Even as gunfire from Nairobi's Westgate mall siege continued, Kenyan government officials say that nearly all hostages trapped since Saturday have been rescued from the shopping complex, hours after special forces undertook a final assault on Al Shabab militants.
“The number of hostages in the building is minimal if ... there are any left in the building,” said Kenya’s cabinet secretary in charge of Internal Security, Joseph Ole Lenku, adding that Kenyan forces were in control of all four floors. The official death toll is now 62, including several diplomats and relatives of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.
The attacks, claimed by Al Shabab, a Somalia-based Islamist radical group whose name means "the youth," began Saturday when cars of men carrying guns pulled up to the entrance of the Westgate, killing and taking hostages, and unleashing two days of mayhem and bloodshed that have shocked Kenya.
Kenyan forces, supported by FBI and special Israeli forces, battled the 10 to 15 militants for a third day Monday, amid dramatic explosions and smoke. More than 1,000 people were rescued during the attack, whose brutality has shocked the nation and attracted international condemnation.
The operation is widely being seen as both a payback to Kenya for driving Al Shabab out of urban centers in Somalia, and a publicity initiative to showcase the group's international character, even as its fortunes have been on the wane in its area of principal concern, which is Somalia proper.
In 2010, the group claimed responsibility for bombing a soccer stadium in Uganda, killing more than 70 people. Kenya said it was forced to send troops into Somalia in 2011 after the militants carried out a series of attacks inside Kenya's borders. Kenya's 4,000 forces have since been integrated into an African Union mission in Somalia.
Al Shabab has suffered a series of defeats, largely at the hands of Kenyan troops or their local proxies, who have driven the militants out of a key stronghold, the Port of Kismayo. But the new Somali government accuses Kenya of creating a new proxy state called Jubaland along the common border of the two states.
“Kenya has done a good job in Somalia. They had been neutral up until 2011. The longer they stay in Somalia, the more they will be seen as an occupying force,” says Abdiwahab Shiekh Abdisamad, a Nairobi, Kenya-based expert on Horn of Africa issues.
On Monday, Al Shabab claimed via Twitter that three of the attackers were America-based, with two of them coming from Minnesota, whose Twin City area has one of the largest Somali communities in the United States, with more than 80,000 people.
The Minnesotans are said to be Ahmed Mohammed Isse of St. Paul and Abdifatah Osman Keenadiid of Minneapolis. Another attacker is Mustafe Noorudiin of Kansas. The militants also supposedly include members from Canada, Finland and Britain. Early eyewitness accounts of the militants by Kenyans suggest they are mostly of ethnic Somali descent.
The FBI is investigating the claims, according to several news sources, and bureau spokesmen in several parts of the US, including Boston, said it was too early to confirm reports, after a Portland media outlet called to confirm whether one of the attackers was from Maine, as Al Shabab allegedly reported.
Still, “Al Shabab is no longer a Somalia problem or a Somalia baby. It is now an international problem,” says Mr. Abdisamad.
The Westgate mall is an upscale complex of cafes, shops, and food courts frequented by officials from foreign missions and the United Nations complex a couple miles away. In addition to Al Shabab's stated anger over Kenya's role in Somalia, commentators have noted that Westgate is partly Israeli-owned.
Al Shabab said through a Twitter post that it conducted the attack. Earlier reports and some survivors said the attackers included women. But Mr. Lenku said these were men who had dressed as women to camouflage themselves.
Al Shabab's Twitter account, started last winter, included the statement: “War is war! We promise Kenyans will pay the ultimate price like Ethiopians did in 1998, Americans did 1993… 4000 Kenyans barricading themselves behind our children and women. Our Mujahideen will wipe Kenya off map.”
Officials at the social media firm reportedly shut down the militant group's account on Sunday night.
According to Abdisamad, many of the fighters involved in the attack were not from Somalia, and the group's high-profile attack is being done to give it publicity needed in its own ranks and abroad.
“Al Shabab has a network of supporters from around the world,” he said. “But I think they are being defeated and they are now looking for relevance. What we are seeing are last kick of a dying horse.”
A report from the All Africa website cites clerics calling the attacks "criminal" and not "jihadi" and notes an Islamic conference on extremism held in Somalia last week where 126 religious leaders from Somalia condemned Al Shabab as lacking in Islamic "correctness," and the "wrong path," and urged Somalis not to join it.
Today The Daily Beast ran a piece from Jamie Dettmer offering that some counterterrorism experts are concerned that some ethnic Somalis from Minneapolis-St. Paul could have been in the attack, since others from the Somali community there have traveled to and been killed in the Horn of Africa. The Daily Beast included this reporting:
This year, Al-Shabab posted a 40-minute recruitment video, “Minnesota’s Martyrs: The Path to Paradise,” that follows three Americans from the Twin Cities as they go to training camps in Somalia and die for the jihadist cause. One of the young men urges others to follow, saying, “This is the real Disneyland. You need to come here and join us!” The narrator praises the trio as the “Minnesotan martyrs” whose “decisive moment” came when they were martyred in a jihad against foreign troops in Somalia.
One of the three featured was Troy Kastigar, a convert to Islam who was killed in Mogadishu in September 2009, about 10 months after arriving from Minnesota, according to the video. Three other Somali-Americans—Abdisalan Hussein Ali, Farah Mohamed Beledi, and Shirwa Ahmed—became Al-Shabab suicide bombers, dying in blasts in Mogadishu in recent years.