Why terrorists struck at upscale Kenyan mall

The Somali terrorist group Al Shabab has said the attack, which killed at least 39 people, is in retribution for Kenyan troops' presence in Somalia. 

Ben Curtis/AP
A police officer takes cover outside a mall in Nairobi, Kenya, as gunmen attack the mall.

Kenyan officials said Saturday they had tightened security across the country in the wake of a terrorist attack that has underscored the challenges Kenya faces as it tries to rein in the Al Qaeda-linked Al Shabab group next door in Somalia.

The attack on Nairobi's upscale Westgate shopping mall killed at least 39 people and wounded about 150. It has left many citizens fearing for their security as the military and police continued to battle gunmen more than 10 hours after the attack began, and rekindled memories of recent grenade attacks on churches, public places, and police installations that Kenyan officials have blamed on the terrorist group. 

The Islamist Al Shabab, which had recently threatened an attack, saying that Kenya should be prepared to mourn soon, took responsibility through a Twitter post.

“The Mujahideen entered #Westgate Mall today at around noon and are still inside the mall, fighting the #Kenyan Kuffar [nonbelievers] inside their own turf,” the group said.

Since 2011, when Kenyan troops went into Somalia following cross-border attacks on its nationals, foreign aid workers, and tourists, Al Shabab has been accused of numerous attacks inside Kenya. But the group has never attempted an attack of this magnitude.  

Armed terrorists entered Nairobi's upscale Westgate shopping mall, which is often frequented by UN officials and staff from foreign missions, around midday. They started throwing grenades and firing automatic weapons, sending shoppers fleeing in all directions. Some shoppers managed to escape to safety, but unconfirmed reports say the gunmen are holding some people hostage.

“They shot people like goats. They stood on the door and fired the shots one after another,” said one woman who survived the ordeal.

This attack is the biggest since 1998, when the Al Qaeda network bombed the US embassy in Nairobi, killing more than 200 people. In 2002, terrorists attacked an Israeli-owned hotel in the coastal city of Mombasa, killing 15 people.

Kenya's government moved quickly to try to reassure Kenyans. “Terrorism is a philosophy of cowards … we have defeated them within the borders and outside and we will defeat,” President Uhuru Kenyatta, who said he lost relatives in the attack, said in a live broadcast. “I urge all Kenyans to stand together and see this dark moment through.”

Senior interior security ministry official Mutea Iringo said security had been heightened at all shopping malls across the country. “We want to assure Kenyans that the government will not relent in the war against these armed criminals,” Mr. Iringo told a news conference.

Nairobi Police chief Benson Kibue said the attack involved about 10 militants. A citizen told the media that a relative trapped in the mall had told her that the assault was led by a woman, who vowed not to surrender at all costs.

Al Shabab, meanwhile, drew a clear line to Kenya's involvement in Somalia and the attack at Westgate.

“What Kenyans are witnessing at #Westgate is retributive justice for crimes committed by their military,” the group said. 

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