Abdul Haji didn’t know that his actions during the next several hours would thrust him into the international spotlight -- or that pictures taken of him inside the mall would go viral. In an interview with NTV, Haji gave a full account of what happened the day Somali al-Shabaab terrorists stormed Westgate Mall. (Story continues after video...)
Haji said he went to the mall to help his brother who had texted him, saying he was trapped inside. At the time, Haji did not fully understanding the severity of the situation. When he arrived, he saw gunmen shooting people in the parking lot.
Armed with his own handgun, Haji and four other men made their way inside where they witnessed a ‘massacre.’ Haji said he went inside because he had one mission: save his brother. He did not know he and the other men with him would become heroes to hundreds of people.
A little girl's bravery
Haji's mission began on the fourth floor where he helped convince people hiding in shops that it was safe enough for them to leave. Haji and four others made it down to the first floor where the gunmen continued shooting. It was there he saw a woman hiding behind a table. He asked her to run toward them. But she couldn’t. She and another woman had two babies and a little girl with them. That little girl would soon become a monumental source of inspiration to Haji.
Haji convinced the woman and the little girl it was safe enough for her to run to him. It's a moment captured in a still photograph that went viral. The girl, three, maybe four years old, is seen running toward Haji’s outstretched arm. It's a moment Haji will never forget.
“This little girl is a very brave girl,” he said. “Amidst all this chaos around her, she remained calm. She wasn’t crying. And she actually managed to run towards men who were holding guns. I mean, seriously, this is a very brave girl.”
Her bravery inspired Haji.
“I was really touched by this,” he said. “I thought, ‘If such a girl can be so brave, there’s no reason why we cannot sustain our courage.’”
A terrorist's taunts
After helping the little girl and those she was with to safety, Haji and the other men moved on. They threw tear gas -- likely obtained from official Kenyan police -- toward the area where the gunmen were, which effectively caused them to retreat. Of the 16 terrorists, Haji saw one.
“He looked very much Kenyan,” he said. “He appeared to be speaking Swahili to us. And he was taunting us.”
“Kuja! Kuja!” the gunman said, which in Swahili means “come.” Haji said the shooter was urging them to come closer “so they could engage us in a fight.”
“I was very angered by what he had done and by the fact he was making a joke out of this whole thing,” he said.
Haji said his anger turned to determination. He was determined to defeat the men responsible for the bloodshed he had witnessed. Haji said after the pictures of him inside the mall went viral, he had two choices: remain quiet and protect his privacy, or speak out. He chose to come forward in an effort to shame the men responsible for terrorizing his beloved city.
Teachings of Islam
Haji said Muslim leaders have since reached out to him, thanking him for coming forward and asking him to tell the public that those who were responsible for the Westgate attack do not represent Muslims as a whole.
“What I saw done at Westgate Mall was contrary to the teachings of Islam,” he said. “It’s almost become a cliché, people are saying Islam is a religion of peace and all this, but it is true. Islam teaches us that if you save one life, it’s like you’ve saved the whole of humanity. If you take the life of somebody, it’s like you’ve taken the life of the whole humanity and you will be judged by that.”
So what about Jihadists who are hell bent on fighting for their religion? Haji spoke on that as well.
“To see these people who have caused so much damage and wreckage and they call themselves Jihadists? I mean, Islam also teaches us about the rules of engagement in Jihad. And one of the paramount rules of engagement during Jihad is that you cannot kill a woman, a child, an elderly or an innocent person. So where are they getting their doctrine? And why are they trying to drive a wedge between a community like Kenya, which has been living peacefully amongst each other?”
Haji said he's heard reports that the terrorists only targeted non-Muslims, but Haji witnessed a number of Muslims who had also been killed. Haji said he thinks al-Shabaab terrorists want to wage a psychological war, causing fear among religions.
Media have reported al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack because they want Kenya’s military out of Somalia.
“Kenya is in Somalia because we are trying to bring peace,” Haji said. “They can’t tell us we are killing Muslims in Somalia. When al-Shabaab was trying gain power in Somalia, who were they killing? Somalia is 99 percent Muslim. They were fighting against somebody in Somalia, and they were Muslims. So what gives them the right to kill Muslims? It’s just ridiculous.”
Haji: I am not a hero
Haji was inside Westgate Mall for hours searching for his brother. After receiving a text that his brother actually made it out and was safe, Haji pressed on.
“I’m not quite sure what motivated me, but I would say that I was in the moment,” he said. “I was angered. For the lack of a better word, I was really pissed off for what had happened.”
Haji said he saw people paralyzed with fear. Some injured, some not, but he couldn't just leave them. He said he felt compelled to help as many people as he could.
And he did.
But while others call him a hero, Haji says he is not.
“I don’t think I’m a hero. I think I did what any Kenyan in my situation would have done to save lives – to save others regardless of their nationality, religion or creed,” he said. “I did what any other human being would have done.”