Al-Shabaab, who have pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda, used to control large parts of Somalia, where the imposed Islamic fundamentalism in their areas. But Al-Shabaab have increased the operations in Kenya, especially after Kenya sent thousands of troops into Somalia in 2011 to chase them away from its borders and then kept those troops there as part of a larger African Union mission to pacify Somalia. Al-Shabaab have attacked churches in eastern Kenya, mosques in Nairobi and government outposts along the Kenya-Somalia border. But in the past two years, the African Union forces, including the Kenyans, have pushed Al-Shabaab out of most of their strongholds. Until yesterday.
The mall, called Westgate, is a symbol of Kenya’s rising prosperity. It is an upscale five-story building with glass elevators and some of the most expensive shops in town. It is a place for a power where Kenyans can buy expensive cups of frozen yogurt and plates of sushi, a place to catch a movie, or bring your children for ice cream. On Saturdays, it is especially crowded. US officials have long warned that Nairobi’s malls were ripe targets for terrorists, especially Westgate, because a cafe on the ground floor, is owned by Israelis. Ilana Stein, a spokeswoman for Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the attack in fact took place near the ArtCaffe, an Israeli-owned coffee shop and bakery popular with foreigners. Ms. Stein, however, believes that Israelis had not been specifically targeted.
A confidential United Nations security report on Saturday described the attack as “a complex, two-pronged assault” with two squads of gunmen dashing into the mall from different floors at the same time and opening fire. Witnesses described attackers using AK-47 and G-3 assault rifles and throwing grenades. Fred Ngoga Gateretse, an official with the African Union said, “Believe me, these guys were good shooters”. . . . You could tell they were trained.” Several witnesses said the attackers had shouted for Muslims to run away while they picked off other shoppers, executing them one by one. In the end, some 72 people killed, including women and children, and hundreds wounded. Government officials said the wounded ranged in age from 2 to 78.
Early Sunday, the government said that the mall’s upper levels had been secured and the gunmen contained in one place. A standoff with the attackers, who were reported to be heavily armed and holding an unknown number of hostages remains unresolved.