DPP Noordin Haji has been a senior spy, a negotiator for an independent Jubaland and a target of al Shabaab terrorists. He knows all too well what AK-47 bursts sound like. He knows what it’s like to be under siege.
And on September 21, 2013, while he was shopping at Westgate Mall, al Shabaab terrorists launched an attack, the second most deadly after its bombings in East Africa in 1998. At Westgate, sixty-seven people died, 150 were wounded over four days..
For seven hours Haji and others sheltered in a toilet. He constantly fed information to security sources about the siege and tried to calm the panicked people with him. He’s sorry didn’t have his gun.
Haji brings the same courage to DPP’s office where he is fighting corruption with zeal and effectiveness never before seen in Kenya.
For this reason, the Star Editors have unanimously voted Haji the 2018 person of the year, jointly with DCI chief George Kinoti. another corruption fighter (See yesterday’s Star).
Both men have faced death and been targeted for their integrity.
For the first time, Haji has spoken about the Westgate ordeal in an exclusive interview with the Star, one that sheds light on the man, his resourcefulness and determination. He called it the lowest moment in his life.
This is his story:
Haji, then a director at the National Intelligence Service responsible for counter-terrorism, had gone to Westgate to buy gifts for his counterparts in Sudan. He was headed there for a series of meetings.
“After shopping at Nakumatt on ground floor, I went to the washroom when I heard gunshots rending the air. Having been on the front line in Somalia for years, I immediately knew this was a terror attack.
“A few of us ran to the nearby toilet where I then informed my father, my brother Abdul Haji and my colleagues in the security sector that a terror attack was unfolding,” he said.
“I’m stuck at the Westgate. Seems like a terrorist attack. Pray for me,” was the message Haji sent to his father, Garissa senator Yusuf Haji, and his younger brother Abdul.
Abdul Haji was in Yaya Centre when he got the message and immediately ran down to the basement parking, driving at breakneck speed to Westgate.
“I broke all the traffic rules getting there but I made it. All I wanted was to save those trapped inside, including my brother Noordin,” Abdul recalled. He himself rescued two women and three children amidst the gunfire — those photos went viral.
The gifted spy chief Haji — an ethnic Somali and observant Muslim — risked his own life to save others as security chiefs leading the operations relied on him to communicate what was going on inside the mall.
“We were quite a number who ended up in the washroom and tried to find a place where we could shelter. I got rid of my wallet, I put it in the ceiling, hoping that if they came in they would not recognise me.”
He and the others planned how they could help other people if the terrorists stormed in. Haji recounts this in his characteristically modest manner.
For seven hours Haji kept communicating with various security agencies who were battling the attackers, some who were stationed outside Nakumatt.
“At some point I thought they were coming for me because a few weeks before the attack KTN’s Jipo Pevu had splashed my pictures all over, describing me as an an undercover intelligence officer. It said I had been receiving death threats, presumably from al Shabaab,” Haji told the Star.
At last Haji escaped from his hiding place when he smelled tear gas [assuming it came from the police, not the attackers] after the security forces had arrived — but not before he saw many bodies, the floor awash in blood.
“The saddest thing is that I didn’t have a gun. I felt a bit helpless but then I was used to gunfire and carrying a gun in my line of duty.
“When we went to Kismayo as we were negotiating a peace deal with different Somali factions there, we always under attack. We were always within firing range and because of that when I was caught at Westgate I was a bit calmer. I tried to calm down the others sheltering in the toilet,” the DPP said.
At the time of the attack al Shabaab was furious that Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Eritrea, under the auspices of of IGAD (Intergovernmental Authority on Development), were trying to set up a government in Jubaland in then utterly lawless Somalia.
The decision to set up a government in Jubaland followed persistent attacks and abductions by al Shabaab of Kenyans and foreigners working and vacationing inside Kenya, especially in Lamu and Northeastern regions.
Haji was tasked to chair the joint team that would set up a buffer between areas controlled by al Shabaab and Kenya.
“Before that I was also involved in counter-terrorism programmes and as a result, were gathering a lot of intelligence in Somalia. That placed me at the center of fighting terrorists deep in the trenches of Somalia.
Now he’s deep in the trenches again, also filled with danger, in Kenya.
After he was rescued from Westgate, Haji, naturally shaken by the attack, took time before plunging back into work at NIS.
“The attack taught me a number of things. The first lesson was that all security agencies must work together. In the Westgate case, we had the intel but it was not shared and acted on properly,” Haji said.
That changed after Westgate and intelligence-sharing is the reason terror attacks have declined dramatically, he said.
“On a family level, that incident taught me never to take my family for granted. It made me understand the importance of family,” the prosecutor added.
The DPP says his resolve to deal with corruption and other ills stems from his desire for a better future for his children and all the children of Kenya.
“All I always wanted to do since I was a child was to serve my county and to serve it honourably. When my country called me, I did that to the best of my abilities.”
Asked if he fears for his life, Haji said, “For me the dangers did not matter as long as the end was to benefit our country.
“You only die once, and if you have served your country, leaving it a better place than you found it, a country to be proud of, then life was good,” he said.