Then the gunmen handed chocolates to the children as they left the mall, the man said.
In a nearby bed, Aquilah Kauser Ishaq, 32, a marketing manager for a local radio station, was nursing wounds from a grenade attack. She was on the top floor when she and her friends heard explosions. Outside in the parking lot, kids were taking part in a cooking class when the gunmen began firing randomly in their direction. “They actually targeted the kids,” Ishaq said. “There was a brother and sister running away. They were shot dead in front of us.”
Then a grenade landed by her foot. A friend pushed her out of the way but the shrapnel struck her legs and back. The grenade struck a boy and she watched him die, she said. “I even wonder how I am here now,” she said.
The assault was the deadliest in Kenya since al-Qaeda operatives masterminded the twin bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 1998.
Al-Shabab also staged the twin bombings in Kampala, Uganda, during the soccer World Cup in July 2010, killing more than 70 people. That attack, the militia said, was in retaliation for Uganda sending its troops to Somalia to support its Western-backed government.
But since mid-2011, al-Shabab has been on its heels, after an offensive by African Union forces backed by the United States and other Western governments. While it remains in control of large swaths of southern Somalia’s countryside, the militia has been riven by a struggle within its core leadership.
In Kenya, the militia has staged small attacks on local targets such as bus stations and churches, killing a handful of people, since the government
sent troops to Somalia in October 2011.
But Saturday’s attack suggested far greater operational planning and tactical sophistication, analysts said.
“The attack is more likely to be a first salvo of a reinvigorated al-Shabab than the last gasp of a defeated organization,” said J. Peter Pham, head of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council. “While there have been divisions within and defections from al-Shabab, my sense is that the hard-core element will actually emerge more nimble and lethal as a result of shedding those elements.”
The attack on the mall, he said, would have required a local unit to conduct reconnaissance and plan other details, suggesting that the militia has an “extensive support network” in Kenya.
Targeting the mall, Pham said, sends a “much clearer signal of the group’s resurgence, both to al-Qaeda central and other regional affiliates and to audiences from which it will now, undoubtedly, try to recruit.”
Abdi Aynte, a Somali analyst, said al-Shabab wants to “shift the front lines of the war from inside Somalia to the heart of Kenya” and trigger a public debate about the “viability” of Kenya’s intervention in Somalia.
Not all terrorism experts agreed that the attack showed al-Shabab’s strength. Juan Cole, a professor at the University of Michigan, wrote in a blog that the attack was “the act of a declining political movement that has lost enormous ground in recent years” and is “on its way to oblivion.”
Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism expert at Georgetown University, said a reemergence of al-Shabab could place new strain on U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism agencies, which have shifted resources to places such as Syria, Egypt and Mali.
“Renewed al-Qaeda-generated instability in East Africa is the last thing we need right now,” Hoffman said. “We can keep hoping that the war on terrorism and the struggle against al-Qaeda is over, but it isn’t. It’s the monster that keeps rising from the grave.”
Miller reported from Washington. Craig Whitlock, Anne Gearan, Ernesto Londoño and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.