Westgate killers: The face of terror

A screengrab released on October 5, 2013 and taken from closed circuit television shows the gunmen who massacred at least 67 people wandering through Kenya's Westgate mall on September 21, 2013. PHOTO | AFP

What you need to know:

  • The mall killers are identified as Hassan Abdi Mohamed Dhuhulow, Somali national Yahye Osman Ahmed, Mohamed Abdi Nur Sai and Ahmed Hassan Abukar.
  • The attackers, according to security briefs shared by regional security chiefs under Amisom, were trained in Somalia before they worked their way into Kenya to execute their heinous plan.

The faces of the four men who shocked the world by butchering dozens of innocent people at Westgate Shopping Mall a year ago can now be revealed.

The Sunday Nation has gained exclusive access to the report of the most comprehensive investigation yet into the attack that details the elaborate planning the terrorists engaged in before performing one of the most heinous assaults witnessed on Kenyan soil, with the aid of a network of collaborators in both Kenya and Somalia.

The report by analysts from the African Mission in Somalia (Amisom) reveals the terrorists to have been between 19 and 23 years old and finds that they enjoyed the support of a network of planners that can be traced right to the top of Al-Shabaab chain of command.

The mall killers are identified as: Hassan Abdi Mohamed Dhuhulow — a Norwegian national of Somali origin, Somali national Yahye Osman Ahmed (also known as Arab or Yahya Golis), Mohamed Abdi Nur Sai and Ahmed Hassan Abukar, both refugees from Somalia.

The attackers, according to security briefs shared by regional security chiefs under Amisom, were trained in Somalia before they worked their way into Kenya to execute their heinous plan.

In startling detail that shows the scale of planning that went into the attack, the report reveals that Shabaab leadership gave up on terror cells embedded in Nairobi’s Majengo area and opted to station a planning centre at the Kakuma refugee camp in Turkana County that primarily hosts South Sudanese nationals and is lightly policed, unlike the heavily watched Dadaab refugee camp which hosts nearly half a million Somali refugees.

For the first time, the role of the coordinator of the attack, a Shabaab commander known as Hassan Abdulkadir Turyare, is revealed.

According to the report, the cell members entered Kenya through Uganda in late June 2013 and registered their SIM cards using fraudulently acquired identity cards.

They then embarked on preparations including surveys of the targets before, shortly after midday on September 21, storming the mall and leaving a trail of death, with victims as old as 78 years and as young as eight, and the most vulnerable — including pregnant women — being killed in cold blood.

According to the report, investigators are now certain that the four attackers were themselves killed under fire from security agencies, a finding which is consistent with the FBI’s conclusions on the fate of the four terrorists.

“We believe, as do the Kenyan authorities, that the four gunmen inside the mall were killed. Our ERT (Evidence Response Team) made significant finds, and there is no evidence that any of the attackers escaped from the area where they made their last stand,” an FBI legal attaché said. “(If) the attackers escaped, it would have been publicly celebrated and exploited for propaganda purposes by Al-Shabaab. That hasn’t happened.”

Investigators have now established that Turyare, the planning coordinator, bought the vehicle used by the attackers on September 6.

On September 8 — 13 days before the attack — Turyare purchased third-party insurance for the car whose documents were fake or fraudulently acquired.

ATTEMPTS THWARTED

Before then, Al-Shabaab had been running into frustration in their attempts to stage a major attack in Kenya.

The extremist group had planned strikes in Kenya around the General Election and last year’s Easter holiday but these attempts had been quietly thwarted by security agencies. One such plot was confirmed by Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, who spoke in April of intelligence coordination that had blocked efforts to sow civil strife by killing key leaders during the election.

“After failing to conduct a major attack during the General Election and Ramadhan period, Al-Shabaab embarked on sending to Kenya a new set of Amniyat (a shadowy group of suicide bombers within the group), who were not known to the (Kenyan) government database, hence could not be identified,” says the report.

It adds: “This was in a bid to give their operations new life and upscale their activities in the country. The militia adopted a new strategy and was keen to carry out an attack in the country. The group already had explosives for attacks, and intensive infrastructure in the country.”

It turns out that the new operatives would slip into the country through a circuitous route, first flying to Uganda and then getting into Kenya through illegal entry points and the Kakuma refugee camp in Turkana County.

Having failed in efforts to stage a bombing, the Shabaab had turned to a “Mumbai-style attack”, so-called after the 2008 four-day siege in India where gunmen killed 164 people.

“The Shabaab chose Kakuma for the purposes of escaping surveillance and exploiting the security the camp offers after realising that local cells, particularly the Majengo cell, had been under observation and most of its members had been killed while committing other crimes. Thus it was easy to adopt the Mumbai style attack due to the fact that logistics for other modes of attack would not have been easy to organise, besides being identified.”

Investigations have established that the Westgate Mall attack was sanctioned and directed by the then Al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Godane, who was killed in an American military air strike in Somalia on September 1.

PLANNING IN EASTLEIGH

Godane, an Afghan-trained jihadi, had acquired notoriety for radicalising the Shabaab and running assassination and bomb squads in Somalia.

Investigators now say that apart from Kakuma, the team conducted its operational planning mainly in buildings on Third Street and Sixth Street in Eastleigh, Nairobi.

During this time, one of the attackers, Abdi Nur, reactivated contact with former associates based at the Kakuma camp.

The report says that four cell members, including two assailants, visited Westgate on September 9, 14 and 15 to conduct final reconnaissance.

In the wee hours of the morning of the attack, one of the chief organisers of the attack, a man identified as Abdullahi Ali, sneaked back into Somalia through Wajir — leaving his charges to stage the horrendous act of terror.

Ongoing investigations have narrowed the number of assailants down to four who departed their safe houses on Eastleigh’s Third and Sixth streets from 9 a.m., arriving at the Westgate Mall between 10 a.m. and 12.20 p.m. They struck at about 12.30 p.m., shocking the world with their senseless killing of innocent men, women and children.

Amisom analysts, who spoke to the Sunday Nation in confidence, said the attack was a wake-up call to the international community who had previously written off Al-Shabaab as a major threat to regional and international peace.

“It was against this realisation that concerted efforts were made by the entire region with the support of the international community to seek and dismantle Al-Shabaab network across the region and inside Somalia. This has led to the recent killing of Ahmed Abdi Godane, Al-Shabaab’s top leader,” says the confidential report.

The analysts estimate that Al-Shabaab has been considerably weakened by the death of Godane and subsequent appointment of a field officer, Ahmed Diriye Abdikarim, as his successor.

The threat to Kenya had long been there but rose significantly when the Kenya Defence Forces launched an incursion into Somalia in October 2011.

The move by KDF followed a number of abductions of aid workers and tourists that dealt a serious blow to Kenya’s tourism sector at the Coast.

In October 2011, a French woman was kidnapped by an armed gang on the resort island of Manda and taken to Somalia. The disabled woman, 66, was attacked at her bungalow at Ras Kitau.

The government said it believed the abductors were Al-Shabaab militants. The kidnapping came three weeks after a UK couple was attacked further north.

Gunmen shot dead David Tebbutt and kidnapped his wife Judith in Kiwayu. She was taken across the border to Somalia and only released six months later.

Amisom analysts who spoke to the Sunday Nation said the threat of terrorism in the country increased significantly following Kenya’s support for the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia in a bid to consolidate security in the troubled neighbouring nation.

Consequently, Al-Shabaab began to issue attack threats targeted at the country and its establishments to force Kenya to terminate its engagement with the TFG.

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