NAIROBI, Kenya — The ferocious armed political movement known as al-Shabab is on the ropes in Somalia, losing territory and influence in its home country.
Yet this weekend al-Shabab showed that it is as dangerous as ever as a terrorist force, keeping Kenyan forces at bay at the Westgate mall in Nairobi even as the rebels mounted a coordinated attack against African Union forces in Mogadishu, according to senior U.S. counterterrorism and diplomatic officials.
Late Sunday, the Kenyan military announced that it had retaken “most” of the Westgate mall — the attackers had been confined to the third floor since their initial assault Saturday — and freed more hostages, though details could not be confirmed. Helicopters circled the mall building through the night, and occasional explosions and bursts of gunfire were heard above a rainstorm in the area.
“This will end tonight — our forces will prevail,” the police command center said in a Twitter post. “Kenyans are standing firm against aggression, and we will win.”
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Al-Shabab, the extremist Islamist group mostly based in neighboring Somalia, answered with tweets of their own, including warning that “Kenyan forces who’ve just attempted a roof landing must know that they are jeopardizing the lives of all the hostages at #Westgate.”
The assault came about 30 hours after 10 to 15 extremists stormed the mall Saturday from two sides, throwing grenades and firing on civilians.
The attack on the mall deeply distressed Kenya, a nation that has grown in stature as a force against terrorism in East Africa. As the toll mounted — at least 68 were reported dead by late Sunday, with several people still unaccounted for — the potential for even greater loss of life seemed tangible.
Addressing the nation, President Uhuru Kenyatta sounded a note of solidarity in loss, revealing that his nephew and the man’s fiancée were among the dead. “These are young, lovely people I personally knew and loved,” Kenyatta said.
He said security forces had rescued more than 1,000 people from the mall since the violence began.
It was the deadliest terrorist attack in Kenya since the 1998 al-Qaida truck bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi that killed more than 200 people.
Some officials warned that al-Shabab could be signaling a wider offensive, particularly within Kenya, despite its losses in recent years at the hands of the African Union and Kenyan troops in its home country.
“What we’re witnessing is al-Shabab taking its asymmetric attacks into Kenya at the same time it’s intensifying its pattern of attacks in Somalia,” said one senior U.S. official.
Counterterrorism officials say al-Shabab’s sophistication has only increased as it has made common cause with groups including franchises of al-Qaida in Yemen and Northern Africa and the Boko Haram organization in Nigeria, sharing tactics, techniques, training and financing.
Now, it is clear that the group is using those resources to punish Kenya on its own soil, mostly for its role within Somalia, but also, to some degree, because of growing U.S. support for the Kenyan security forces.
In recent years, Kenya has worked closely with the Americans on military cooperation, hunting al-Qaida and combating piracy. The CIA station in Nairobi is among the largest in Africa. And the U.S. ambassador to Kenya, Robert Godec, was formerly the State Department’s deputy coordinator for counterterrorism.
U.S. officials said they were working with Kenyan authorities to learn whether any had ties within the United States, as the attackers claimed Sunday.
Rep. Peter T. King, R-N.Y., a member of the House intelligence Committee, said on ABC television that the group has recruited 40 to 50 American members, of whom 15 to 20 remained active.
Al-Shabab claimed in a Twitter post that three of the attackers were Americans; a senior law-enforcement official in the United States said that the FBI had yet to establish whether that claim was true, and that it would be difficult to do so until all the attackers were captured or killed.
“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,” King said.
One senior U.S. official said there had not been any increased “chatter” — electronic intercepts — in recent days about a possible attack against a major target in Nairobi. But the Westgate mall was one of at least three major shopping malls in the Kenyan capital about which U.S. Embassy officials had expressed concerns over faulty security to Kenyan authorities.
Westgate Mall is at least partially owned by Israelis, and reports circulated that Israeli commandos were on the ground to assist in the response. Four restaurants inside the mall are Israeli-run or owned.
In Israel, a senior defense official said there were no Israeli forces participating in an assault, but the official said it was possible that Israeli advisers were providing assistance.
