Simon Belcher lay on his front beneath a black Range Rover, breathing deeply, wanting to unsee the pile of mangled bodies a few yards in front of him. He turned his head toward his wife, Amanda, who was hiding beneath a white 4×4 to his right. “I love you,” he mouthed silently before resting his head on the pavement.
The bullet that had struck Simon a few moments earlier passed through his torso and right arm while shrapnel from an exploding gas canister had torn into his abdomen. An unexploded hand grenade lay nearby. The masked gunmen, two of them, with military webbing slung around their bony shoulders and AK-47 assault rifles in their hands, had disappeared. Inside the mall, Simon guessed.
The blood from his wounds began to pool around him until it reached his ear, forming a seal. Suddenly, the muffled noises from within the five-story building were amplified, as if he had put a glass to a wall. Over the birdsong, car alarms, and ringing of the unanswered mobile phones of the dead and wounded, Simon could now hear gunshots, explosions, and screaming.
On Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, the Somali militant group al-Shabab carried out an assault on Kenya’s Westgate Mall in one of the worst terrorist attacks in the country’s history. A group of young gunmen stalked the halls and stores of the upscale Nairobi shopping center, and methodically murdered at least 67 people. News of the attack seized the world’s attention, dominating international media coverage for days.
But much of that reporting was confused and contradictory, mirroring the litany of false and misleading statements made by Kenyan authorities. There were between 10 and 15 gunmen, the interior minister said. Two or three of them were Americans, said another cabinet minister. Together they took hostages, used heavy explosives, and pulled off a three-day siege, according to other government sources. Except none of these things were true.
Far from a dramatic three-day standoff, the assault on the Westgate Mall lasted only a few hours, almost all of it taking place before Kenyan security forces even entered the building. When they finally did, it was only to shoot at one another before going on an armed looting spree that resulted in the collapse of the rear of the building, destroyed with a rocket-propelled grenade. And there were only four gunmen, all of whom were buried in the rubble, along with much of the forensic evidence.
During the roughly three-and-a-half hours that the killers were loose in the mall, there was virtually no organized government response. But while Kenyan officials prevaricated, an unlikely coalition of licensed civilian gun owners and brave, resourceful individual police officers took it upon themselves to mount a rescue effort. Pieced together over 10 months from more than three dozen interviews with survivors, first responders, security officers, and investigators, the following account brings their story to life for the first time since the horrific terrorist attack occurred exactly two years ago.
Picture 1: Anne Knight [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Picture 2: Anne Knight [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons