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Abdul Haji: ‘The thought that I might die at Westgate mall never crossed my mind’

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Abdul Haji is finishing his coffee in the Yaya Centre. It’s one of Nairobi’s less glitzy malls, but it is in malls that the suburban capital’s residents arrange their meetings, do their shopping or take their children to a weekend movie.

“I was here, having a business meeting, when I got an SMS from my brother,” remembers the Kenyan businessman, whose elder brother Noordin was due to meet a friend at the Westgate shopping mall – perhaps the city’s most upmarket – when the attack began on 21 September. “He said he thought there was a terrorist attack at Westgate and he said ‘pray for me’… It was very confusing, it was like he was saying his last goodbyes.”

Haji ran down to the basement parking and drove at breakneck speed to Westgate. “I broke all the traffic rules getting there but I made it.”

He describes what happened next with practiced ease. The 38-year-old broke his initial silence after the attack – claimed by Somalia’s al-Qaeda-linked Islamist militants al-Shabaab – a few days later with a half-hour interview on Kenyan television, giving an unwavering, blow-by-blow account of his many hours in the mall.

The international media – and many Kenyans – found in him their very necessary hero.

An erudite Kenyan, ethnically Somali and religiously Muslim, Haji risked his own life to save the lives of countless others. He maintains, in his characteristically humble manner, that he just went to rescue his brother, who had a few weeks earlier been outed on Kenyan television as an undercover intelligence officer and who had been receiving death threats, presumed to be from al-Shabaab.

But after arriving at the mall Haji was quickly thrown into the heart of a rescue operation – led by a group of civilians with access to weapons and several plainclothes police – that saved hundreds of shoppers long before the security forces proper took over.

Near the main vehicle entrance to the mall, the Red Cross were insisting that they had to look for survivors in the cars they could see in the basement parking area, where a number of people were already lying dead.

“Suddenly everybody was armed,” Haji, himself a licensed firearms carrier, recalls. “Instinctively we decided to give cover to the Red Cross guys.”

The group decided to make their way to the mall’s rooftop parking, where many families – mostly women and children – had been attending an Indian cookery competition. “This is where we saw the massacre that had taken place. It was terrible.” Haji’s voice drops a note as he remembers.

Haji and his “colleagues” – as he describes them, but almost all of whom hadn’t met before that day – quickly began to move into the mall, while the Red Cross worked to save survivors.

Shop by shop, floor by painful floor, Haji and the other men began to clear the mall. They spent up to an hour at every level ushering scores of terrified shoppers – and screening them simultaneously – to safety.

But as the armed group descended to Westgate’s ground floor, where some of the worst violence had taken place, Haji noticed a woman hiding under a table.

The gunmen were just metres away from her – the rescue team had already exchanged fire with them – and she was protected by little more than paper.

When Haji asked her to run towards him, she revealed that she had three children with her – two infants and a four-year-old. Three other women were hiding with them.

A Reuters photographer, whose presence Haji said he didn’t notice until “much later”, captured Haji in an unforgettable image that was seen around the globe, coaxing the four-year-old to run across the shopping centre’s tiled floor after his group had pushed the gunmen back with teargas.

“I thought she was so brave,” he said. “It just motivated us to go on and help more people.”

Was he ever scared? “That thought never crossed my mind – thinking that I was going to die that day. I think because of the adrenaline, I just kept going.”

Haji left the mall some hours later, having confirmed that his brother has safely got out [Noordin escaped from his hiding place when he smelled the teargas, assuming that it came from the police, not the attackers] and after the security forces had arrived, but not before he found many more bodies.

“There are [horrific] images and if I remember them they will come back, but most I have repressed,” he said.

Haji is seeing a counsellor on the advice of friends and family, who also helped in his decision to speak to the media about his experience.

“Before this I was a very private guy, I used to enjoy my freedom to go anywhere,” he says, but was encouraged to go public by many who said that awareness of his actions could help prevent a backlash against Kenya’s ethnic Somalis and other Muslims.

“I was told that my picture had gone viral and I was getting calls from the local media. I thought if it could help, why not?”

Haji conducted a flurry of interviews that kept him away from his office for several weeks and he was lauded for his heroism. “I still don’t see myself as a hero,” he says quietly. “I have even looked up the word hero. People who have been called heroes – I don’t think I have done anything close to what they’ve done.”

