NAIROBI — Masked gunmen stormed into an upscale, crowded mall in Nairobi on Saturday and fatally shot at least 39 people and wounded more than 150 in one of the most chilling terrorist attacks in East Africa since Al Qaeda blew up two US embassies in 1998.
Parents hurled their bodies over their children, people jumped into ventilation shafts to save themselves, and shoppers huddled behind the plastic mannequins of designer clothing stores as two squads of gunmen believed to be linked to a Somali terrorist group moved through the mall, shooting shoppers in the head.
Hours later, the mall’s gleaming floors were smeared with blood as police officers dashed through the corpse-strewn corridors, trying to find the assailants.
The mall, called Westgate, is a symbol of Kenya’s rising prosperity, an impressive five-story building where Kenyans can buy expensive cups of frozen yogurt and plates of sushi. On Saturdays, it is especially crowded, with loose security. US officials have long warned that Nairobi’s malls were ripe targets for Islamist terrorists, especially Westgate, because a cafe on the ground floor, right off the street, is owned by Israelis.
Fred Ngoga Gateretse, an official with the African Union, was having coffee at that cafe around noon when he heard two deafening blasts. He cowered on the floor and watched eight gunmen with scarves twisted over their faces firing at shoppers and then up at Kenyan police officers who were shooting down from a balcony as panicked shoppers dashed for cover.
“Believe me, these guys were good shooters,” Gateretse said. “You could tell they were trained.”
Several witnesses said the attackers shouted for Muslims to run away while they methodically picked off other shoppers, executing them one by one. The mall, one of Nairobi’s most luxurious, with glass elevators and some of the most expensive shops in town, is also popular with expatriates. It has served as the place for a power lunch, to catch a movie, to bring children for ice cream.
Four Americans were believed to have been injured in the attack, US officials said. No Americans were reported killed, but Secretary of State John Kerry, who called the attack “a heartbreaking reminder that there exists unspeakable evil in our world,” said that the wife of a local employee of the US government was among the dead. Two Canadians, one of them a diplomat based in Nairobi, and two French citizens were killed in the assault, their governments said.
A confidential UN report Saturday described the attack as “a complex, two-pronged assault” with two squads of gunmen dashing into the mall from different floors at the same time and opening fire.
Al Shabab, an Islamist militant group based in Somalia, took responsibility for the attack, saying it was revenge for Kenya’s military operations in Somalia, which began nearly two years ago.
“Kenya will not get peace unless they pull their military out of Somalia,” Ali Mohamoud Rage, Al Shabab’s spokesman, said in a radio address. Al Shabab also sent out a barrage of buoyant Twitter messages, bragging about the prowess of their fighters — “the Mujahideen are still strong inside” one message said — before Twitter abruptly suspended the account late Saturday.
Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, branded the terrorists cowards and said Kenya would remain “as brave and invincible as the lions on our Coat of Arms.” He also sounded a somber note, pleading with Kenyans to give blood and provide sympathy, and said that he himself had lost “very close family members in this attack,” though he did not specify further. In addition to the 39 people killed, which included women and children, Kenyatta said, more than 150 people were wounded. Government officials said the wounded ranged in age from 2 to 78.
As of Saturday night, Kenyan commandos had cornered several of the assailants on the third floor of the mall, witnesses said. Western officials said they expected that the assailants would fight to the death, though the Kenyan news media reported that one wounded gunman had been captured, and later died in a hospital. Witnesses who escaped the mall said there were still hostages trapped inside, but it was not clear whether those were shoppers hiding in crawl spaces and barricaded stores or captives being held at gunpoint. Several witness also said one of the assailants was a woman.
Before its Twitter account was shut down, Al Shabab sent out a message, saying the fighters in the mall would never give up.
“There will be no negotiations whatsoever at #Westgate,’’ the message said.
Kenya serves as the economic engine of East Africa, and while it has been mostly spared the violence and turmoil of many of its neighbors, it has had other terrorist attacks. In 1998, Al Qaeda killed more than 200 people in a huge truck blast that nearly leveled the US Embassy in Nairobi, while simultaneously attacking the US Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Islamist terrorists also struck an Israeli-owned hotel on Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast in 2002 and fired missiles at an Israeli airliner.
More recently, Al Shabab has put Kenya in its cross hairs, especially after Kenya sent thousands of troops into Somalia in 2011 to chase Al Shabab away from its borders and then kept those troops there as part of a larger African Union mission to pacify Somalia. Al Shabab has attacked churches in eastern Kenya, mosques in Nairobi, and government outposts along the Kenya-Somalia border.