At 1245 local time on the morning of Saturday September 21 between 10 and 15 armed gunmen entered the Westgate mall in Nairobi. They forced entry through a café on the ground floor after killing several people and shooting up vehicles in the vicinity. The Westgate mall was busy as lunchtime approached, with a number of foreigners as well as Kenyans within the building. Although reported as an attempted robbery gone wrong for the first few hours after the initial break-in, al-Qaeda linked Somali group al-Shabaab credibly claimed responsibility for the assault via Twitter on the afternoon of September 21.
Kenyan personnel broke into the centre that evening, by which point the gunmen had taken hostages. According those who have escaped since the initial attack, gunmen released Muslims, asking people to recite the Shahada in order to weed out non-believers. One man claims to have been released after showing identity papers with a Muslim sounding name. Foreigners and non-Muslims were deliberately targeted, and a number of Westerners are known to be amongst the dead. A Kenyan assault began in the evening of 23 September, and the siege was declared over on September 24 after much of the building collapsed – reportedly after a fire started as a defensive measure by the attackers. Casualty figures are currently assessed to be 72 killed at the time of writing, and while further deaths may be confirmed this tally is not expected to rise sharply. The Kenyan government reports that it has 11 of the assailants in custody.
This attack comes as al-Shabaab face increase pressure in their Somali homeland, with AMISOM (to which Kenya has committed several thousand troops) squeezing the militants and making the group’s quasi-military operations increasingly difficult. We previously noted that after losing Kismayo last year Al-Shabaab were likely to turn increasingly to regional terrorism (see report of April 11). The group have conducted operations abroad in recent years, including a bombing in Uganda during the 2010 FIFA World Cup and over 60 small grenade attacks in Nairobi since 2011. However, this attack is a marked escalation, reflecting the outcome of infighting in the group between those who wished to focus on the struggle in Somalia and those who felt that operations needed to be taken abroad. Nairobi presents a comparatively accessible area of operations, with a large Somali diaspora in the Eastleigh quarter of the city being an enabler. Al-Shabaab had specifically threatened attacks against the Israeli-owned Westgate mall in the past, as well as the city’s “tall buildings”, and all contributors to AMISOM are at risk.
Reflecting the make-up of al-Shabaab’s external operations wing, it currently appears that the attackers include some people from Western countries, although rumours that British woman Samatha Lewthwaite was involved in the attacks currently appears unfounded. The suggestion that the attackers distinguished between Muslim and non-Muslim targets is evidence that the group may be seeking to answer criticisms of not targeting ‘legitimate’ (i.e. non-Muslim) targets, and shows a shift towards Takfiri ideology that we have also seen elsewhere – a notable trend across al-Qaeda
The tactics of this attack are similar and likely inspired by the attack on the Algerian gas facility at In Amenas earlier this year and the Mumbai attacks of 2008, with attackers arriving swiftly and causing relatively high numbers of casualties with small arms before settling down for a long-term, attention grabbing siege. Hostages are held primarily to complicate the security force response. In this case, the occupation of several strong points in the mall allowed militants to maintain a grip on the facility for a substantial time as the security forces moved in.
The success of this raid from the point of view of the militants lies in both the casualty toll and the media coverage of the incident, which was extensive and global. Al-Shabaab have engaged in a comparatively successful media campaign on Twitter despite efforts to shut down their feed, with their version of events often quoted by reputable news agencies around the world. The raid has revived fears of small-arms tactics being used for attacks in the West, and has drawn attention to ‘soft’ targets such as malls (a trend again helped by media coverage). Although Somali jihadist groups are known to have looked at the tactic in London before, an attack of this sort is nonetheless likely to prove difficult to conduct in the UK due to the comparatively close control of firearms and particularly ammunition. Somali diasporas do however offer a source of funding and recruitment, as well as serving as a potential base for operations.
While the security situation in Kenya remains tense we do not currently believe there is any reason to evacuate Western staff from the country as security personnel move to take control of the situation. Staff should however remain cautious and vigilant, and unnecessary travel is generally being advised against. Due to proximity, visibility in AMISOM (or in suppressing Islamist militant activity in the past in Ethiopia’s case) and pre-existing al-Shabaab networks, Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya are likely to continue to be targeted in future. Indeed, at the time of writing a second attack has been reported in Wajir county in Kenya’s troubled northeast, with paramilitary assailants from al-Shabaab allegedly throwing grenades and shooting into a shopping centre in a symbolic act. This shows how areas on the Somali border remain particularly risky (with Westerners also being targeted in kidnap for ransom schemes) and we advise against all but the most essential travel to these regions.