Carnage in mall shows resilience of terror group

Al-Shabab may be on the ropes in its home country of Somalia, but it’s still as dangerous as ever.

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICESeptember 23, 2013 

Weekend of Violence Photo Gallery

Civilians who had been hiding during a gunbattle hold their hands in the air as a precautionary measure before being searched by armed police leading them to safety inside the Westgate Mall.

JONATHAN KALAN — AP

  • Kenyans move to end militants' siege of mall

    Defense forces said they rescued “most” of the hostages held by al-Qaida-linked gunmen in Nairobi after a terrorist attack that began on Saturday left at least 68 people dead.

    Police began an assault Sunday night to end the siege by as many as 15 perpetrators, and “security forces have taken control of most parts of the building,” Kenyan police said in a Twitter message attributed to the country’s Defence Forces.

    Security forces have as good a chance “as we can hope for” to neutralize the attackers, who may include women, as the authorities work to ensure the captives are freed unharmed, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta told reporters Sunday in the city. More than 205 people were injured in the raid and 49 are missing, according to the Kenya Red Cross website.

    “The criminals are now located in one place in the building,”" Kenyatta told reporters at the State House in the capital. The Red Cross said Saturday that hostages were being held in the Nakumatt supermarket at the mall.

    Bloomberg News

NAIROBI, Kenya — The ferocious armed political movement kept Kenyan forces at bay through two days at the Westgate mall in Nairobi even as the militants mounted a coordinated attack against African Union forces in Mogadishu, according to senior U.S. counterterrorism and diplomatic officials.

“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 who has been monitoring classified intelligence reports and diplomatic cables since the attack started Saturday.

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.

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.

In a few short years, the group consolidated its control over a large swath of Somali territory, 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 terrorist attacks.

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.

“What we see is not al-Shabab turning into an international jihad organization,” said one U.N. official who closely follows the group. “This is Shabab still trying to carry out a Somali agenda, attacking countries that are contributing troops to the Somalia mission.”

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