Haji’s role in the rescue has drawn him unwelcome attention – he has been warned of threats to his person and family, and has had to increase security at his home – but many people he saved have also contacted him.

“I have met people who knew somebody there who said that I rescued them, so they would thank me on their behalf. That has been very good,” he says gently.

“If I don’t have any psychological effects, it is probably because of this, the overwhelming gratitude I get from people, the goodwill messages I get from strangers.

“It has helped me, it has grounded me. It is good that people come up to you and just say good words.

“It helps, I think it helps.”

KENYA

Ahmed Iman alias Kimanthi flees after Al-Shabaab fallout

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Ahmed Iman alias Kimanthi, a member of Al-Shabaab, is on the run after falling out with other commanders who want him executed. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

A Kenyan who rose through Al-Shabaab ranks to become the poster boy for the terrorist organisation is on the run after falling out with other commanders who want him executed.

Ahmed Iman alias Kimanthi, who appeared in numerous Al-Shabaab propaganda videos taunting Kenyan troops fighting in Somalia, the group’s stronghold, is now seeking to surrender to Kenyan forces and get amnesty, the Nation has learnt.

Until the row, he was close to the current Al-Shabaab supremo Ahmed Diriye and Mahad Karate, also known as Abdirahim Mohamed Warsame, who commanded Shabaab’s Amniyat, its intelligence wing, when gunmen stormed Garissa University College and killed 147 students in April, 2015.

VIDEO CLIPS

In the video clips, which are unavailable after they were pulled down by YouTube, Iman says the killings were carried out to avenge the killing of radical Muslim clerics.

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In those videos, he named the clerics as Aboud Rogo, Samir Khan and Sheikh Abubakar Shariff alias Makaburi.

International security sources operating in Somalia, told the Nation that Iman has been the head of a group of foreign fighters who together with him, are now on the run from the main group loyal to Diriye and Karate.

A number of Kenyans and other foreigners who joined Al-Shabaab terrorists in Somalia have since been captured and executed.

On November 6, a 25-year-old Kenyan from Garissa was among four people who were publicly executed by the terrorists in Somalia.

Omar Adar Omar was killed by firing squad on accusations of spying for the Africa Union Mission in Somalia, which comprises the Kenya Defence Forces.

The fall-out is further complicated after the emergence of a faction that has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Syria, while Diriye’s group maintains its formal partnership with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

DRAGNETS

The Nation has further learnt that Iman, in a bid to escape from Somalia, has evaded several dragnets to capture him.

Al-Shabaab is well known for executing militants within its own ranks whenever there is a fallout.

The latest developments are a repeat of what happened to Fazul Abdullah Mohamed, who was killed in a set up laid by Godane Ahmed Abdi Godane alias Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr, who was Diriye’s predecessor.

Godane was later killed in a joint operation by US and KDF in Somalia.

Besides assuming the role of commander of foreign fighters in Somalia, Iman also has a great influence in Jaysh Ayman, another Al-Shabaab faction operating in Boni Forest which spreads across the Kenya-Somalia border in Lamu County.

Furthermore, Iman is also said to be getting foreign funding directly, further angering indigenous Somali commanders, the sources also said.

A 2016 security report published by the Nation, revealed that Iman and accomplices in Nairobi collected millions of shillings every year by renting shops and kiosks in Umoja and Majengo, and the money is smuggled to Somalia to fund terrorism activities.

LOOTED

In one Al-Shabaab propaganda video, he was seen clad in KDF uniform, holding a walkie-talkie and an M-16 rifle, which he claimed was one of the arms looted from El-Adde Forward Operating Base, which was overran by the terrorists in January 2016.

Besides Kenya, whose soldiers are operating in southern Somalia, Al-Shabaab is also being fought by the US and other countries in Amisom, including Ethiopia, Uganda, Burundi and Djibouti.
100 fighters killed

On Tuesday, 100 Al-Shabaab fighters were killed in an air strike by the US.

“In coordination with the Federal Government of Somalia, US forces conducted an air strike in Somalia against an Al-Shabaab camp at approximately 10.30 local Somalia time, killing more than 100 militants.

The operation occurred 125 miles northwest of the capital, Mogadishu,” said a statement by US Africa Command.

