Kenyatta declares end to siege at Nairobi’s Westgate mall

September 24, 2013

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta declared end to the crisis at a posh shopping mall in Nairobi on Tuesday, which gunmen from the Somali Islamist militia al-Shabab stormed four days earlier. The militants took hostages and killed several dozen people, and elite Kenyan forces searched for them inside the shopping mall, known as Westgate, earlier on Tuesday. A Kenyan official said the militants had joined al-Shabab, which is aligned with al-Qaeda, from all over the world, including the United States:

Sporadic gunfire was heard and smoke continued to rise from the building. Several militants from al-Shabab, a group allied with al-Qaeda, appeared dug in at the shopping center, determined to fight to the death. . . .

There has been considerable speculation about the identity of the militants and how they managed to pull off a sophisticated assault that killed at least 62 people and kept security forces at bay. Kenyan Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed said Monday that “two or three Americans” and “one Brit” were among the perpetrators of the attack.

She said in an interview with “PBS Newshour” that the Americans were 18 to 19 years old, of Somali or Arab origin and lived “in Minnesota and one other place” in the United States. The British jihadist was a woman who has “done this many times before,” Mohamed said.

U.S. officials said Monday that they were pressing to determine whether any of the assailants were American.

“But at this point we have no definitive evidence of the nationalities or identities of the perpetrators,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

Al-Shabab is a Somali militia. But Gen. Julius Karangi, chief of the Kenya Defense Forces, told reporters that the militants inside the mall were “clearly a multinational collection from all over the world,” though he did not offer details. “We are fighting global terrorism here,” Karangi said.

Sudarsan Raghavan

U.S. authorities have long been aware of al-Shabab’s recruiting efforts in Minnesota, which Post staff writer Eli Saslow described in detail in 2011:

There have been 51 homegrown jihadist plots or attacks in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001, according to law enforcement reports, and their frequency is increasing. Nowhere else is the problem of radicalization so concentrated as in [counterterrorism expert Abdirizak] Bihi’s section of downtown Minneapolis, where about 10,000 Somali immigrants live in a collection of faded apartment towers bordering the freeway. At least 25 young men have disappeared from here to fight for al-Shabab in the past three years, and dozens more are being investigated on suspicion of recruiting or fundraising on behalf of the terrorist organization. None so far have tried to attack in the United States, but intelligence gathered by law enforcement suggests that they will.

Eli Saslow

The attack on the Westgate mall is evidence of al-Shabab’s resilience, at a time when many U.S. officials had hoped the militia had been weakened:

The militant group al-Shabab has turned its energies toward regional attacks after losing power and territory in its home base of Somalia. . . .

Kenya is among the [African Union] nations that have contributed forces to a U.S.-backed campaign that since 2011 has forced al-Shabab to retreat from the Somali capital, Mogadishu, as well as other strongholds, including Kismaayo, a port city that had been a source of millions of dollars in annual tax revenue.

The losses have crippled al-Shabab as an insurgency. But analysts at the CIA and other agencies say the group’s retreat from its effort to impose Islamist rule may have prompted its leaders to divert remaining resources to plotting attacks against countries that sent troops to Somalia.

“Al-Shabab’s operational arm may be benefiting from additional resources now that the group is less preoccupied with governance,” said an American official with access to classified U.S. intelligence on the Westgate attack. “It’s really too early to say if al-Shabab’s latest attack is the beginning of a broader campaign in Kenya or a desperate attempt to compel Nairobi to withdraw its troops from Somalia.”

Greg Miller

Meanwhile, the Kenyan government waged a propaganda war with the militia via Twitter as the siege of the mall continued:

Sporadic gunfire and smoke appeared to counter statements by Kenyan officials that the bloody standoff was nearing an end. As the shooting continued, a parallel tussle unfolded on Twitter between the militants and the government, as each side tried to counter the other’s version of events.

The Somali-based, al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab militia tweeted that it was still holding hostages, who were “looking quite disconcerted but nevertheless, alive.” Another Shabab tweet said: “Mujahideen are still holding their ground #westgate.”

But Kenyan officials offered a different account, saying they believe all hostages had been released. “We’re very near the end,” Kenya’s Interior Ministry posted on Twitter at noon.

Sudarsan Raghavan

Sudarsan Raghavan, The Post’s bureau chief in Nairobi, described the experience of seeing a mall he often frequented with his family come under attack:

Over the past two decades, I have found myself in numerous war zones in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. I survived a suicide bombing in Baghdad, mortar attacks and street battles in Liberia, Libya and Yemen. In 2004, my wife and I were on vacation in Thailand when the tsunami struck, killing several hundred on our beach resort. Nor were we strangers to violence in Nairobi: in 2002, more than a dozen machete-wielding thugs attacked our house in the middle of the night.

But what unfolded Saturday felt markedly different. The war on terrorism had hit uncomfortably close to home, psychologically and physically: we live less than a mile away from the Westgate Mall.

I never expected to see two bullet-riddled corpses at the steps of the mall, at the entrance where I frequently passed through to visit an ATM or enjoy a cappuccino. I never expected to see cars pocked with bullet holes, their doors wide open, on the street I drove on several times a week. I never expected to call my wife while I was in Nairobi to tell her I was safe, or feel my eyes burning from tear gas when police tried to disperse onlookers away. Nor consider donning my flak jacket and helmet at a place where I often wore nothing more than shorts, a T-shirt and sandals.

Sudarsan Raghavan

Sixty-two people have been confirmed dead in the attack, although that number is likely to rise.

What is al-Shabab, and are they a high priority in the U.S. war on terror? Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies explains. (The Washington Post)
Max Ehrenfreund is a blogger on the Financial desk and writes for Know More and Wonkblog.
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