Hostage Situation Continues at a Shopping Centre in Nairobi, KenyaSeptember 23, 2013 in Africa, Kenya
On Monday, Kenyan security forces announced that they were attempting to clear the Westgate shopping complex in Nairobi after a three-day siege.
Earlier on Monday, sources outside the Westgate shopping centre reported that explosions and heavy gunfire were heard as soldiers stormed the mall where suspected al-Shabaab militants are thought to be holed up. The Kenyan Defense Forces (KDF) have also indicated that three terrorists had been killed and that all escape routes inside the centre have been sealed off. Flames and thick smoke continues to rise from the building, with KDF officials stating that the fire had been started by “terrorists to distract the ongoing operation.” The blaze is currently being managed by firefighters. On the ground sources have reported that the attack was carried out by ten to fifteen militants, with officials stating that some of them are still on the run, hiding in shops. The Kenyan government has also stated that almost all of the hostages have been evacuated from the shopping centre, however it remains unclear whether any are still in the hands of the militants. This may be one of the reasons why authorities are moving cautiously in an attempt to ensure that there is no further loss of life. Security has increased throughout the country. The Interior Ministry has issued regular warning for people to stay away from the area for their own safety. Security at entrance and exit points across the country has also been stepped up, with the ministry confirming that “more than ten individuals” have been arrested in relation to the attack.
Three Day Siege Began on Saturday
The official death toll stands at 62, with more than 170 injured. Eleven KDF soldiers have also been injured during the operation The three-day siege started on Saturday when militants entered the Westgate centre at about 12:00 local time (09:00 GMT), throwing grenades and firing automatic weapons. Although dozens of shoppers fled the scene, many remained trapped inside. Some witnesses reported on Saturday that the gunmen had told Muslims to leave and that non-Muslims would be targeted. In a nationally televised address on Saturday, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta indicated that the operation to secure the mall and catch the gunmen was ongoing. As on the ground sources reported that officers were going from shop to shop in order to secure the area, a senior al-Shabaab figure confirmed that the militant group was responsible for carrying out the deadly attack on the shopping centre. On its Twitter account, al-Shabaab stated that it was behind what it called the “Westgate spectacle,” adding that the attack was in response to Kenya’s ongoing presence in Somalia. Some seven hours after the initial assault began, al-Shabaab indicated on its Twitter account that its fighters were still battling Kenyan security forces inside the Westgate centre. However a security source had indicated that police and soldiers had finally “pinned down” the gunmen in one corner of the shopping centre after several hours of fighting. Kenyan officials also stated that four gunmen have been arrested and that one died of his wounds.
On Sunday, Kenya’s President stated that the country would remain united and strong in the wake of the deadly attack. The announcement came as witnesses outside a security cordon reported gunfire and a large explosion, with increased gunfire occurring around 16:00 GMT on Sunday. Between ten and fifteen attackers, all believed to be al-Shabaab militants, were still inside the complex along with some civilians who are still trapped, either as hostages or in hiding. Some reports have indicated that the gunmen are holed up in a supermarket and that there are a number of women who have been reported to be amongst the attackers, however these reports have yet to be confirmed. Al-Shabaab has claimed that there are currently at least thirty-six hostages being held inside the complex, however this number cannot be confirmed. During a news conference on Sunday Kenya’s President stated that “the criminals are now located in one place within the building,” adding that “with the professionals on site, we have as good a chance to neutralize the terrorists as we could hope for.” He also thanked those who helped with the rescue efforts, and asked other countries not to issue travel advisories against visiting Kenya
Amongst the confirmed dead are Mr. Kenyatta’s nephew and his fiancee. The UK Foreign Office has also confirmed that three Britons have been killed, noting that the number is likely to rise. French, Chinese, Ghanaian, Dutch, South African, Indian and Canadian nationals are also among the foreigners confirmed killed, along with a dual Australian-British national. The wife of an American working for the US Agency for International Development was also killed along with prominent Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor, who was attending a literary festival in Nairobi.
Who are al-Shabaab
Al-Shabaab, which is based in Somalia, has links to al-Qaeda and although the Somali government has pushed the militant group out of a majority of the main towns it once controlled in southern and central Somalia, this latest deadly attack carried out on a shopping centre in neighbouring Kenya proves that the militant group remains a potent threat.
In Arabic, al-Shabaab means “the youth.” The group emerged in 2006 as the radical youth wing of Somali’s now obsolete Union of Islamic Courts was fighting Ethiopian troops who had entered into Somalia in order to back the weak interim government. It is banned as a terrorist group by both the United States and the United Kingdom. There have been numerous reports that foreign jihadists have travelled to Somalia in order to help al-Shabaab which strives to impose a strict form of Sharia law in those areas under its control. Al-Shabaab’s version of Sharia law includes stoning to death women who have been accused of adultery as well as amputating the hands of thieves.
While over the past two years, al-Shabaab has lost control of the towns and cities thorughout central and southern Somalia, the militant group continues to control many rural areas in the region. The group was forced out of the capital city of Mogadishu in August 2011 and in September 2012, they left the vital southern port of Kismayo. The port city had been a key asset for the militants as it effectively allowed supplies to reach areas under their control, providing taxes for their operations. While the African Union (AU), which is currently supporting Somali government forces, hailed the withdrawal of al-Shabaab from Kismayo and Mogadishu as a great success, the militant group continues to carry out frequent attacks in Mogadishu and elsewhere. Furthermore, although they have lost control of the major cities, al-Shabaab has increasingly been focusing on a guerrilla style of warfare that has effectively made the group more potent.
Rarely seen in public, Ahmed Abdi Godane is the head of the group. Also known as Mukhtar Abu Zubair, al-Shabaab’s leader comes from the northern breakaway region of Somaliland. He is known for his hardline and international agenda and is responsible for the group’s close links with al-Qaeda. Godane announced in February 2012 that al-Shabaab joined forces with al-Qaeda. In a joint video, Godane stated that he “pledged obedience” to al-Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri.
While the group has carried out a number of attacks within Somalia, with attacks increasing in recent months, al-Shabaab has carried out deadly attacks outside of the country as well. The most recent was carried out on a shopping centre in Nairobi, Kenya on 21 September, in which at least sixty-eight people were killed. It was responsible for a double suicide bombing in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, which killed seventy-six people who were watching the 2010 football World Cup final on television. The attack was carried out because Uganda, along with Burundi, were responsible for providing the bulk of AU troops in Somalia prior to Kenya sending in its own troops. The 2002 twin attacks on Israeli targets near the Kenyan resort of Mombasa were allegedly planned in Somalia by an al-Qaeda cell, while officials in the US believe that some of the al-Qaeda operatives responsible for carrying out the 1998 attacks on its embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam fled to Somalia shortly after the attacks.