Kenyan Mall Crisis: Al Qaeda Blamed, Hostages Threatened as FBI Investigates American, U.K., Finland Involvement
It was reported Monday by Al Jazeera that Kenya's foreign minister has told press that Al Qaeda was behind the murderous mall-storming Saturday in Nairobi, Kenya. Previously, the militant group Al Shabaab had claimed responsibility for the attacks, and it was believed that they were to blame.
According to the press organization, the hostages that have been held in the mall for three days have now been released. Little more is known at present.
The terrorist siege on Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya, today entered its third day, with Kenyan forces launching a final surge Monday afternoon against the armed Islamic militants who took control of the mall Saturday, killing more than 59 people and taking a handful of hostages. Meanwhile, the FBI is investigating reports that five Americans are linked to the group behind the attack.
According to Kenya's interior minister, government forces are now closing in on the assailants, two of whom have now been killed. The militant group attempted to block the troops by setting fire to one of the mall's supermarkets on the lower floors.
Gunshots and explosions continued to be heard at the shopping complex early Monday morning, with the total number of casualties ranging between 59 and 69, according to the Red Cross. The exact number of hostages also remains unclear — although military officials said late Sunday that "most of the hostages have been released," adding that "the Kenya Defense Forces has taken control of most parts of the building” — a Kenyan soldier told Reuters Monday that both terrorists and hostages remain spread across the building.
"They're in the cinema hall, with hostages. There are other terrorists in different parts," the soldier said. "They are on the upper floors, the third and fourth floors."
At least 175 have been injured so far.
In an audio statement posted online, a spokesman for Al-Shabaab — the Al-Qaeda-linked Somali group that claimed responsibility for the assault via Twitter hours after the siege began — threatened to kill the remaining hostages if troops tried to storm the shopping center.
The group, an extremist Islamist organization, grew out of the unrest in Somalia that followed the ousting of the country's long-time dictator in 1991. Although it hasn't as of yet issued any demands, Al Shabaab — which has previously issued threats against Kenya and the upscale mall in particular — is calling the assault a retaliation against Kenya's military intervention in neighboring Somalia.
"Kenyan forces have tried to enter Westgate by force but they could not," the spokesman said. "The mujahedeen will kill the hostages if the enemies use force."
Meanwhile, the FBI is looking into claims made by the group, again via Twitter, that five U.S. citizens were among those who carried out the attack. The account — now deleted — listed the specific names and even the home states of Americans they claim were part of their group. Two of them are allegedly from Minnesota.
Before the account was disabled Monday, the group posted on Twitter: "As the operation gathers momentum inside #Westgate, the Mujahideen are for the 3rd day still in full control of the situation on the ground."
U.S. officials have discovered that dozens of Americans were recruited by the group, with up to 50 attending training camps in Somalia in the last six years. The FBI said it was too early to confirm reports, and there is now additional speculation that militants also include members from Canada, Finland, and the United Kingdom.
Kenya's Vice President, William Ruto, who began his trial at the International Criminal Court last week on charges of crimes against humanity, has been allowed temporary leave to fly back to his country in order to deal with the escalating situation. President Kenyatta, who is due to face trial on similar charges later this year, lost two family members in Saturday's attack. President Obama called Kenyatta Sunday to re-affirm the “strong and historic partnership between the United States and Kenya.”
That partnership has been strained since the election of Kenyatta in March, because Kenyatta is also being prosecuted by the ICC for allegedly financing death squads. During Obama's June trip to Africa, he skipped a visit of Kenya.
On Monday, Obama condemned the attack, saying the U.S. would provide law enforcement assistance to help deal with the "terrible outrage."