The Terrorists Everyone Swore Were Beat Just Slaughtered 68 People

The Somali terrorist group al-Shabab has entered the second day of a siege on the popular Westgate shopping mall in an upscale neighborhood of Nairobi, Kenya. Nearly 70 people have been killed, including at least four Westerners and one retired United Nations official.

Kenyan officials said 175 people were injured and more than 1,000 had been rescued from the mall since the assault began around noon on Saturday. According to witnesses, at least a dozen gunmen stormed the shopping center, which is frequented by expatriates, wielding automatic weapons and grenades. They appeared to move methodically and in two waves, indicating some degree of training.

On Sunday evening in Nairobi, low-flying helicopters could be seen over the shopping mall. Witnesses told reporters they could hear sustained gunfire inside the building. It remained unclear whether Kenyan military forces were attempting to take back the mall by force and attack the militants.

Al-Shabab had previously threatened to attack the Westgate mall.

Photos from the scene showed dead bodies inside the mall. The Red Cross set up a treatment center outside for the wounded. Among them were four Americans. No U.S. citizens have been reported killed in the attack, which is now the deadliest terrorist strike in Kenya since al Qaeda killed 223 people in a massive car bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi in 1998. Thousands were injured in that attack, including the U.S. ambassador, Prudence Bushnell.

The Westgate mall attack marks an audacious return for al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda linked group that, as recently as last year, U.S. officials claimed was on the run in the face of an American-backed offensive in Africa. More recently, the Obama administration has expanded a secret war against al-Shabab in Somalia, ramping up assistance to Somali intelligence agencies. The United States also runs training camps for Ugandan peacekeepers who fight al-Shabab forces, and at a base in Djibouti houses Predator drones, fighter jets, and nearly 2,000 U.S. troops and military civilians.

President Obama called Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta Sunday morning and "reiterated U.S. support for Kenya's efforts to bring the perpetrators of the attack to justice," according to a White House statement. Kenyatta's nephew and his fiancé are among the dead.

In keeping with its established propaganda strategy, al-Shabab is tweeting updates about the attack. On Saturday, the group was sending messages from its main account, @HSMPress, describing the assaults at "retributive justice for crimes committed by [Kenya's] military." Kenyan forces began military operations in Somalia two years ago.

Twitter suspended the account Sunday, but the group apparently moved on to another account, which has also since been suspended.

Twitter users were tracking other accounts that claimed to be associated with the group, or that were promoting its efforts. They demanded the company suspend the accounts in keeping with Twitter's terms of service, which allow it to remove any account that exhorts followers to violence.

But al-Shabab seemed to be playing a game of social media Whack-a-Mole. In keeping with prior tactics, it appears to have set up a new feed when previous accounts were taken offline. As of late Sunday morning, yet another account, @HSM_PressOffice, which started tweeting late Saturday night, was still active. Yet another account claiming to be with the attackers also sprang up, but it was deemed a fake by one terrorism expert.

Requests for comment sent to Twitter were not immediately returned.

Al-Shabab has a recent history of posting ghoulish tweets about its attacks. In June, it sent taunting messages about a deadly strike on a United Nations humanitarian compound in Mogadishu. Unlike the Taliban, which uses Twitter primarily to note attacks on Afghan forces, al-Shabab's feed has been more free-ranging. In addition to boasting of its own efforts, the group has used social media to urge Egyptian protesters to use force against the country's military government, and has characterized democracy efforts there as a sham.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the Westgate attack a "premeditated act, targeting defenceless civilians, [that] is totally reprehensible. The perpetrators must be brought to justice as soon as possible," he said in a statement.

White House national security spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said on Saturday, "The United States condemns in the strongest terms the despicable terrorist attack on innocent civilians" at the Westgate mall. "We will continue to stand with the Kenyan people in their efforts to confront terrorism in all its forms, including the threat posed by al-Shabaab."

Colum Lynch contributed reporting.


The Art of China's Holiday News Dump

This year, the Mid-Autumn Festival, which traditionally celebrated the harvest and is now one of China's most popular holidays, takes place from Thursday, Sept. 19 to Sunday, Sept. 22. It's a period when many Chinese travel, the mainland stock market closes, and, like in the United States over Thanksgiving or Easter, there tends to be less interest in the news.

Sept. 22 also happens to be the day when a verdict in the case of disgraced former Politburo member Bo Xilai will be announced, according to the microblog of the Intermediate People's Court in Jinan, the eastern Chinese city where Bo's trial wrapped up several weeks ago. The verdict -- on charges of bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power -- will cap the 18-month downfall of Bo, and he is almost certain to be found guilty. Formerly seen as one of China's most promising politicians, Bo was removed from his position not long after police chief Wang Lijun, a close aide of his, fled to the U.S. consulate in the southwest Chinese city of Chengdu, seeking asylum.

It's likely not coincidental that Bo's verdict will be handed down during a holiday (and a weekend, no less): the length and terms of Bo's sentence is one of the most sensitive elements of the entire case. A light sentence will encourage grumbling among those who believe in the Communist Party's vilification of Bo, and will also potentially provide an opening for his political comeback -- an eventuality one assumes the country's top leadership does not want.  

Meanwhile, a heavy sentence -- like life in prison or even death -- will only enrage Bo sympathizers, some of whom feel that Bo's crimes were not any worse than many sitting officials. It could also worry many in the high levels of the government and the party; not only other princelings -- sons and daughters of powerful officials -- but also those who feel that reaching a top rank in the party should guarantee a certain level of immunity. In the 1960s and 1970s, during Mao Zedong's anarchic Cultural Revolution, many high-ranking Chinese officials were brutally tortured and killed, including President Liu Shaoqi. It is not stabilizing for the Communist Party to alienate its own by hinting at a return to Mao's chaos. Politician Cheng Kejie, who fell from power in 2000, is thought to be the only former member of the Politburo, China's elite 25-member decision-making body, to have been executed since 1978. And Bo is far more high-profile than Cheng ever was. Execute Bo, and he could become a martyr. 

Faced with such a tough and sensitive decision, it's no surprise that Chinese officials decided to bury it during a holiday weekend. Indeed, this is not the first time Beijing has taken this approach. Two days after Christmas in 2007, Chinese police seized prominent dissident Hu Jia; they officially detained him three days later, "escalating a crackdown on dissent during the West's holiday season," the New York Times reported at the time. Beijing sentenced top Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo to 11 years in prison on Christmas Day 2009, and Ai Weiwei's 81-day detention began on a Sunday morning. (This pattern holds true with news of interest only to domestic audiences as well.) 

It's not a Chinese phenomenon. Companies carefully choose the times they release sensitive information to the market. And government agencies around the world engage in the practice known as "news dumping." The term often refers to dropping sensitive information on a Friday afternoon, when many sensible people who might otherwise be concerned with, say, the White House releasing a list of 17 presidential pardons, are instead daydreaming about the first martini of the weekend.

It's hard to say how effective  news dumps are, whether in the United States or China: Liu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize from prison, shining light on Chinese human rights abuses, and Ai, a far more effective promoter than the Communist Party is dampener, has become an international star. But it's a safe bet that when Bo's verdict is announced on Sunday, some Chinese who would otherwise be concerned with his fate will instead be preoccupied with having to go back to work.