Fifteen years after al-Qaeda’s attack on the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, one of its burgeoning affiliates in Africa left its macabre calling card at a popular mall — and left myriad concerns about how Washington plans to address this unchecked terrorist growth.
After all, 1998 was an alarm that preceded the 2001 attacks, an assault on two U.S. installations in Africa as al-Qaeda ramped up its ambitions, capabilities and reach.
Several hours after the attack began, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said in a TV address that at least 39 had been killed and 150 were injured in the Westgate Premier Shopping Mall as a hazy hostage situation dragged on. The dead, the president said, included members of his own family.
“We’ve overcome terrorist attacks before. We’ve fought courageously & defeated them within and outside our borders. We will defeat them again,” Kenyatta said.
Al-Shabaab quickly took responsibility for the noontime attack, confirming initial witness reports that the gunmen spoke Somali or Arabic. “HSM has on numerous occasions warned the #Kenyan government that failure to remove its forces from Somalia would have severe consequences,” the terror group said, promising to release recordings later of the attack.
“Only Kuffar were singled out for this attack. All Muslims inside #Westgate were escorted out by the Mujahideen before beginning the attack,” Al-Shabaab added.
Muslim activists on Twitter cried foul at this claim, insignificant at best because Kenya is 83 percent Christian and just over 11 percent Muslim. Some photos from the scene showed a handful of Muslim shoppers hiding and fleeing along with everyone else. But a witness told BBC that some Muslims were allowed to leave with their hands up as the gunmen claimed they were there to “rescue ” them, then shot two other people.
“The correspondent in Nairobi for the Economist, Daniel Howden told the BBC he spoke to one man with a Christian first name but a Muslim-sounding surname who managed to escape the attackers by putting his thumb over his first name on his ID,” the BBC reported. “However, the man told Mr Howden that an Indian man standing next to him who was asked for the name of the Prophet Muhammad’s mother was shot dead when he was unable to answer.”
“They asked people ‘Are you a Muslim?’ and anyone who answered ‘no’ got a bullet,” Moshe Noiman, an Israeli living in Nairobi who witnessed the attack, told Israel’s Channel 10 news.
It was an especially callous assault as it occurred during the filming of a children’s cooking show under a parking lot canopy. Photos showed people crumpled on the ground in blood at the base of cheerful tables holding pots and mini-ovens as kids wailed. People clutched theirs or others’ children and fled for dear life.
Kenyan police said one gunman who was arrested died of his wounds, and other gunmen were cornered in the 350,000-square-foot-mall housing more than 80 stores. Al-Shabaab said it was in contact with its fighters as they kept going at the 10-hour mark. Gunshots were heard after the sun went down and Al-Shabaab was kicked off Twitter for the third time after complaints.
Gideon Mbuvi, a Nairobi senator, told local media that Israel’s Mossad was assisting Kenyan police. Those on the scene also reported grenade explosions, about 10 gunmen working the mall in pairs, and gunmen targeting foreigners and “westernized” Kenyans.
The State Department confirmed that Americans were among those hit as it advised U.S. citizens in the country to shelter in place.
“We have reports of American citizens injured in the attack, and the U.S. Embassy is actively reaching out to provide assistance,” said spokeswoman Marie Harf. “Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment on American citizens at this time. The Embassy is also in contact with local authorities and has offered assistance.”
National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden released a statement condemning the attack.
“We extend our deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of those who have been killed or injured, including the American citizens who were injured and the staff of our Embassy in Kenya who were tragically affected by this attack. We also commend the courageous response by Kenyan security personnel and first responders, including the Kenyan Red Cross, who stepped forward to help their fellow citizens,” Hayden said.
“The perpetrators of this heinous act must be brought to justice, and we have offered our full support to the Kenyan Government to do so. We will continue to stand with the Kenyan people in their efforts to confront terrorism in all its forms, including the threat posed by al-Shabaab. This cowardly act against innocent civilians will not shake our resolve.”
