Gruesome Mall Attack Highlights Growing al-Qaeda in Africa Threat

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."