But the assault at the Westgate Premier Shopping Mall could also bolster the image of al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda-linked Somali militia that asserted responsibility for the attack, at a time when it has been weakened by a loss of territory in Somalia and violent infighting. The attackers managed to prolong the standoff in the international spotlight for four days, highlighting their demands for Kenya to withdraw its troops from Somalia. Such a feat, analysts said, could give the militia more credibility in global jihadist circles, attracting more funds and recruits to fuel its ambitions to become a significant international jihadist group.
The storming of the mall Saturday has already been widely praised on jihadist Web sites and social media, according to the SITE Monitoring Service, which tracks statements of extremist groups. It was the deadliest attack in Kenya since the U.S. Embassy bombing in 1998 killed more than 200.
“The Westgate mall attack demonstrates that al-Shabab remains a significant regional threat and presumably will mean more support from radical sympathizers,” said EJ Hogendoorn, Africa deputy program director for the International Crisis Group, a respected think tank. “Whether this will arrest the group’s decline remains to be seen. The group has been weakened, and this is an attempt to reverse that trend.”
But analysts said a backlash against the group was also possible, especially if Somalis living in Kenya and elsewhere in the region now face greater scrutiny from authorities. The militia’s popularity in Somalia was already waning, and Somali religious leaders denounced it this month as having no place in Islam.
The official death toll of 62 civilians and six members of the security forces was reduced by one civilian Tuesday. But Kenyatta said that three floors of the mall collapsed during the operation and that bodies were trapped under the rubble. The Kenyan Red Cross said as many as 65 civilians reported to have been inside the mall remain missing, suggesting that the death toll could rise sharply in the days ahead.
Kenyatta said he could not confirm reports by Kenya’s foreign minister that American and British citizens were among the heavily armed attackers. But he promised a full accounting of what happened, adding that experts are conducting forensic tests to determine the nationalities of the assailants.
It also remained uncertain whether the security operation was completely over: Government officials said security forces were still combing the mall for any explosives or booby traps left by the militants. Witnesses said some of the attackers may have slipped out in the chaos, and the Kenyan government said 10 suspects were detained at the airport.