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Lessons From Westgate: How Kenya’s Churches Transformed Security Post-Terror Attack

A Decade Later, Churches Reflect on Security Measures after the Westgate attack

Anthony Wahome remembers that day as if it was just yesterday.

The former top cop with Kenya Police, later a security officer with the United Nations, and now a security consultant, recalled that horrible day.

“When we arrived at Westgate it was surreal. Evidence of death all over and yet so many still stranded in the building,” said Wahome. “An active shooter situation ongoing in such a huge mall, the gunmen could be anywhere. The difficult part was winning the confidence of those hiding in shops and other interested spaces because both sides didn’t trust each other. You simply don’t know who is who in such a situation.”

It was Sept. 21, 2013, when four armed men stormed the Westgate Mall, one of Nairobi’s swankiest, and lay siege. In the end, 67 people were killed and hundreds injured. Once again, Kenya made it into the international press for another act of terrorism. The Somali militant group Al Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack.

A Photo of the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. Church security was completely changed following an attack on the mall 10 years ago. TOM OSANJO.

It was an attack that not only exposed Kenya’s lackluster security in public places — but also exposed sibling rivalry among security forces, a situation that saw friendly fire being exchanged and the military left with eggs on their faces. The attack also changed the way Kenya’s churches handled worship services. For the first time ever, churchgoers were subjected to metal detectors, sniffer dogs and armed policemen camped outside buildings while services went on.

Two years later, Foreign Policy magazine carried out an investigation, indicting Kenyan security forces and the officials over their approach to the massacre. Much of that reporting was confused and contradictory — mirroring the litany of false and misleading statements made by Kenyan authorities in the probe’s aftermath.

There were between 10 and 15 gunmen, the interior minister claimed. “As many as 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 those 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 by 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.

A lot has happened in a decade. Families remembered their lost loved ones. Westgate Mall is fully operational (albeit with improved security outsourced from an Israeli firm) and the churches are still strict with their “new normal.”

A Photo of the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. Church security was completely changed following an attack on the mall 10 years ago. TOM OSANJO.

Wahome, the security consultant who also worked as a ballistics expert with the Directorate of Criminal Investigations with Kenya Police, said: “As a Born-again Christian, I am fully aware that my help comes from God and Him alone. … The Bible reminds us to be strong and of good courage — to fear not — the practicality of this portion of scripture is that it is not an invitation but a command. As I embarked on life saving, I had settled with the fact that death is not an issue; at that point, it was a non-issue. There is no space for fear because fear torments. My confidence and that of other rescuers was that we walked in alive and we shall walk out alive.”

He said he believes that the security protocols used by many churches, especially in Kenya’s urban centers, were for the overall good. Church security was completely changed, he said, adding that it underwent a complete metamorphosis — especially after there were targeted bombings at churches.

“Searches became the new norm at every public space and because every Kenyan was aware of the season we were in, there were little or no complaints,” Wahome said. “Church numbers fell initially, but gradually went back to normal and then to overflowing.”

Apostle Nickson Orieny of Temple of God Ministries said that one of the protocols introduced in his church included keeping eyes open when praying.

“On security, churches have experienced quite a number of intrusions before even Westgate happened,” said Orieny. “Most of us had already instructed our members to keep guard, especially during times of prayers where almost everyone closes their eyes and chances of attacks occurring are high.”

During the period commemorating the attack, BBC carried a story in which members of the Kenyan Somali community felt that they had been targeted after the attacks (all four gunmen were Somali nationals). Kenya shares a border with Somalia and has a sizeable number of citizens of Somali birth.

Orieny said he believes a sizeable number of Muslims are radicalized.

“I strongly believe most Muslims are deliberately radicalized to hate members of other faiths by misinterpretation of various portions of the Koran right from their tender ages, and this is where we have the problem,” he said. “If only Muslims were taught to embrace members of other religions, then we wouldn’t be having many of these attacks around.

He added: “Look at the recent wave of terrorist attacks in Pakistan against the Christian members every religion that does not teach tolerance is a threat to peace.”

Produced in association with Religion Unplugged

Edited by Priscilla Jepchumba and Newsdesk Manager

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