Israel has close ties to Kenya going back many years. And in recent years, Israel has identified East Africa as an area of strategic interest and stepped up ties with Kenya and other neighboring countries, because of shared threats posed by al-Qaida and other extremist elements. In 2002, rebels bombed an Israeli-owned luxury hotel near Mombasa, killing 13 people, and tried to shoot down an Israeli airliner at the same time.
Al-Shabab means “The Youth” in Arabic. The group was formed in the middle of last decade as the small, armed militia for Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union, which had risen to power after driving a group of CIA-financed Somali warlords from Mogadishu.
Then, al-Shabab’s ranks swelled amid growing anger inside Somalia over the brutal urban tactics used by Ethiopian troops, who had invaded the country to dislodge the Islamic Courts Union from the capital. Al-Shabab fighters waged a bloody insurgency campaign against the Ethiopians, carrying out hit and run attacks and planting roadside bombs.
In a few short years, the group consolidated its control over a large swath of Somali territory, but then suffered setbacks as the African Union and Kenya, among others, became more deeply involved. Al-Shabab withdrew from the cities in the face of superior military forces fairly quickly, often in the space of a day, regrouping in the countryside.
But they preserved their core fighting force — estimated by the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea at about 5,000 — and avoided direct confrontations. And since then it has seemed to gather momentum in terms of attacks.
There have long been concerns that al-Shabab was increasing its ability to strike abroad, first stoked by its bombing attack against soccer fans in Kampala, Uganda, in 2010, killing 76.
But despite its threats to strike at U.S. interests — and the propaganda value it has gained by showing the U.S. ties of some of its members — most experts say the group’s focus is still on getting foreign troops out of Somalia. The attack in Uganda was explicitly for that country’s role in the African Union force operating in Somalia. And now the attack in Kenya was a blow for one of the group’s most constant military antagonists.
“What we see is not al-Shabab turning into an international jihad organization,” said one U.N. official who closely follows the group’s operations. “This is Shabab still trying to carry out a Somali agenda, attacking countries that are contributing troops to the Somalia mission.”
According to the U.N. official, late last year Western intelligence services uncovered an effort by Kenyan extremist groups linked to al-Shabab to scout locations in Nairobi for a possible terrorist attack. The Westgate mall was one of the locations, the official said.
Matthew Bryden, former head of the U.N. Monitoring Group, said Westgate had for years been mentioned in intelligence traffic about possible locations for terror attacks inside Nairobi.
Bryden said the significance of the Westgate attack lay partly in how it seemed to signal a change of tactics for al-Shabab — moving from coordinated suicide bombings with a high risk of being foiled toward more direct operations that still kill dozens, sow fear, and undermine support in Nairobi for the Kenyan mission in Somalia.
“Shabab is both far more fractured than it has been and arguably more radicalized,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert in nontraditional security threats. “They are far more limited in what they can do in Somalia, and that drives spectacular attacks abroad.”
As rank-and-file members left, the result was a group that was even more radical. The military setbacks raised the stakes. “The leadership needs to demonstrate they are still alive, both abroad and to their own fighters,” Felbab-Brown said.
A 2011 report by the Monitoring Group described the deep well of support al-Shabab had inside Kenya, with various religious and cultural organizations inside the country raising both money and fighters for militant activities.
“Al-Shabab supporters in Kenya have established an extensive and complex financial support system to sustain their own activities, sponsor the travel of recruits to Somalia, support the Kenyan families of al-Shabab members in the field, and provide financial contributions to the jihadist cause,” the report concluded.
The U.N. group found that while al-Shabab’s presence in Kenya had once been concentrated within the country’s ethnic Somali community, since 2009 al-Shabab had greatly expanded its influence and membership among non-Somali Kenyan nationals.
“This is an international war and we have to join hands and work together to see it destroyed,” President Kenyatta, said Sunday.
Five Americans were among the wounded, but none were known to have been killed. News agencies reported that other foreigners were also among the dead.
As the identities of victims began to emerge Sunday, the public mourning of a national tragedy began.
One of those killed was Ruhila Adatia-Sood, a popular Kenyan radio host who was in the parking lot of the mall hosting a cooking competition, according to reports. She posted several photos on her Instagram account before the attack.
Also among the dead was Kofi Awoonor, 78, a Ghanaian poet and former professor at the University of Ghana.