NAIROBI, KENYA – Ten to fifteen gunmen of the Somalia al Qaeda-associated al Shabaab faction took hostages in Nairobi’s Westgate Mall. The Kenyan military managed to end the standoff after 70 people (by Red Cross numbers) had been killed and 175 injured. They claimed to have saved most of the hostages.
The assault on the mall occurred Saturday and the Kenyan military have laid siege to the building since. Earlier a blast thundered throughout the surrounding area followed by more gunfire and smaller explosions as military forces attempted to breach the complex.
“It is us who caused the explosion, we are trying to get in through the roof,” a security officer informed Reuters as the team was getting into position. Spokesman Colonel Cyrus Oguna didn’t comment on which side set off the explosive or on the strategy at the time.
Another office stated that the police were closing in on the gunmen while the Kenya’s Disaster Operations Centre tweeted that there was a plan in place to take the gunmen out. “This will end tonight. Our forces will prevail. Kenyans are standing firm against aggression, and we will win,” the tweet said.
The main request from al Shabaab was for Kenya to withdraw its troops from Somalia. Kenya, with the assistance of the West and Israel, has managed to run al Shabaab out of many locations of the country, weakening its influence in the country but not its ability to terrorize.
In an audio-only statement online, Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage stated, “Israelis and Kenyan forces have tried to enter Westgate by force but they could not. The Mujahideen will kill the hostages if the enemies use force.”
“As the operation gathers momentum inside #Westgate, the Mujahideen are for the 3rd day still in full control of the situation on the ground,” the group posted on Twitter.
There were conflicting numbers about the number dead with Red Cross claiming 69 and Interior Minister Lenku saying it was 59.
There were also conflicting reports on the gunmen’s strategic placing in the mall as well as where the hostages were located. President Uhuru Kenyatta mentioned that the gunmen were situated in one location—which was the account given by officials earlier in the standoff—while a soldier said they were in different locations.
The soldier’s account was supported by there still being gunfire after the security forces managed to breach the mall and free the captives. “They’re in the cinema hall, with hostages. There are other terrorists in different parts,” he said. “They are on the upper floors, the third and fourth floors.”
Even after losing a nephew in the weekend violence, President Kenyatta vowed to stick to the “war on terrorism” in the region. “I assure Kenyans that we have as good a chance to successfully neutralize the terrorists as we can hope for. We will punish the masterminds swiftly and painfully.”
Kenyan law enforcement has been hunting al Shabaab for awhile no and have met with some success. They captured London native Jermaine Grant and will be trying him on possession of explosives charges. They are also looking for a British woman, Samantha Lewthwaite, widow of a suicide bomber involved in the 7/7 London bombing of 2005.
British newspapers have called Lewthwaite the “White Widow” and some have mentioned that she could be involved in the Westgate attack. The nickname is a play on “black widow”, a term used by the Chechen militants of Russia for the widows of suicide bombers and dead terrorists. These widows often continue their dead husbands’ work by participating in bombings and assaults.
Along with Kenyans, the people killed or wounded in the violence came from many different countries: USA, Canada, China, Netherlands, Ghana, UK, and France.
The situation was so grave that the International Crime Court at The Hague allowed for Kenyan vice president William Ruto to fly home for a week to assist in handling the situation. Ruto is on trial for crimes against humanity charges for coordinating violence following a 2007 election.
President Kenyatta is scheduled to face charges later this year along the same lines. The exact charge on the two leaders involved them backing death squads.
Of the group’s power and ability to carry out effective attacks, Director Abdi Aynte of the Heritage Institute of Policy Studies in Mogadishu said, “While the group has grown considerably weaker in terms of being able to wage a conventional war, it is now ever more capable of carrying out asymmetric warfare.”
There has also been mention of internal political conflict that could have lead to the attack. Leah Farrall, a former senior intelligence analyst with the Australian Federal Police, touches on the notion that a group within the loose organization could be trying to establish more power through major displays.
“External attacks tend to happen when a group is trying to consolidate,” she said. “In recent months, you have been seeing a tremendous amount of fracturing in their domestic environment.”
Basically, the more dangerous, active, or effective at getting an organization’s message out and keeping its presence out there, the more influence a faction will gain.
Prior to the Westgate attack, the 2010 bombing in Uganda that killed 77 people watching soccer was the most recent attack large scale assault by al Shabaab. Westgate was largest assault in Nairobi and Kenya since al Qaeda’s East Africa group killed over 200 people in 1998 bombing on the US embassy.
President Barack Obama called President Kenyatta to offer his condolences for the people of Kenya.