Kenya begins mourning victims of mall attack, forensic experts try to identify attackers

Survivors of the attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi flee the shootings. Image from the Associated Press.

Survivors of the attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi flee the shootings. Image from the Associated Press.

Kenya begins three days of mourning today in honor of the victims of a four-day attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, the country’s capital. The siege ended yesterday with the announcement by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta that the mall was under the security forces’ control, that 11 people have been arrested in connection with the attacks, and that five of the assailants were dead. The government’s estimate of the death toll at press time was 61 victims; the militant organization known as al-Shabaab, which claims responsibility for the attack, claims a higher death toll of 137. As authorities sort through the rubble, a clearer picture will likely emerge.

Though the identities of the attackers have yet to be confirmed as of press time, Amina Mohamed, Kenya’s foreign minister, told PBS that three Americans and a British woman were among the attackers. Between 10 and 15 assailants are believed to have carried out the attack. Mohamed claimed that young, college-age men from Minnesota are among their number. Since making her statement, there has been speculation about the identity of the attackers, and many news outlets have suggested that the “British woman” in question is 29-year-old Samantha Lewthwaite, widow of one of the terrorists who staged the 2005 London bombings. These accusations are denied by some of Lewthwaite’s friends and associates. Thus far President Kenyatta and American authorities have refused to confirm or deny any speculation on the attackers’ identities, and foreign forensics experts have been called in to determine the facts of the case.

Some of the victims of the attack, however, have been identified at press time. Kofi Awoonor, one of Ghana’s most famous poets, Ruhila Adatia-Sood, a TV and radio personality, and entrepreneur Rajan Solanki are among the more famous victims. Many foreign tourists and businessmen were among the dead, as were six members of Kenya’s security forces.

The attack began Saturday, with the attackers entering through both the front entrance and the parking lot. They fired their guns into the crowd and threw grenades. They took many people hostage, and barricaded themselves as security forces arrived and began to move in. Within 24 hours, 1,000 people were rescued and security forces had retaken control of the surveillance room. By Monday, helicopters were landing reinforcements on the roof, and a fire of unknown origin had broken out, causing part of the roof to collapse. The operation to defeat the assailants was declared over Tuesday.

Eyewitness accounts of the horrors have been pouring in to news outlets around the world. Ben Mulwa recalled that he first thought he was watching a robbery, before the attackers opened fire, wounding him and killing a nearby security guard. Zachary Yach recounts how he thought that someone was throwing pebbles and rocks at a woman sitting near him at a restaurant, until he heard the explosion. He and his family played dead to avoid being detected by the attackers. Zulobia Kassam was sipping her coffee when the first shots were fired, and hid in the back of the cafe until she was rescued by a security officer.

Al-Shabaab is a radical Islamist group operating in Somalia, Kenya’s neighbor that has been in a constant state of anarchy and civil war since 1991. Their stated goal is the creation of an Islamic state in Somalia, and they claim that the attack is retribution for Kenya’s military involvement in their country. Last year, they announced they were allied with al-Qaeda. They have long been known to recruit foreign fighters to their cause. The selection of the mall as a target is symbolic, according to CNN’s Faith Karimi; the mall filled with Western shops and brands represents Kenya’s prosperity and is frequently visited by wealthy shoppers and foreigners. The Guardian reports that counter-terrorist experts believe the attack will strengthen al-Shabaab. The group has been losing ground to the internationally-recognized and foreign-backed Somali government, but the fact that they can organize and carry out such a well-planned terrorist attack will provide a morale boost and propaganda victory, showing that they are far from being defeated. So far, however, Kenya’s authorities have shown no sign of pulling their troops from Somalia.