Center for Strategic Communication

Shabaab, al Qaeda’s affiliate in East Africa, has taken credit for the deadly assault on an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya that has so far resulted in the deaths of 59 people, including close members of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s family and two foreign diplomats. The attack is reminiscent of Lashkar-e-Taiba’s attack on Mumbai in 2008; non-Muslims are being singled out and executed by the Shabaab assault team.

At least two, and possibly three, assault teams attacked the mall from different entrances in what the United Nations described as a “complex” assault, according to The New York Times. The UN said that two assault teams hit the Westgate Mall, while Kenyan officials said that three teams targeted the building, the Daily Nation reported.

The Shabaab assault teams, said to be made up of Somalis, “Arabs,” and one woman, are dressed in black and armed with assault rifles, hand grenades, and possibly suicide vests.

The Shabaab fighters were warning Muslims to leave and questioned people about their faith. Muslims were separated from non-Muslims; the non-Muslims were executed. Some Shabaab fighters were heard yelling “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is Greatest,” as they gunned down innocent civilians.

The siege at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall is ongoing. Shabaab fighters are said to have barricaded themselves on the second floor and on the rooftop parking garage. Hostages, including family members of diplomatic personnel, are said to be held hostage.

At least one Shabaab fighter and two Kenyan policemen, and dozens of civilians, including women and children, are said to have been killed during the fighting. More than 150 people are said to have been wounded so far.

In a burst of tweets on its Twitter account before it was shut down, Shabaab claimed credit for the attack, and said its fighters would not surrender.

“[The] Kenyan govt [government] is pleaded with our Mujahideen inside the mall for negotiations,” one tweet read. “There will be no negotiations.”

Shabaab said that it is currently in touch with the fighters inside the mall, and claimed to have “obtained voice recordings from some of them.”

Shabaab also said that it carried out the attack at the Westgate Mall to avenge the invasion of southern Somalia by Kenyan forces.

“HSM [the name of Shabaab’s now-defunct Twtitter account] has on numerous occasions warned the #Kenyan government that failure to remove its forces from Somalia would have severe consequences,” Shabaab said. “The Kenyan government, however, turned a deaf ear to our repeated warnings and continued to massacre innocent Muslims in Somalia.”

Shabaab also threatened to step up attacks in Kenya.

“For long we have waged war against the Kenyans in our land, now it’s time to shift the battleground and take the war to their land,” one tweet said.

Shabaab, and the Muslim Youth Center, its official affiliate in Kenya, have repeatedly vowed to attack Kenya for its role in battling Shabaab in Somalia. Nearly one year ago, on Sept. 20, 2012, the Muslim Youth Center threatened attacks throughout all of East Africa, and said its ultimate goal is to raise “the flag of Tawheed high over Kenya and East Africa.”

Similar to Mumbai assault

Today’s attack on the Westgate Mall has some striking similarities to Lashkar-e-Taiba’s multi-pronged attack on various targets in the city of Mumbai at the end of November 2008.

In the Mumbai attack, well-trained and armed Lashkar-e-Taiba fighters fanned out across the city in small teams and attacked civilian targets. Members of the teams attempted to sort out Muslims from non-Muslims, and executed the non-Muslims. Hostages were taken during the Mumbai assault.

Additionally, the Lashkar-e-Taiba fighters were in contact with outside handlers who gave them instructions, advice, and encouragement. The Mumbai siege lasted for nearly 60 hours before the last attacker was killed.

Also, both the Mumbai and the Nairobi assaults took place outside of active theaters of war, such as Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Al Qaeda, its affiliates, and allies frequently conduct suicide assaults, but the attacks are usually against military, police, and government targets. While Shabaab and the Muslim Youth Center have conducted small-scale bombings and shootings in Kenya, the fighting has largely been confined to the northern border with Somalia.

Today’s attack in Nairobi is the largest in the country since the 1998 bombing at the US Embassy in the Kenyan capital that killed 212 people, including 12 Americans. Al Qaeda executed the 1998 bombing; some of al Qaeda’s top leaders, including Osama bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri, and Saif al Adel, were indicted for their roles in ordering and executing the suicide attack.