday.

Mall shareholder Alex Trachtenberg promised security measures had been put in place.

“We have complied with the international anti-terrorism unit who have recommended what to do and what to enhance, so we are working together closely with them,” Trachtenberg said.

Since Westgate, the Shebab have continued to launch attacks in Kenya. In April, the militants massacred 148 people in Kenya’s northeastern Garissa University.

This month, attacks includes a roadside bomb on Monday in the eastern coastal Lamu region, which killed five civilians on a police truck, as well as a night raid on quarry workers, killing at least 14.

The threat remains. The United States warned its citizens in Kenya on Monday of the risk of terrorist attacks ahead of visit by President Barack Obama, singling out a conference that Obama is due to address.

The US president is scheduled to give a speech to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) in Nairobi, which opens on July 24.

“As with all large public events, there is the opportunity for criminal elements to target participants and other visitors,” the US State Department said.

“Large-scale public events such as this summit can also be a target for terrorists. US citizens should maintain a high level of security awareness.”

Photo Credits : AFP

GSU officer reinstated after wrongful termination

A senior GSU officer, who was sacked over poor performance during the September 21, 2013, Westgate mall attack, has been reinstated. James Mwaniki, with the rank of senior assistant commissioner of police, was given back his job by Industrial Court judge Maureen Onyango, who declared the dismissal illegal. Mwaniki was among the first top officers to respond to the Westgate attack before differences with the military caused confusion in the operation.

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Kenya marks one year since Westgate mall attack

Kenya is marking one year since four gunmen stormed the upscale Westgate Mall in Nairobi, killing 67 people.

A memorial plaque with names of the victims was unveiled on Sunday at a forest on the edge of the city where people hike. A candlelight vigil was set for Sunday evening at the National Museum.

On Sunday, police increased their presence in public places such as churches, supermarkets and malls.

Police chief David Kimaiyo asked residents to be “extra vigilant” of attacks in the coming week. Kimaiyo said police had doubled patrols.

Al-Shabab militants from Somalia claimed responsibility for the mall attack saying it was retribution for Kenya’s troop presence in Somalia.

More recently, al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab vowed to avenge the death of their leader killed in a U.S. airstrike earlier this month.

Suspect linked to Westgate attack escapes police dragnet

An Al Shabab leader linked to the Westgate attack allegedly escaped a police dragnet at a house in Bondeni area Mombasa where his relative was shot dead on Sunday.

The man is among three major suspects being sought by both international and local security agencies in connection to terror threats.

The suspect is believed to be Abdukadir Mohamed Abdukadir, Aka  Ikrima  whom the US government has placed a Sh779.4 million bounty on his head.

Meanwhile American cable and satellite television network HBO is set to premier a movie based on the Westgate Mall terror attack on Monday.

The narrative movie is titled “Terror at the Mall”.