Five years ago, four armed men from the Somali militant group al-Shabab stormed the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, trapping hundreds of people inside. When the four-day siege ended, 67 people were dead and more than 150 wounded.
Al-Shabab said it was retaliating for the Kenyan government sending forces into Somalia two years earlier.
A new report says the militant group remains a threat to Kenya, but notes the government has learned to work with the Muslim community, helping to reduce the likelihood of successful attacks.
John Wangombe, 31, was working at Westgate when al-Shabab struck on Sept. 21, 2013.
“I used to work at Westgate at the control room. I used to monitor the cameras and their networks at the Westgate mall. On that specific day, I was on duty; we were doing all the monitoring and then all of the sudden we started hearing gunshots. So what came first to my mind was to run away,” Wangombe said.
The IT expert was familiar with the mall and hid with a dozen others. He told VOA he could hear gunshots and people screaming. Police rescued him three hours later.
Wangombe has returned to Westgate only once since the mall reopened in 2015.
“Right now, they have so many security guys there,” he said. “It’s like you fear going there because you think they may attack again and the security put you off because they have a lot of checkups, the gates are opening and closing; they have a lot of sensors all over. You get scared even going around there when you see all the security there.”
In 2015, al-Shabab attacked a college in the town of Garissa, killing nearly 150 people, most of them students.
The International Crisis Group warned in a new report Friday that al-Shabab is still a threat to Kenya and the region. The report said a government crackdown that followed the Westgate attack fueled anger within the Muslim community, which helped al-Shabab recruit in Kenya.
But Murithi Mutiga, the Crisis Group’s Kenya researcher, says the government has learned to work with the community.
“Since 2015, given the steep change, particularly enhanced engagement with communities, appointment of some leaders from local communities, engagement with the elected officials at the local level, and generally a more convivial relationship with the community has yielded better intelligence and, in turn, has resulted in a lower level of attacks,” Mutiga said.
Kenyan forces are still part of the African Union mission that provides security to the Somali government and its population.
Al-Shabab continues to demand that Kenyan troops leave Somalia, and continues to carry out attacks along the borders and the coastal town of Lamu.