Lori Hickey

The crisis at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya entered its fourth day this morning as Kenyan forces combed the mall to take out the remaining militants and defuse explosives planted throughout the facility. Three floors of the mall had collapsed, trapping bodies of victims and terrorists and complicating efforts to secure the building. However, in a national address later in the day, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta proclaimed that the siege was over. He added that 61 civilians and six Kenyan soldiers were killed, and 200 people were left wounded. Those killed include foreigners from Britain, France, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, Peru, India, Ghana, South Africa and China. Kenyatta also announced that five militants had been “killed with gunfire,” while 11 others were taken into custody. It was also declared that all hostages held by the assailants were freed.

Al-Shabaab initially claimed that Americans were among the attackers. This was reiterated by Kenya’s Foreign Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon who said the group may include “two or three Americans” who are of Somali or Arab origin, 18 or 19 years of age and had spent time in Minnesota and “one other place.” Shirdon also stated a British woman was involved in the attack, fueling speculation of the possible involvement of Samantha Lewthwaite, the widow of one of the suicide bombers in the July 7, 2005 attack in London. The U.S. State Department said there is not enough evidence at this time to confirm the identities and nationalities of the attackers.

Al-Shabaab has been known for its ability to recruit Westerners to join their fight in Somalia. About 15 Americans have died fighting with the group, four of which are believed to have been suicide bombers in Somalia. American-born Omar Hammami held a leadership position in the organization for some time before a major fallout with al-Shabaab’s senior leader and his subsequent death earlier this month. The New America Foundation says 22 residents from Minnesota have funded or fought with al-Shabaab during the past four years. Over the past three years, the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department have been making serious efforts to crack down on American support for al-Shabaab, focusing in Minnesota, through Operation Rhino. If the latest claims are proven true, this could have broader implications for U.S. national security as these efforts will have to be bolstered. Additionally, this would add to existing fears that those radicalized and trained in conflict areas may return home with the ability to carry out attacks.

Malls and commercial centers that attract large crowds of people are typically identified as soft targets, which are desirable targets of attack due to the potential for mass casualties, economic damage and international media coverage. Malls and commercial shopping districts have been targeted by terrorists domestically and abroad in the past decade:

The Westgate Mall has a 24/7 security operation with security guards that carefully inspect every car that enters the premises. There are many questions regarding how the gunmen were able to infiltrate the highly-secured facility; however, these types of attacks can be difficult to prevent. Security teams can limit the impact of a potential small arms attack through preparation and proper training. Security directors should review and update their existing emergency response and crisis management plans. These plans should be exercised to identify shortcomings and train employees. They should also be provided to local authorities for their review, so they become familiar with the facility.

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