The Statement added: “US forces will continue to use all authorised and appropriate measures to protect Americans and to disable terrorist threats.

This includes partnering with Amisom and Somali National Security Forces in targeting terrorists, their training camps and safe havens throughout Somalia, the region and around the world.”

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KENYA

Soldiers don’t smuggle charcoal in Somalia – KDF

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The Kenya Defense Forces yesterday disputed allegations its soldiers are involved in charcoal smuggling in Somalia.

The charcoal trade generates major income for al Shabaab.

KDF spokesman Col David Obonyo rejected as untrue the UN Security Council’s Somalia and Ethiopia Monitoring Group’s report that KDF is involvedin export and import of charcoal from and into Somalia.

He said it [the report] is similar to the one the group has been making “with a little variation in wording every year around the same time since 2012”.
Obonyo said the KDF is deployed in only 150km of Somalia’s coastline.

He said the SEMG report does not specify sectors where the charcoal trafficking takes place and who is managing those ports. The group did not visit those areas, he said.

“KDF is not in charge of management of port operations in Kismayu. They are under the Somali Federal Government and Jumbaland State authorities,” Obonyo said.

“KDF is not in Somalia to do business, but to enforce Amisom’s mandate. We are in Somalia to ensure safety and security of the Somali people. Kenya has made a lot of sacrifice to liberate Somali people.”

The UN banned the charcoal trade in Somalia in February 2012 to deny al Shabaab revenues. This was after it emerged the charcoal trade was generating major income for the al Qaeda-linked terror group.

Kenyan soldiers overpowered al Shabaab in Kismayu in September 2012 in the offensive Operation Sledge Hammer in which they dethroned the militants and seized control of the coastal town.

But Obonyo said the Kenyan troops were replaced by those from Siera Leone, who later left and were replaced by those from Burundi and Ethiopia, and the Family Police Unit from Nigeria.

SEMG has deplored the continued charcoal trade through Somali ports controlled by Amisom.

The SEMG report expresses concern that the charcoal trade still provides significant funding for the militia. It urged the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime to continue its work, with the Federal Government of Somalia.

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Kenya’s supreme court has upheld the reelection of president Uhuru Kenyatta

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Kenya’s supreme court has dismissed two petitions against the Oct. 26 reelection of president Uhuru Kenyatta. In a summary of their judgment, the six-judge bench unanimously decided that the petitions had “no merit” and upheld his win for a second term.

“Having carefully considered the above issues, the specific players in each petition, as well as the constitution and the applicable laws, the court has unanimously determined that the petitions are not merited,” chief justice David Maraga said today (Nov. 20). “As a consequence, the presidential election of 26 Oct. is hereby upheld as is the election of the third respondent,” president Uhuru Kenyatta.

As per the constitution, Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto will now be sworn in on Nov. 28.

The decision comes after violence in the capital spiraled out of control over the weekend, leading to deaths, protests, and destruction of property. On Friday (Nov. 17), at least five people were killed as police dispersed supporters of opposition candidate Raila Odinga, who were welcoming him back from a trip abroad. Four people were also killed over the weekend, while an opposition lawmaker was shot in the leg during scuffles with the police. The opposition National Super Alliance coalition said that “state-sponsored thuggery” was plunging the country into a crisis.
In a majority decision in early September, Kenya’s supreme court called the August reelection of president Uhuru Kenyatta “invalid, null and void” and ordered a new vote be held in 60 days. After blaming the electoral commission for stonewalling meaningful deliberations, Odinga bowed out of the repeat polls in October and urged his supporters to stay home. Kenyatta won the redo with 7.4 million votes or 98% of the total, with more than 12 million registered voters not participating in the polls.

Rejecting the results as a “sham” and “a meaningless exercise,” Odinga called for a campaign of civil disobedience and peaceful resistance in order to safeguard Kenya’s democracy. He also called for an economic boycott targeting companies aligned with the government and the ruling Jubilee party. The results were also challenged in the supreme court by two cases: one filed by a former lawmaker and another by two members of human-rights organizations.

The uncertainty over the repeated elections and court rulings have also deepened the political crisis in the east African nation and intensified the sense of resignation among citizens. Citing political and economic marginalization, opposition-aligned regions have started calling for secession. The political and legal quagmires have also come at a huge cost for the Kenyan taxpayer, with about $600 million spent conducting the two elections.

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