NAIROBI: U.S., British and Israeli agencies are helping Kenya investigate an attack by Islamist militants on a Nairobi shopping mall that killed at least 72 people and destroyed part of the complex.
After a four-day siege, President Uhuru Kenyatta said Tuesday troops had defeated the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabab group that targeted the shopping center popular with prosperous Kenyans and foreigners.
The attack has highlighted the reach of the Somali Al-Shabab and the capabilities of its crack unit believed to be behind the bloodshed in Westgate mall, confirming international fears that as long as Somalia remains in turmoil it will be a recruiting and training ground for militant Islam.
The militants stormed the mall, known for its Western shops selling iPads and Nike shoes, in a hail of gunfire and grenades at lunchtime Saturday.
The attack ended Tuesday when Kenyan troops detonated explosives to get through locked doors inside the mall as they searched for militants or booby traps.
“We have moved to the next phase,” Interior Minister Joseph ole Lenku told a news conference Wednesday.
Ole Lenku said that alongside U.S., British and Israeli agencies, Kenya was also receiving help from Germany, Canada and the police agency Interpol in the investigation.
He said he did not expect the death toll of 61 civilians, six members of the security forces and five attackers to rise significantly, and that the only bodies still likely to be found were those of slain assailants.
Three floors collapsed after the blasts and a separate fire weakened the structure of the vaulted, marble-tiled building.
Officials said the blaze arose from militants lighting mattresses as a decoy.
Ole Lenku said the investigation would seek to ascertain whether there were any females among the assailants, as some witness accounts suggest, and would also see if the groups had rented a store in the mall prior to the attack as part of their preparation.
“The investigators will be looking to see what information they can extract to identify the terrorists and their nationalities, including DNA tests,” a senior official from the National Disaster Operation Center told Reuters, after officials described the attack as a “multinational” operation.
In Washington, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Wednesday there had been no verification that Americans were involved in the mall attack.
A thin trail of smoke still drifted up Wednesday above the Israeli-built shopping complex, a symbol of Africa’s economic rise that has drawn in foreign investors.
“If #Westgate was Kenya’s symbol of prosperity, it is now a symbol of their vulnerability, a symbol of defeat and overall Kenyan impotence,” Al-Shabab said on its Twitter account.
Somalia’s Al-Shabab chief Ahmad Abdi Godani said in an audio message that the mall carnage was a “message to Westerners.”Al-Shabab, which derided Kenya as it was battling militants inside the mall, said action by Kenyan troops using gas was responsible for the “lives of the 137 hostages who were being held by the mujahedeen.
”The group dismissed comments by one Kenyan minister that two or three of the militants were young Somali or Arab Americans.
A British security source said it was possible Samantha Lewthwaite, widow of one of the London suicide bombers of July 7, 2005, was involved in the Nairobi siege.
“It is a possibility.
But nothing definitive or conclusive yet,” the source said.Lewthwaite is wanted in connection with an alleged plot to attack expensive hotels and restaurants in Kenya.
In an email exchange Wednesday with the Associated Press, Al-Shabab said foreigners were a “legitimate target” and confirmed witness accounts that gunmen tried to let Muslims go free while killing or taking the others captive.
They said the jihadists “carried out a meticulous vetting process” so the Muslims would not be harmed.
According to published accounts, witnesses have said the gunmen rounded up people, asked questions about Islam that a Muslim would know and told the Muslims to leave the mall.
At least 18 foreigners were killed, including six Britons, citizens from France, Canada, Trinidad, the Netherlands, Australia, Peru, India, Ghana, South Africa and China, when the militants entered the Westgate mall Saturday, slaughtering men, women and children with assault rifles and grenades.
“The Mujahideen carried out a meticulous vetting process at the mall and have taken every possible precaution to separate the Muslims from the Kuffar [disbelievers] before carrying out their attack,” Al-Shabab said in an email.