NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — It’s 1:30 on Saturday afternoon in the Westgate Mall. Rafia Khan is huddling in a crawl space of the Millionaires Casino with her cousin and eight other people as gunmen roam the building and shoot, again and again, into crowds of shoppers.
Now she is teaching those in hiding — perfect strangers — words that she hopes will keep them alive.
The group had found the ceiling-level space as they fled gunfire and explosions.
While they are hiding, word spreads by mobile phone text messages that Islamic militants have taken control of the shopping mall that houses the casino. Word also spreads that the gunmen are allowing Muslims to leave — testing them by asking about their knowledge of Islam.
Khan and her cousin are the only Muslims among the small group. They decide to teach the others to recite the Shahada, the short Arabic-language creed that proclaims there is only one God and Muhammed is his prophet.
Over and over, Khan whispers the words slowly and phonetically, as if to a child: “La il-a-ha il-Al-lah wa Mu-ham-mad ru-soul Al-lah.”
Saturdays are crowded at the Westgate Mall, Nairobi’s most elite retail destination and a crossroads of the global economy. Rich foreign businessmen go there, as do wealthy Kenyans. There are shopping diplomats, and aid workers watching movies. They stroll the Nakumatt grocery store and have sandwiches at Java House. They buy sunglasses, silk shirts and phones.
Much of Kenya lives on less than a couple of dollars a day, but these poor also come to Westgate. They work inside, carrying boxes at the supermarket, sweeping the marble floors. Or they just come to watch.
“Poor. Rich. High class. All of them are there,” says Khan, whose husband is a wealthy businessman.
On this Saturday, though, they would watch children weep and watch them die. They would leave injured friends behind as they fled the attackers. They would be shot, and hit by shrapnel from grenades. At least 67 would die in what became a four-day siege by extremists from al-Shabab, the Somalia-based, Muslim militant group.
This is what happened in those first hours.
The Westgate Mall entrance, about 12:36 p.m.:
Kenyan authorities believe there are as few as six gunmen, although the number remains unclear. The first team, wearing bulletproof vests, storms Westgate’s front entrance, throwing grenades and firing assault rifles as they run. They are clearly well-trained.
Few people inside the mall think of terrorism when they hear the first explosion, and many think it’s an electrical box giving way under Nairobi’s unreliable power grid. But as one blast gives way to another and the clatter of machine-gun fire is heard, thousands of people know they need to move. But where?
Outside at the entrance, Ben Mulwa, a community organizer driving to the mall for lunch, jumps from his car and takes shelter in a shallow flowerbed. He also thinks it’s a bank robbery. An unarmed mall security guard takes cover next to him.
Then he sees four attackers in the driveway, racing in his direction. All carry rifles.
“I realized this is bigger trouble than I actually thought,” he says.
Mulwa hears a bang, and the guard next to him is shot through the head. He never moves again.
“That’s when I saw the second gunmen actually pointing his rifle at me,” he says later. Three shots ring out. In his mind, he sees his 1-year-old daughter. “I asked God: Why would you want my daughter to go through this?”
Al-Shabab once controlled wide swaths of Somalia, bringing with it a harsh version of Islam that required punishments such as stoning adulterers to death. The group has been threatening revenge on Kenya since 2011, when Kenyan soldiers crossed into Somalia and helped hobble the al-Qaida-linked militants.
The group said in an emailed statement after the attack that “any part of the Kenyan territory is a legitimate target. … Kenya should be held responsible for the loss of life.”
Authorities believe the group had planned long in advance, scouting the mall carefully.
“They likely had cased the location for some time and knew very well the best place and time to attack,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said in a statement to The Associated Press.
The gunmen, for the most part, are dressed casually. Many are in khakis and long-sleeved shirts. Some have checked scarves around their necks or flung over their heads. Only some are wearing bulletproof vests.
Most carry AK-47 or G3 assault rifles, weapons widely used in the region and easily available on the black market.
But some of the gunmen are draped with belts of large-caliber ammunition, and witnesses hear the fast, frightening, echoing blasts of heavy machine-gun fire.
As they storm through the mall, the music system keeps playing, an undertone to the explosions and screams. The music of Adele and Ne-Yo filters through the carnage.
