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.