Two or three Americans among mall attackers
Kenyan Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed says "two or three Americans" and "one Brit" were among the militants in the Kenyan shopping mall attack.PT2M4S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2ubaq 620 349 September 24, 2013
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One of the Islamist militants wore a white turban, others black head scarves, witnesses said. Most were dressed in civilian clothes, but a few had donned camouflage fatigues. Some carried sophisticated machine guns, others wielded the AK-47 rifles widely used by African insurgents. Most of the extremists who seized the upscale mall in Nairobi were young and barked orders in English.
By Monday evening, Kenyan security forces said they controlled much of the Westgate Premier Shopping Mall, although several militants from al-Shabab appeared dug in, determined to fight to the death.
Unrest: customers run following a shoot-out between armed men and the police at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi. Photo: Reuters
With the stand-off apparently drawing to a close, there was a growing focus on the identity of the militants and how they could pull off a sophisticated assault that killed at least 62 people and keep security forces at bay for three days. Kenyan Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed said ‘‘two or three Americans’’ and ‘‘one Brit’’ were among the militants in the attack.
She said on Monday 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.
Britain's Foreign Office is investigating a suggested link to female British terrorism suspect Samantha Lewthwaite, nicknamed the "White Widow" by the UK press. Lewthwaite is the wanted widow of one of the suicide bombers who together killed more than 50 civilians on London's transport system in 2005. She is also sought in connection with an alleged plot to attack hotels and restaurants in Kenya.
Nairobi shopping mall attack: GRAPHIC IMAGES WARNING
A Kenyan soldier inside the Westgate shopping mall. Photo: AFP
Asked if the dead woman was Lewthwaite, Kenyan intelligence officers have said: "We don't know."
US officials said on 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 General Julius Karangi, chief of the Kenya Defence Forces, told reporters that the jihadists 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.
On Monday, Kenyan security forces, assisted by American, European and Israeli advisers, intensified operations to end the crisis.
Police helicopters hovered over the mall. At midday, loud explosions and sporadic bursts of gunfire could be heard emanating from the shopping centre. By the late afternoon, large plumes of smoke were rising from the area. A senior Interior Ministry official, Joseph Ole Lenku, said the militants had set fire to one of the shops in the mall, the Nakumatt supermarket, as a tactical diversion.
Many Kenyans have questioned why it has taken so long to end the siege. Senior Kenyan government officials have said that security forces were being cautious to avoid the deaths of innocent civilians. On Monday morning, a spokesman for al-Shabab reportedly threatened to execute hostages if security forces stormed the mall. ‘‘The mujahideen will kill the hostages if the enemies use force,’’ Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage said in an audio statement posted online.
The death toll released by the government stood at 62 civilians, with more than 175 injured. It was the deadliest attack in Kenya since the 1998 bombing of the US Embassy in Nairobi. An earlier figure of 69 deaths, provided by the Kenyan Red Cross, was later revised downward. Sixty-three people were missing, according to the Red Cross, suggesting that the militants still held hostages inside the mall. Kenyan officials said 10 bodies had been pulled out of the mall over the previous 24 hours.
Al-Shabab has said the carnage was in retaliation for Kenya sending troops to fight in Somalia, where they remain a key defence for the Western-backed Mogadishu government against the militia.
Lenku, the Interior Ministry official, said that ‘‘almost all of the hostages have been evacuated", and officials said three of the estimated 10 to 15 militants were killed in the stand-off. Ten people in Kenya have been detained in connection with the investigation, officials said.
Ten members of the security forces were injured. ‘‘Our resolve to defend our country has never been higher,’’ Lenku said.
But late on Monday night, al-Shabab used Twitter to dispute the government’s assertion that it had seized control of all the floors in the mall. ‘‘Our Mujahideen are in full control of #westgate. May Allah bless them,’’ the militia said. Attached to the tweet was a photo showing armed fighters in black head scarves patrolling the top floor of the mall, but it was not clear when the picture was taken.
Twitter postings on Sunday that purportedly were from al-Shabab described several of the jihadists as American. But the militant group said on Monday - on a different Twitter handle, which was verified by the SITE Monitoring Service, which tracks statements by extremist groups - that it had not sent the earlier messages. Nor had it released the names or any other details about the attackers, it said.
President Barack Obama said on Monday that the United States stood with Kenya’s leadership ‘‘against this terrible outrage that’s occurred".
‘‘We will provide them with whatever law enforcement help that is necessary,’’ he said
The US government is contributing ‘‘technical support and some equipment to assist Kenyan security forces’’ in responding to the attack, a State Department official said on Monday, speaking on the condition of anonymity. The department said American military personnel based at the US Embassy in Nairobi have been helping the Kenyans.
George Little, a Pentagon spokesman, said no US troops have been sent to Kenya to provide assistance.
The involvement of the United States, Israel and other countries underscores the West’s concerns about al-Shabab’s reach. Numerous foreigners have joined the militia, whose name in Arabic means ‘‘The Youth’’, including several dozen Americans, many of Somali origin, according to counterterrorism analysts.
Reports that the gunmen spoke English suggest that they were not natives of Somalia, where citizens generally speak Somali.
The militants were using ‘‘big-calibre guns’’. said Frank Musungu, a Kenyan army warrant officer who was at the mall when the militants stormed it on Saturday. ‘‘There was one woman among them. She had an AK-47.’’
Foreigners have reached high ranks in the Somali extremist group. One senior field commander, Omar Shafik Hammami, an Alabama native who went by the name Abu Mansoor al-Amriki, starred in propaganda rap videos to attract Western recruits. He was reportedly killed last month by his comrades after a falling out with the militia’s top leadership.
The foreign jihadists were the militia’s main link to al-Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan and have been central players in some of the militia’s most gruesome attacks. In September 2009, a Somali American from Seattle drove a truck bomb into an African Union base in Somalia, killing 21 peacekeepers.
Even though many US counterterrorism officials and analysts say al-Shabab does not have the capability to strike the United States, some US politicians are concerned. Republican congressman Peter King, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview with ABC’s This Week that he assumed that law enforcement agencies are looking at ways to prevent a similar attack in the United States.
‘‘We know there’s probably still 15-20 Somali-Americans who are still active over there,’’ King said. ‘‘The concern would be if any of them have come back to the United States and would use those abilities here in the United States.’’