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Westgate trial starts

Philipp Sandner / mcJanuary 14, 2014

Four suspects are to go on trial after a deadly attack on a Kenyan shopping mall in September. But the chief culprits are either dead – or have escaped.

Kenia Vier Angeklagten Westgate Anhörung
The four suspects, accused of helping the gunmen, were arraigned before a court in NovemberImage: James Shimanyula

It was a particularly gruesome attack. On September 21, 2013 gunmen raided the Westgate Mall in Nairobi firing indiscriminately into the crowd. They then withdrew into the building and there began a four day siege in which more 60 people died.

The Somalia militant group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the raid, which it said was in retaliation for the deployment of Kenyan troops in Somalia.

The trial of four suspects who are accused of indirect involvement in the attack starts on Wednesday (15.01.2014). They are alleged to have given the gunmen shelter. All four are of Somalia origin and were in Kenya illegally. They were arraigned before a Nairobi court in November 2013 and denied the charges leveled against them.

The four have been in custody since that hearing although under Kenyan law it could have been possible for them to have been released on bail.

Kenyan troops at the scene of a terror attack on a Nairobi shopping mall
Kenya's security forces were criticised for their handling of Westgate Mall raidImage: Reuters

Bail was not granted, according to Kenyan security expert George Musamali, because "the authorities feared the four could abscond to Somalia." Similar things had happened in previous terrorism trials in Kenya. There was also the concern that the four could carry out further attacks or seek to influence witness testimony.

Questions over the fate of the gunmen

The gunmen have disappeared without trace. Initial reports by Kenya's intelligence service and the New York Police Department suggested that they had been able to escape. But now the official view is that they died during the siege. That at least is the opinion of the Kenyan government and officials from the FBI. "But there is no evidence," said Musamali. "Four corpses were retrieved from the wreckage of mall but they have not been identified beyond all doubt," he added.

There is no doubt, however, that the raid was planned by al-Shabab militants in Somalia, Kenya's northern neighbor. It was one in a series of attacks that al-Shabab has carried on Kenyan soil since the country dispatched troops to Somalia to fight that very group.

The message the terrorists were seeking to convey was clear – Kenya should bring its troops home. But the Kenyan government has already signaled that it will not allow itself to be intimidated. "We went in to help the Somalis, to restore order in the country. We will stay there until the job is finished," said Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.

The Kenyan troops are in Somalia on a mission with a mandate from the African Union (AU) – along with troops from Uganda, Burundi and Djibouti. After decades of civil war, large areas of Somalia are still controlled by militants. They resist the authority of central government, whom the AU supports. Even though the AU forces have made some gains, they were not strong enough to pacify the whole of Somalia. That was the view of Uganda a few days after the Westgate attack. Kenya, however, appears rather more confident of victory.

Terror attack on Nairobi shopping mall
Kenyans were shocked by the attack on the shopping mall that was popular with foreign visitorsImage: Reuters

Role of the security forces

There are some issues that are not likely to be mentioned at the trial. For example, that it took the security forces a whole hour to reach the shopping mall and that they were even fighting each other for a short period of time. "There was no communication between the police who had already made their way into the building and the military who arrived later," said Musamali. One policeman died as a consequence and the terrorists were able to gain some time. But Musamali, who himself has had Kenyan military training, thinks it is unlikely that heads will roll.

"The Kenyan security apparatus is run by officials who are loyal to the government. It is improbable that the president will sack his own people," he said.