Westerners said to be among Kenya attackers

Islamist gunmen believed to include US, Canadian, UK citizens; renewed assault by security forces frees dozens of hostages

Illustrative photo of Kenyan soldiers (photo credit: AP/Ben Curtis)
Illustrative photo of Kenyan soldiers (photo credit: AP/Ben Curtis)

Three Americans, a Canadian, a Briton and a Finn are believed to be among the hostage-takers in the terrorist attack at a mall in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, CNN reported Monday.

Local media reported that dozens of hostages were released by Monday morning and that Kenyan forces were in control of most of the Westgate Mall. Sources said that they hope Monday’s offensive will end the three-day stand-off.

A source in the Somali terror group al-Shabab told the American news network nine names of the estimated 10-15 gunmen who participated in the deadly attack on a shopping mall on Saturday.

“Their names all sound Arabic in their nature, or at least Somali… and all of them are quite young men,” the report said. The Americans, according to the report, were said to be residents of Minnesota and Kansas. Minnesota is home to the largest Somali population in the US, numbering over 32,000, and Kansas home to an estimated 5,000 immigrants from the east African state.

The FBI began investigating the possibility of whether as many as five Americans participated in the Kenyan mall attack, NBC reported. The news outlet said the investigation was in its preliminary stages and that US authorities may not know whether Americans were involved until the standoff with the gunmen reaches its conclusion.

A Twitter feed associated with al-Shabab identified the Americans as Ahmed Mohamed Isse, 22, of St. Paul, MN; Abdifatah Osman Keenadiid, 24, of Minneapolis, MN; and Gen Mustafe Noorudiin, 27, of Kansas City, MO.

Kenya’s Red Cross raised the death toll in the devastating terror attack to 68 Sunday night, as security officials said they were gearing up for a final push to free hostages after a standoff that would be entering its third day Monday.

Shortly before sundown Sunday, Kenyan forces launched an intensive offensive aimed at ending the two-day siege. The assault came as two helicopters circled the mall, with one skimming very close to the roof. A loud explosion rang, far larger than any previous grenade blast or gunfire volley.

Kenyan police said on Twitter that a “MAJOR” assault by security forces was ongoing to end the two-day siege.

“This will end tonight. Our forces will prevail. Kenyans are standing firm against aggression, and we will win,” Kenya’s Disaster Operations Centre said on Twitter.

Associated Press journalists at the Westgate Mall said the explosion Sunday afternoon was by far the largest in the siege. There was silence after the big blast.

The assault came about 30 hours after the al-Shabab gunmen stormed the mall from two sides, throwing grenades and firing on civilians at will.

Loud exchanges of gunfire emanated from inside the four-story upscale mall throughout the day Sunday. Kenyan troops were seen carrying in at least two rocket-propelled grenades, and helicopters hovered throughout the day. Al-Shabab militants reacted angrily to the helicopters on Twitter and said the Kenyan military action was endangering hostages.

Al-Shabab said on its new Twitter feed — after its previous one was shut down on Saturday — that Kenyan officials were asking the hostage-takers to negotiate and offering incentives.

“We’ll not negotiate with the Kenyan govt as long as its forces are invading our country, so reap the bitter fruits of your harvest,” al-Shabab said in a tweet.

Earlier in the day, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta issued a statement in which he sent condolences to the families of those killed in the attack and wishes for a quick recovery to those injured.

He blasted the “despicable perpetrators of this cowardly act” whose intent, he said was to “intimidate, divide and cause despondency among Kenyans.” Declaring that an “open and united country is a threat to evildoers everywhere,” Kenyatta accused the terrorists of trying to force citizens to “retreat into a closed, fearful and fractured society where trust, unity and enterprise are difficult to muster.”

Kenyatta added that his own nephew and the nephew’s fiancée were killed in the attack.

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.

Israel has had close ties to Kenya for years, and in recent years has identified East Africa as an area of strategic interest and stepped up ties with Kenya and other neighboring countries, including cooperation in combating threats posed by al-Qaeda and other extremist elements in the region. In 2002, militants bombed an Israeli-owned luxury hotel near Mombasa, killing 13 people, and tried to shoot down an Israeli airliner at the same time.

According to a Kenyan security source, Israeli forces have entered the mall. However, an unnamed security source told Reuters that Israeli advisers were helping in negotiations, but not in operations.

“There are Israeli advisers helping with the negotiating strategy, but no Israelis [are] involved in any imminent storming operation,” the Israeli source said.

The attack began on Saturday with at least five terrorists — including at least one woman — first attacking the mall’s outdoor Artcaffe eatery, which Kenyan websites said is owned by local Israelis. Gilad Millo, a Nairobi-based Israeli, said two Israeli men and a woman who were in the mall when the attack began were unharmed and safe.

Yariv Kedar, one of the three Israelis who was in Artcaffe at the time, told Channel 2 he “heard the gunfire getting closer” and bullets whizzed “over our heads” before he managed to escape.

“We started by hearing gunshots downstairs and outside. Later we heard them come inside. We took cover. Then we saw two gunmen wearing black turbans. I saw them shoot,” said Patrick Kuria, an employee at Artcaffe.

Security experts have long said the structure made an attractive terrorist target.

President Shimon Peres, in a Sunday letter to Kenyatta, said, “I wish to extend my deepest condolences to the people of Kenya on the horrific terror attack in Nairobi. From the Holy Land we pray for the release of the hostages, the full recovery of the injured, and comfort for the families of the victims.”

Kenyans and foreigners were among those confirmed dead, including British, French, Canadians, Indians, a Ghanaian, a South African, and a Chinese woman.

Britain’s prime minister, in confirming the deaths of three British nationals, told the country to “prepare ourselves for further bad news.”

“It’s an extremely difficult situation, but we’re doing everything we can to help the Kenyans in their hours of need,” David Cameron said.

“Violent extremists continue to occupy Westgate Mall. Security services are there in full force,” said the United States Embassy in an emergency text message issued Sunday morning advising Americans to stay indoors and close to home.

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