This was in too many ways a perfect target for Al-Shabaab. The upscale four-story mall, like its kin in America, has detailed maps of each floor posted online as a helpful guide for shoppers. The clientele fleeing from the chaos resembled an American melting pot: Africans, Americans, Asians, Europeans, taking each other’s hands to escape danger and comfort one another.
It was a chilling reminder that al-Qaeda affiliates are growing unchecked in North Africa, and an attack that came just after Boko Haram killed 159 Nigerians in two roadside attacks this week: putting on army uniforms, stopping cars at checkpoints, dragging people out of their cars and killing them.
Last summer, U.S. Africa Command noted that Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was inviting Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab to come train and join forces in a chunk of terrorist-controlled territory the size of Texas. The French pushed al-Qaeda out of some of its Mali territory, but the strength of the allied groups remains.
The State Department has conceded AQIM “played a role” in the Benghazi attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
At a December hearing about this unholy alliance, Subcommittee on African Affairs Chairman Chris Coons (D-Del.) noted that U.S. policy in the region might not be “forward-leaning enough.”
Coons said AQIM is reported to be “the best-funded, best-equipped, most potentially lethal A.Q. affiliate in the world” with sophisticated weaponry (including support from Iran) and juicy revenue from drug trafficking and kidnapping. They’re also believed to receive support and funding from Algerian expats and AQIM members around the world.
In late May, members of Congress received the State Department’s country-by-country annual report on international terrorism today with a warning that sponsorship of terror by Iran and Hezbollah has surged to “a tempo unseen since the 1990s” with attacks spanning three continents.
The report noted al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s plunge into Mali, Boko Haram’s continued attacks in Nigeria, and Al-Shabaab’s “asymmetric tactics” after being driven out of some southern population centers in Somalia.
It came on the heels of a strategy speech by President Obama that largely advocated a return to pre-9/11 threat thinking, describing the new peril as “more diffuse.” The president didn’t mention Iran once in the lengthy counterterrorism strategy address at the National Defense University. “In some cases, we continue to confront state-sponsored networks like Hezbollah that engage in acts of terror to achieve political goals,” Obama said.
“And while we are vigilant for signs that these groups may pose a transnational threat, most are focused on operating in the countries and regions where they are based,” the president added.
In July, Al-Shabaab claimed that it killed a veteran CIA official who oversaw the agency’s September 2001 plunge into Afghanistan as well as another CIA operative as U.S. officials accompanied an African Union convoy from the airport in Mogadishu.
Repeated attempts by PJM to get government confirmation or denial of Shabaab’s claims were unsuccessful, and there was no public mention of the claim or of the attack by the administration.
Al-Shabaab recently released a PR video targeted at Somali-Americans in Minnesota, trying to lure them to jihad as more than two dozen have already done so through the state’s “terror pipeline.”
On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud in Washington. The day before, the U.S. pledged $69 million to a “new deal” compact forged by the EU to help build up the failed Somali state.
Interestingly, Kerry downgraded the al-Qaeda affiliate to “tribal terror.”
“The United States, obviously, has been engaged in helping Somalia fight back against tribal terror and the challenges to the cohesion of the state of Somalia,” he said. Al-Shabaab officially became a part of al-Qaeda in an agreement last year.
“I’d just say that Somalia is working hard now to create its own ability to defend itself, to defend the state. We will continue to work. There is a United Nations mission there. We are committed to both – to the independent ability of the state of Somalia as well as the United Nations mission to help it in this transition,” Kerry added.
Mohamud also met with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel over at the Pentagon.
“Secretary Hagel broadly discussed the importance of continued progress on security reform and the importance of a stable and secure Somalia to the region,” said the readout of the meeting from press secretary George Little. “Secretary Hagel and President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud expressed their appreciation for both countries’ commitment to normalizing and deepening the U.S.-Somali relationship, and agreed to continue efforts on military cooperation.”
Mocking the multi-million-dollar rewards the U.S. is offering to capture the group’s commanders, Al-Shabaab put a bounty on Obama’s head last year: 10 camels.