NAIROBI – One of the Islamist militants wore a white turban, others black headscarves, witnesses said. Most were dressed in civilian clothes, but a few had donned camouflage fatigues. Some carried sophisticated machine guns, others wielded the AK-47 rifles widely used by African insurgents. Most of the extremists who seized the upscale mall in Nairobi were young and barked orders in English.
By Monday evening, Kenyan security forces said they controlled much of the upscale Westgate Mall, although several militants from al-Shabab, a group allied with al-Qaida, appeared dug in, determined to fight to the death.
With the standoff apparently drawing to a close, there was a growing focus on the identity of the militants and how they could pull off a sophisticated assault that killed at least 62 people and keep security forces at bay for three days. Kenyan Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed said “two or three Americans” and “one Brit” were among the militants in the attack.
She said in an interview Monday with “PBS Newshour” that the Americans were 18 to 19 years old, of Somali or Arab origin and lived “in Minnesota and one other place” in the United States. The British jihadist was a woman who has “done this many times before,” Mohamed said.
U.S. officials said Monday that they were pressing to determine whether any of the assailants were American.
“But at this point we have no definitive evidence of the nationalities or identities of the perpetrators,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Al-Shabab is a Somali militia. But Gen. Julius Karangi, chief of the Kenya Defense Forces, told reporters that the jihadists inside the mall were “clearly a multinational collection from all over the world” — though he did not offer details. “We are fighting global terrorism here,” Karangi said.
On Monday, Kenyan security forces, assisted by American, European and Israeli advisers, intensified operations to end the crisis.
Police helicopters hovered over the mall. At midday, loud explosions and sporadic bursts of gunfire could be heard emanating from the shopping center. By the late afternoon, large plumes of smoke were rising from the area. A senior Interior Ministry official, Joseph Ole Lenku, said the militants had set fire to one of the shops in the mall, the Nakumatt supermarket, as a tactical diversion.
Many Kenyans have questioned why it has taken so long to end the siege. Senior Kenyan government officials have said that security forces were being cautious to avoid the deaths of innocent civilians. On Monday morning, a spokesman for al-Shabab reportedly threatened to execute hostages if security forces stormed the mall. “The mujahedeen will kill the hostages if the enemies use force,” Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage said in an audio statement posted online.
The death toll released by the government stood at 62 civilians, with more than 175 injured. It was the deadliest attack in Kenya since the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi. An earlier figure of 69 deaths, provided by the Kenyan Red Cross, was later revised downward. Sixty-three people were missing, according to the Red Cross, suggesting that the militants still held hostages inside the mall. Kenyan officials said 10 bodies had been pulled out of the mall over the previous 24 hours.
Al-Shabab has said the carnage was in retaliation for Kenya sending troops to fight in Somalia, where they remain a key defense for the Western-backed Mogadishu government against the militia.
Lenku, the Interior Ministry official, said that “almost all of the hostages have been evacuated,” and officials said three of the estimated 10 to 15 militants were killed in the standoff. Ten people in Kenya have been detained in connection with the investigation, officials said.
Ten members of the security forces were injured. “Our resolve to defend our country has never been higher,” Lenku said.
But late Monday night, al-Shabab used Twitter to dispute the government’s assertion that it had seized control of all the floors in the mall. “Our Mujahideen are in full control of #westgate. May Allah bless them,” the militia said. Attached to the tweet was a photo showing armed fighters in black headscarves patrolling the top floor of the mall, but it was not clear when the picture was taken.
Twitter postings on Sunday that purportedly were from al-Shabab described several of the jihadists as American. But the militant group said Monday — on a different Twitter handle, which was verified by the SITE Monitoring Service, which tracks statements by extremist groups — that it had not sent the earlier messages. Nor had it released the names or any other details about the attackers, it said.
U.S. President Barack Obama said Monday that the United States stood with Kenya’s leadership “against this terrible outrage that’s occurred.”
“We will provide them with whatever law enforcement help that is necessary,” he said
The U.S. government is contributing “technical support and some equipment to assist Kenyan security forces” in responding to the attack, a State Department official said Monday, speaking on the condition of anonymity. The department said American military personnel based at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi have been helping the Kenyans.
George Little, a Pentagon spokesman, said no U.S. troops have been sent to Kenya to provide assistance.
The involvement of the United States, Israel and other countries underscores the West’s concerns about al-Shabab’s reach. Numerous foreigners have joined the militia, whose name in Arabic means “The Youth,” including several dozen Americans, many of Somali origin, according to counterterrorism analysts.
Reports that the gunmen spoke English suggest that they were not natives of Somalia, where citizens generally speak Somali.
The militants were using “big-caliber guns,” said Frank Musungu, a Kenyan Army warrant officer who was at the mall when the militants stormed it Saturday. “There was one woman among them. She had an AK-47.”
Foreigners have reached high ranks in the Somali extremist group. One senior field commander, Omar Shafik Hammami, an Alabama native who went by the name Abu Mansoor al-Amriki, starred in propaganda rap videos to attract Western recruits. He was reportedly killed last month by his comrades after a falling out with the militia’s top leadership.
The foreign jihadists were the militia’s main link to al-Qaida’s leadership in Pakistan and have been central players in some of the militia’s most gruesome attacks. In September 2009, a Somali-American from Seattle drove a truck bomb into an African Union base in Somalia, killing 21 peacekeepers.
Even though many U.S. counterterorism officials and analysts say al-Shabab does not have the capability to strike the United States, some U.S. politicians are concerned. Republican Rep. Peter King, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview with ABC’s “This Week” that he assumed that law enforcement agencies are looking at ways to prevent a similar attack in the United States.
“We know there’s probably still 15-20 Somali-Americans who are still active over there,” King said. “The concern would be if any of them have come back to the United States and would use those abilities here in the United States.”
Details about the identities of the victims continued to trickle out Monday. They included Kofi Awoonor, a well-known Ghanaian poet, professor and former diplomat; a retired tropical disease specialist from Peru; the president of a football club in Kenya; a Canadian diplomat; and a 33-year-old Dutch researcher who worked for the Clinton Health Access Initiative and had just earned a degree from Harvard University, according to the Associated Press.
“We lost one of our foundation’s people there, one of our health access workers who was a wonderful Dutch nurse who was in Nairobi because she was about to have a baby,” former President Bill Clinton told “PBS Newshour.” He added: “She and the baby’s father were just strolling through the mall. It’s tragic.”
The father, an Australian architect who works in Africa, also was killed in the attack, the AP reported.