NAIROBI, Kenya — With speculation rampant about the nationalities of the gunmen who seized control of a Nairobi shopping mall Saturday and executed scores of shoppers, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta declared Tuesday that the bloody siege was finally over, with five terrorists killed and 11 suspects taken prisoner.
The Kenyan leader announced that 61 civilians and six soldiers had died during the brazen terrorist attack, the deadliest in the country in 15 years.
The death toll was expected to rise, however; Kenyatta said investigators must now pick through the debris of the Westgate shopping complex – three of its floors collapsed – where more bodies are expected to be found. Dozens of people thought to have been in the mall when the attack began are still unaccounted for. At least 240 people were injured.
“The terrorists and civilians are trapped in the debris,” Kenyatta said. “These cowards will meet justice, as will their accomplices and patrons, wherever they are.”
The capture of 11 of the suspected attackers should go a long way toward helping authorities learn their identities. Al Qaida’s affiliate in Somalia, al Shabab, has claimed responsibility for the attack, calling it retribution for Kenya’s invasion of Somalia in an effort to crush al Shabab.
But rumors have been flying since Sunday that at least some of the Nairobi assailants grew up outside Somalia, including in the United States – something of paramount interest to officials in countries that have taken in hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees in the past two decades.
At least 20 men have left Minnesota alone since 2007 to join al Shabab, in what the FBI calls one of the largest recruitment drives in U.S. history by a foreign terrorist group.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said this week that “at least 40 to 50 Somali-Americans” had gone to Somalia to be trained.
Others doubt the authenticity of the reports of Westernized attackers, which originated at a time the Kenyan government couldn’t give the exact number of assailants waging terror in the mall.
“Suggestions that British and American nationals were part of the Westgate attackers are to be treated with caution,” Valentina Soria, a security analyst at the defense consultancy IHS Jane’s, said in an emailed statement.
“It is surprising that Kenyan authorities were able to provide rather detailed information on some of the attackers so early in the investigation,” Soria said.
The attack drew substantial attention from U.S. and other intelligence agencies, reports indicate. The command center for the Westgate operations was swarmed with a host of American military officials assisting the Kenyan operation, according to two people who visited the center. They agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to talk to a reporter. Israel is thought to have provided advice on the counterterrorism operations; the Westgate complex is Israeli-owned.
The scale of death was especially shocking because, unlike most terrorist attacks with such high casualties, no major explosive was used. The attackers exacted their death through gunfire and grenades, killing swiftly and efficiently.
Kenyatta, whose nephew and nephew’s fiancee died in the attack, declared three days of national mourning in memory of the dead.
His speech marked an end to the bloody, drawn-out ordeal after much confusion about what was taking place. On Monday evening, the Twitter accounts of Kenya’s Interior Ministry and Defense Forces, as well as some local news outlets, declared that the mall had been fully secured. On Tuesday, however, more gunshots could be heard from the mall, where smoke still spewed from Monday’s fire.
Analysts speculated that the attack might mark al Shabab’s transition from a movement founded primarily to take down a Western-backed government it viewed as a puppet of the despised neighboring Ethiopians to an international terrorist movement set on carrying its violence around the world.
That change was presaged last year when Ahmed Abdi Godane, an al Shabab leader, declared loyalty to al Qaida. This year, Godane emerged on top of the Somali organization after a brutal power struggle that saw several rivals either killed or go into hiding.
If that’s true, it would place al Shabab with al Qaida’s Yemen affiliate, al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as among al Qaida’s most dangerous branches.
Whether that means the group is stronger or weaker is hotly debated.
Ken Menkhaus, a Somali expert who’s teaching at North Carolina’s Davidson College, recently said that after losing territory and popular support in Somalia, the group was lashing out like a wounded animal backed into a corner. Writing for Think Progress, a blog published by the Center for American Progress, a research center in Washington, Menkhaus called the Nairobi attack an “act of desperation” intended to “provoke a violent backlash against ethnic Somalis by the Kenyan government.”
Cedric Barnes of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, which tracks conflicts around the world, said the opposite was true.
The attack signifies that Godane and his global jihad theories have cemented control over the organization, he said.
“Al Shabab is under pressure, but to say that this is a last act of desperation is to misunderstand what Godane has always been,” Barnes said.
Rashid Abdi, a prominent Nairobi-based Somali analyst, is even more pessimistic, saying that a new diaspora-led group has been allowed to form a direct connection to al Qaida within al Shabab-controlled areas of Somalia.
“This is a new game, and a new outfit,” Abdi said. “This was definitely a broader operation and very sophisticated.”
Abdi pointed in part to the al Shabab spokesman for the attack, Abu Omar, who speaks in an impeccable British accent. “This is an extremely sophisticated person who was raised in the West and knew what he was talking about,” Abdi said.
How many of the assailants, if any, grew up in the United States and Europe is a question whose answer may help determine whether that theory is true.
Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @alanboswell