NAIROBI, Kenya – One of the Islamist militants wore a white turban, others black head scarves, witnesses said. Most were dressed in civilian clothes, but a few had donned camouflage fatigues. Some carried sophisticated machine guns, while others wielded the AK-47 rifles widely used by African insurgents.
And most of the extremists who seized the upscale mall in Nairobi were young and barked orders in English.
By Monday evening, Kenyan security forces said they controlled much of the Westgate Premier Shopping Mall, although several militants from al-Shabab, a group allied with al-Qaida, appeared dug in, determined to fight to the death.
With the standoff apparently drawing to a close, there was a growing focus on the identity of the militants and how they could pull off a sophisticated assault that killed at least 62 people and keep security forces at bay for three days. Kenyan Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed said “two or three Americans” and “one Brit” were among the militants in the attack.
She said in an interview Monday with “PBS Newshour” that the Americans were 18 to 19 years old, of Somali or Arab origin and lived “in Minnesota and one other place” in the United States. The British jihadist was a woman who has “done this many times before,” Mohamed said.
U.S. officials said Monday that they were pressing to determine whether any of the assailants were American.
“But at this point we have no definitive evidence of the nationalities or identities of the perpetrators,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
Al-Shabab is a Somali militia. But Gen. Julius Karangi, chief of the Kenya Defense Forces, told reporters that the jihadists inside the mall were “clearly a multinational collection from all over the world” – though he did not offer details.
“We are fighting global terrorism here,” Karangi said.
Forces using caution
Many Kenyans have questioned why it has taken so long to end the siege. Senior Kenyan government officials have said security forces were being cautious to avoid the deaths of innocent civilians. On Monday morning, a spokesman for al-Shabab reportedly threatened to execute hostages if security forces stormed the mall.
“The mujahideen will kill the hostages if the enemies use force,” Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage said in an audio statement posted online.
The death toll released by the government stood at 62 civilians, with more than 175 injured. It was the deadliest attack in Kenya since the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi.
Sixty-three people were missing, according to the Red Cross, suggesting that the militants still held hostages inside the mall. Kenyan officials said 10 bodies had been pulled out of the mall over the previous 24 hours.
Al-Shabab has said the carnage was in retaliation for Kenya sending troops to fight in Somalia.
Lenku, the Interior Ministry official, said “almost all of the hostages have been evacuated,” and officials said three of the estimated 10 to 15 militants were killed in the standoff. Ten people in Kenya have been detained in connection with the investigation, officials said.
President Barack Obama said Monday that the United States stood with Kenya’s leadership “against this terrible outrage that’s occurred.”
“We will provide them with whatever law enforcement help that is necessary,” he said
The U.S. government is contributing “technical support and some equipment to assist Kenyan security forces” in responding to the attack, a State Department official said Monday, speaking on the condition of anonymity. The department said American military personnel based at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi have been helping the Kenyans.
Not Somali natives
Reports that the gunmen spoke English suggest that they were not natives of Somalia, where citizens generally speak Somali.
The militants were using “big-caliber guns,” said Frank Musungu, a Kenyan army warrant officer who was at the mall when the militants stormed it on Saturday.
The foreign jihadists were the militia’s main link to al-Qaida’s leadership in Pakistan and have been central players in some of the militia’s most gruesome attacks.
Even though many U.S. counter-terrorism officials and analysts say al-Shabab does not have the capability to strike the United States, some U.S. politicians are concerned. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview with ABC’s “This Week” that he assumed that law enforcement agencies are looking at ways to prevent a similar attack in the United States.
“We know there’s probably still 15-20 Somali-Americans who are still active over there,” King said. “The concern would be if any of them have come back to the United States and would use those abilities here in the United States.”