How the Nairobi Mall Attack Unfolded on Social Media

Omar Mohammed is a Tanzanian journalist based in Dar es Salaam. He tweets at @shurufu. Also read his post Global Voices Author Remembers Friends Slain in Nairobi Mall Attack.

In a moment, everything changed. On 21 September, 2013, a group of armed militants stormed an upscale mall in Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya, and opened fire, killing by the latest count 69 people and injuring hundreds more.

Twitter captured the confusion of the attack in real-time as users first reported what they thought was an explosion. Shortly after noon, news started trickling through the social network that something had gone horribly wrong at Westgate Mall, one of Nairobi's most popular locations for foreigners and middle-class Kenyans.

Ma Bradley (@NyamburaMumbi) tweeted:

In the immediate few minutes after after the news broke, however, it was still unclear what, exactly, was going on. Naporneon Pornaparte (@aCreole) reflected this uncertainty in his tweet:

For some, the location of the reported incident itself was under dispute. Ramsy Ama Ramah (@ramjanja) suggested that initial reports claiming that an explosion had taken place at Westgate were mistaken:

yoh the explosion is in Mathare not Westgate

Soon enough, however, it became clear that something ominous was taking place at the mall. Confirmation of this came after the Ministry of Interior tweeted this update:

What was emerging on the Twittersphere was that armed individuals had gone inside Westgate, journalist

Inspector General of Police David Kimaiyo via his twitter account (

Despite this update from the authorities, the nature of what they were responding to remained a mystery, even to them, at least based on what they were saying publicly, as revealed by Internal Security Ministry Permanent Secretary Mutea Iringo's comments to reporters:

But other sources within the Kenyan police started to realize that what they were confronting was more than an armed robbery. Here is Robert Alai (@RobertAlai), one of the first to report that something more sinister was underway:

After images like these began to circulate, it was becoming clear that an act of terror had been perpetrated in Westgate:

Who is behind the Westgate attack?

At about 11 p.m. in the evening, President Uhuru Kenyatta addressed the nation and confirmed that what was happening in Westgate was, indeed, a terror attack. Via KTN:

Mr. Kenyatta was sombre and informed his people the enormity of what Kenya was experiencing:

This morning, a group of armed terrorists forcefully entered the Westgate Mall in Nairobi’s Parklands area and unleashed senseless violence upon customers and workers. They have killed at least 39 innocent people and injured more than 150 others. With the entire nation, I stand with the families of those who have lost their lives and extend every Kenyan’s deepest condolences.

Later, it would be reported that he too had lost loved ones:

According to reports, the president’s nephew, Mbugua and his fiancée Wahito, were shot dead during the attack and from a witness account, Mbugua had made it safely out of the building when he realised that his fiancee was still stuck in the building. He rushed back to get her only to be shot dead together with his fiancee.

Despite the confirmation that the Westgate attack was an act of terrorism, it was still unclear who had perpetrated it.

In his statement to the nation, President Kenyatta did not name assign responsibility to any specific group. But soon, a Twitter handle believed to be controlled by Al-Shabaab, a Somali Islamist group, claimed responsibility for the attack. The account has since been suspended, but their claim of responsibility is captured in this Storify piece by Canoe News. Robert Alai was also able to capture an image of the Al-Shabaab alleged Twitter page before it was taken down:

Indeed, hours later, a YouTube clip purporting to be by Al-Shabaab was posted online. In grandiose and religious tones, the message was chilling:

Soon after, a group of Muslim Scholars reacted angrily to the claims by supposed members of Al-Shabab that their actions were committed in the name of Islam. The Nigerian popular online platform, Nairaland, quoted a Sheikh Abu Eesa Niamatullah, denouncing what he called their turning of blood of civilians into cheap commodity. He went on to say,

You never touched anything except that you destroyed it, you never entered a legitimate cause except that you corrupted it, you never came across the sanctity of human life except that you violated it, and you never tried to act in the name of Islam except that you polluted it.

So why now, Al-Shabaab?

The audacity of this attack has left some to suggest it may portend a new phase for the Somali Islamists.

In August of this year, analyst Abdihakim Ainte (@Abdikhakim) writing on the website Al-Monitor suggested that the defeats experienced by the group in Somalia at the hands of Ugandan and Kenyan troops has forced it to adopt a more guerrilla and assymetrical type of warfare. To wit:

In a recent audio message, Ahmed Godane, al-Shabab’s operational brain, made it clear that he is determined to reverse the organization’s plummeting operations. That includes, as he put it, plans to install a whole new generation who can interact with fast-moving jihadist warfare. Unlike al-Shabab 1.0, the upgraded al-Shabab is likely to have new recruiters — mostly youths, under 30, who have exposure to the West and are fluent in foreign languages, to appeal to coming generations. This seems evident in new footage released by al-Shabab featuring three young Somali-Americans who died while waging war. The video “The Path to Paradise: From the Twin Cities to the Land of Migration” is part of al-Qaeda-approved propaganda messages to appeal to the next generation.

Meanwhile, Ken Menkhaus over at Think Progress concured that Al-Shabab is indeed weakened. Menkhaus went on to argue that this latest gamble by the group was an attempt to reframe the terms of the conflict in Somalia:

The Westgate attack is the latest sign of the group’s weakness. It was a desperate, high-risk gamble by Shabaab to reverse its prospects. If the deadly attack succeeds in prompting vigilante violence by Kenyan citizens or heavy-handed government reactions against Somali residents, Shabaab stands a chance of recasting itself as the vanguard militia protecting Somalis against external enemies. It desperately needs to reframe the conflict in Somalia as Somalis versus the foreigners, not as Somalis who seek peace and a return to normalcy versus a toxic jihadi movement.

On Twitter, Charles Onyango Obbo (@coboo3) disagreed, saying that the attack shows the metastasizing of Al-Shabaab:

A version of this perspective was echoed in the analysis from the website Somalia Newsroom, which argued that the Westgate attack was inevitable blowback from Kenya's continued operations in Somalia. Additionally, they pointed out, a lack of a long-term strategic plan on how to combat terrorism by Kenya may explain Al-Shabaab's continued potency:

The Kenyan government may find more progress in combatting the influence of al-Shabaab and its sympathizers by building bridges between communities rather than scapegoating, offering under-served communities more resources to serve youth and families, and undertaking serious reform and accountability for security forces’ actions on civilians.

While Kenya’s current approach to al-Shabaab has garnered some successes, it has created tension in Somalia and left unaddressed shortcomings at home. Rather than respond in blind rage to the Westgate attack, Kenya should meditate and answer soberly to the real questions that it is confronting in trying to increase stability at home and abroad.

There is no doubt that, as time goes by, more pondering and analysis will follow to reflect on the horrific events of 21 September.

Also read: Global Voices Author Remembers Friends Slain in Nairobi Mall Attack.


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