Ten to 15 militants from the Somalia-based militant group Al-Shabaab, possibly including one woman, launched an attack on the four-story Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya midday on Saturday. The gunmen utilized small arms and explosives, reportedly grenades, to storm the mall from store to store, shooting people and taking as many as 30 people hostage. Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack through its Twitter account, claiming it was targeting non-Muslims in retribution to Kenya’s military presence in Somalia where they have been fighting the insurgency alongside African Union forces since 2011. On Sunday, Kenyan security forces attempted an assault on the attackers by entering the mall’s supermarket. Three Kenyan commandos were reportedly killed as they moved in on militants hiding in a dark corner of the mall which appears to have been a trap. Kenyan military officials have not confirmed those deaths, stating soldiers have only been wounded at this time. Additionally, about five to 10 hostages were allegedly killed that night, either in the crossfire or by execution.
Some hostages have been released, but it is unclear how many remain held by militants. The attackers have refused to negotiate with the Kenyans, demanding that the country withdraw its troops from Somalia. The Kenyan military attempted to end the hostage situation Sunday night, but an offensive continued this afternoon as security forces moved in for a major assault. Troops are struggling to capture or kill the militants as they remain holed up with military grade weapons; however, authorities state most of the mall’s areas are under military control. Kenyan troops have reportedly been joined by Israeli military advisors as well as American, British and French security services.
The death toll of the now three-day siege is over 60, with at least 175 injured. Most of the dead are said to be Kenyans, while foreigners from Britain, France, Ghana, Canada, China and India were also killed. Five Americans have been injured. About 1,000 civilians have been rescued since the attack began. Al-Shabaab claims that three Americans were among the attackers, as well as two from Somalia and one each from Canada, Finland, Kenya and the United Kingdom. The FBI is working to confirm whether or not these claims are true. Kenyan authorities reportedly killed three of the attackers, and several witnesses claimed they saw some attackers flee the mall during the initial phases of the attack. Kenya’s Interior Ministry stated it had arrested 10 people on suspicion of involvement in the attack at an airport.
The Westgate Mall was likely chosen as it is a soft target that if attacked would produce mass casualties and generate significant media coverage. Additionally, al-Shabaab has long proclaimed its desire to attack Westerners, who frequently visit the mall. The siege marks the deadliest terrorist attack in Kenya since the 1998 U.S. embassy bombing in Nairobi which killed over 200 people. This latest attack signals a shift by terrorists in the area from large-scale suicide bombings to small unit assault tactics. These include the use of small arms in conjunction with explosives to defeat security and storm a facility. This type of tradecraft has been utilized in other recent, high-profile attacks including the June 2011 assault on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan (at least 21 killed), and the 2008 four-day siege at soft targets in Mumbai that left over 160 people dead.
Al-Shabaab is a terrorist organization that seeks to establish an Islamic state under Sharia law in Somalia. The group has been losing its influence and territory in Somalia through a military offensive by African Union and Kenyan forces. The latest attack could potentially signal a wider offensive by al-Shabaab in Kenya. The attack also highlights that the group is becoming more sophisticated due to its relationships with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula based in Yemen and Nigeria’s Islamist insurgency, Boko Haram. Al-Shabaab is assessed to have strengthened its capability through the sharing of tactics, techniques, financing and training with al Qaeda’s affiliates and linked groups.
The siege also raises concerns of al-Shabaab’s increasing ability to strike outside of Somalia’s borders. In 2010, the group first showcased this ability through attacks on two restaurants in Kampala, Uganda as crowds gathered to watch the World Cup finals. The attack, which left 74 people dead, was in retaliation for Uganda’s contribution to the African Union peacekeeping forces in Somalia. Though al-Shabaab has mainly been focused locally, they are still carrying out a Somalian agenda by targeting foreign countries contributing to the peacekeeping mission there. Additionally, al-Shabaab’s claims that Americans are among the mall attackers have raised concerns of the group’s ability to recruit Westerners. Of the 5,000 al-Shabaab fighters, there are about 15 to 20 active American militants with the group. However, these claims are still under investigation by the FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has no indication that al-Shabaab has any plans to attack the homeland at this time.