With dozens still missing, authorities fear toll in attack by Islamist gunmen could skyrocket

Searchers comb Kenya mall for dead

The Washington Post, AFP-JIJI, AP

Kenyan troops and rescue workers scoured the wreckage of a Nairobi shopping mall Wednesday for bodies and booby-trapped explosives after a four-day siege by Islamist gunmen left 67 dead and dozens more missing.

Rescuers wore face masks and some soldiers wrapped scarves around their mouths to cover what they said was an overpowering stench inside the Westgate Mall, once one of the capital’s most upmarket shopping centers. A large part of the mall has collapsed after heavy explosions and a fierce fire.

The bloody siege ended Tuesday with five of the attackers dead and 11 taken into custody, amid fears that the death toll could substantially rise as authorities search through the wreckage.

“As a nation, our head is bloodied but unbowed,” Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said in a televised address, declaring three days of mourning. “We have ashamed and defeated our attackers.”

But the assault at the Westgate Premier Shopping Mall could also bolster the image of al-Shabab, the al-Qaida-linked Somali militia that asserted responsibility for the attack, at a time when it has been weakened by a loss of territory in Somalia and violent infighting.

The 10 to 15 attackers managed to prolong the standoff in the international spotlight for four days, highlighting their demands for Kenya to withdraw its troops from Somalia.

Such a feat, analysts said, could give the militia more credibility in global jihadist circles, attracting more funds and recruits to fuel its ambitions to become a significant international jihadist group.

The storming of the mall Saturday has already been widely praised on jihadist websites and social media, according to the SITE Monitoring Service, which tracks statements of extremist groups. It was the deadliest attack in Kenya since the U.S. Embassy bombing in 1998 killed more than 200.

“The Westgate Mall attack demonstrates that al-Shabab remains a significant regional threat and presumably will mean more support from radical sympathizers,” said E. J. Hogendoorn, Africa deputy program director for the International Crisis Group, a respected think tank.”Whether this will arrest the group’s decline remains to be seen. The group has been weakened and this is an attempt to reverse that trend.”

But analysts said a backlash against the group is also possible, especially if Somalis living in Kenya and elsewhere in the region now face greater scrutiny from authorities. The militia’s popularity in Somalia was already waning, and Somali religious leaders denounced it this month as having no place in Islam.

The official death toll of 62 civilians and six members of the security forces was reduced by one civilian Tuesday. But Kenyatta said three floors of the mall collapsed during the operation and that bodies were trapped under the rubble. The Kenyan Red Cross said as many as 65 civilians reported to have been inside the mall remain missing, suggesting that the death toll could rise sharply in the days ahead.

Kenyatta said he could not confirm reports by his foreign minister that American and British citizens were among the heavily armed attackers. But he promised a full accounting of what happened, adding that experts are conducting forensic tests to determine the nationalities of the assailants.

There has been growing speculation in the media at the possible role of wanted British extremist Samantha Lewthwaite, daughter of a British soldier and widow of suicide bomber Germaine Lindsay, who blew himself up on a London Underground train on July 7, 2005, killing 26 people.

It also remained uncertain whether the security operation was completely over: Government officials said security forces were still combing the mall for any explosives or booby traps left by the militants. Witnesses said some of the attackers may have slipped out in the chaos, and the Kenyan government said 10 suspects were detained at the airport.

Gunshots rang out from the mall Wednesday morning, the day after the president declared an end to the four-day siege.

Government spokesman Manoah Esipisu told The Associated Press the shots came from Kenyan forces going room to room in the mall, firing protectively before entering unknown territory.

“During sanitization once you take control of the place if you go to a room where you haven’t visited before you shoot first to make sure you aren’t walking into an ambush,” he said. “But there hasn’t been any gunfire from the terrorists for more than 36 hours.”

But a top security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information, said even around the time President Kenyatta was addressing the nation on Tuesday night, three shots rang out at the mall.

He said Kenyan authorities are still trying to determine where those shots came from.

Many analysts said that such a well-planned attack could not have taken place without a network of accomplices and financiers inside Kenya.

“These cowards will meet justice as will their accomplices and patrons, wherever they are,” Kenyatta said.

In Somalia, al-Shabab runs a brutal campaign against fellow Muslims, implementing strict Islamic Shariah law enforced by public stonings, amputations and beatings for anything it deems un-Islamic, including smoking and the wearing of bras. But witnesses said the militants at the mall targeted non-Muslims and allowed many Muslims to walk out, suggesting they wanted to appeal to radical Muslims and perhaps al-Qaida’s leadership in Pakistan.

This month, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri released a document in which he gave guidelines for waging jihad. In it, he instructed fighters not to target Muslims and to take the citizens of nations who have invaded Muslim countries as hostages. Whatever the motive, the siege was praised widely in online global jihadist forums.