Somalia’s al-Shabab claims Nairobi Westgate Kenya attack
A senior figure in the Somali militant group al-Shabab has told the BBC it carried out a deadly attack on a shopping centre in neighbouring Kenya. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said 39 people had been killed, including some of his family, and 150 were injured. The operation to secure the mall and catch the gunmen was ongoing, he said in a national TV address.
Al-Shabab, which has links to al-Qaeda, said the attack was in response to Kenya’s presence in Somalia.
There are about 4,000 Kenyan troops in southern Somalia, where they have been fighting the militants since 2011. On its Twitter feed, al-Shabab said it was behind what it called the “Westgate spectacle”. In his TV address, Mr Kenyatta said security forces were “in the process of neutralising the attackers and securing the mall”.
Kenya has about 4,000 troops in southern Somalia. They intervened in 2011 following attacks and kidnappings in northern Kenya near the Somali border. The Kenyans were subsequently integrated into a larger African Union (AU) force of 17,000 soldiers. It has a UN mandate to protect the weak Somali government. In practice this means the AU force – known as Amisom – attack al-Shabab where they can. But al-Shabab still control at least half of southern Somalia.
Al-Shabab respond to Amisom by mounting hit and run attacks. They say Amisom are invaders stopping their legitimate vision of creating an Islamic State. Here in Kismayo, for example, the airport comes under regular attack by small arms fire suspected to come from al-Shabaab positions. The Kenyan army responds with heavier weapons to chase the attackers away.
He went on: “We shall hunt down the perpetrators wherever they run to. We shall get to them and we shall punish them for this heinous crime.” He said he had “personally lost family members in the Westgate attack”. A police officer inside the shopping centre told Reuters that the remaining gunmen were barricaded inside a Nakumatt supermarket, one of Kenya’s biggest chains.
The attackers entered the Westgate centre at about 12:00 local time (09:00 GMT), throwing grenades and firing automatic weapons. A children’s day event was being held at the time. Dozens of shoppers fled; many were trapped inside. Officers have been going from shop to shop to secure the area. The BBC’s security correspondent Frank Gardner says a security source told him that at least one of the attackers was a woman who appeared to have some kind of leadership role. Our correspondent says that it is unclear how many civilians still in the mall are hostages and how many are in hiding. Some seven hours after the assault began, al-Shabab said on Twitter that its fighters were still battling Kenyan security forces inside the Westgate centre.
One gunman was arrested and died of his wounds, Kenyan officials told the BBC. Four other gunmen were arrested. Al-Shabab has claimed on its Twitter account that the Kenyan government wants to negotiate an end to the Westgate attack, but officials have told the BBC they intend to hunt the gunmen down.
Security experts are reported to have long warned that the complex, which is at least in part Israeli-owned, was in danger of being subjected to a terror attack. Some witnesses said the gunmen had told Muslims to leave and said non-Muslims would be targeted. “They came and said: ‘If you are Muslim, stand up. We’ve come to rescue you,” said Elijah Lamau. He said the Muslims left with their hands up, and then the gunmen shot two 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.
AL-SHABAB: Quick Facts
- “The Youth” in Arabic
- Formed as a radical offshoot of the Union of Islamic Courts, which controlled Mogadishu, in 2006
- Previously ran much of southern Somalia
- Lost some popular support by banning Western aid agencies during 2011 famine
- Estimated to have 7,000 to 9,000 fighters
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. The BBC’s Mark Doyle, who is embedded with the African Union (AU) mission in Somalia, says the AU troops attack al-Shabab where they can.
Al-Shabab says the AU forces are invaders stopping their legitimate vision of creating an Islamic state and respond by mounting hit-and-run attacks, our correspondent says. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said there would “undoubtedly” be British nationals caught up in Saturday’s events.He confirmed that the UK government’s emergency committee Cobra met on Saturday afternoon.
The US State Department says it has reports that American citizens were injured in what it called “a senseless act of violence”. Two French citizens were among the victims of today’s attack, the Elysee Palace said in a statement. President Francois Hollande “condemns the cowardly attack in the strongest terms and shares the pain of the family of our compatriots”, it said.
Nairobi’s mortuary superintendent, Sammy Nyongesa Jacob, told Reuters that Africans, Asians and Caucasians were among the bodies brought to the mortuary. This is one of the worst incidents in Kenya since the attack on the US embassy in August 1998.