Millionaires Casino crawl space, 12:57 p.m.:
“Are you okay???”
“Can u message us Mum???” — Text messages Khan received from her 24-year-old daughter while in hiding.
Parking area, third-level rooftop, about 1:30 p.m.:
The young mother watches the gunman shoot. Crowds of people are stumbling, screaming, falling around her.
He is calm.
She is terrified.
Sneha Kothari-Mashru, 28 and a part-time radio DJ, watches through a tangle of her long brown hair, which she has thrown across her face to appear as if she is already among the dead. She has smeared blood onto her arm and her clothes, taking it from the corpse of a teenage boy. She has kicked off her blue high heels.
The gunman doesn’t scream, she recalls days later. He rarely speaks. There is no obvious anger in his expression. He seems confident, she says. “He was normal.”
About 15 minutes later, Kothari-Mashru watches as the gunman speaks quietly to one family. She can’t hear what is said, but the wife is dressed in the billowing robes worn by highly observant Muslim women. Slowly, the family members stand, raise their hands above their heads, and walk away.
Other witnesses described similar scenes. Elijah Kamau, who was at the mall at the time of the midday attack, said he listened as militants told one group of their plans.
“The gunmen told Muslims to stand up and leave. They were safe,” he said.
In the email statement, al-Shabab said its fighters “carried out a meticulous vetting process at the mall and have taken every possible precaution to separate the Muslims from the Kuffar (disbelievers) before carrying out their attack.”
This is not the rule, however, in the attack.
Dozens of Muslims are shot, and many are killed. Most often, the gunmen fire wildly, spraying bullets into crowds and not bothering to ask about religion.
Some of the bloodiest scenes occur just a few feet from where Kothari-Mashru pretends to be dead.
A Junior Super Chef cooking competition was being held in the parking area and dozens of people — many from Kenya’s community of Ismaili Muslims — were at long tables set up beneath car advertisements.
Gunmen had already fired through the crowds at the competition when Kothari-Mashru hides nearby. Afterward, the tables are still arranged in many places, complete with upholstered chairs and red tablecloths. But puddles of blood are everywhere, with corpses one on top of another.
Parking area, third-level rooftop, about 3 p.m.:
Word goes out that someone has found a place to hide.
Kothari-Mashru decides to run. As she leaves, though, she sees a friend she had met that day, lying down, obviously wounded.
“Can you get up?” Kothari-Mashru asks.
Her friend has been shot three times. She smiles at Kothari-Mashru, but says she cannot move.
As the crowds swarm toward what seems to be safety, Kothari-Mashru leaves.
“It was heartbreaking,” she says later.
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” she says. “She couldn’t get up. She couldn’t move. She just lay there.”
Soon, Kothari-Mashru is among dozens of people on a back staircase heading to safety. As she races down, she runs into her husband, who had convinced two plainclothed policemen to help find her. Later, Kothari-Mashru’s friend was rescued and treated at a hospital.
Millionaires Casino, about 4 p.m.:
Police bang on the door of the casino. The 10 people hiding in the crawl space are escorted out by security forces. They were never forced to recite the creed.
Westgate Mall, about 6:30 p.m.:
Dozens, perhaps more than 100 people, remain scattered thorugh the mall as the sun sets. Bodies are carried out as security forces push the gunmen into ever smaller areas.
Mulwa, who had taken cover in the flowerbed and was shot in the leg, has already been taken to safety by police and hospitalized. After surgery, he is released from the hospital.
The siege does not end until Tuesday night, at the end of fierce gunbattles, a fire and the collapse of part of the structure.
Among the dead is Kofi Awoonor of Ghana, a beloved 78-year-old poet who was in Nairobi for a literary festival. His body was flown Wednesday to Accra, the capital of his homeland, where hundreds gathered at the airport to remember him as a man of peace.
In one verse, he was clearly conscious of his own mortality.
“When the final night falls on us
“As it fell upon our parents,
“We shall retire to our modest home
“That we have done our duty
“By our people;
“We met the challenge of history
“And were not afraid.”
Associated Press writers Adam Schreck and Jacob Kushner contributed to this story.