UPDATE: The Associated Press reports that Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has said that the terrorists who attacked the Westgate Mall in Nairobi on Saturday have been defeated. He added that three mall floors have collapsed, 72 people are known to be dead, and more bodies remain trapped in the rubble.
OUR ORIGINAL REPORT (Sept. 23, 8:52 a.m.): Westgate Mall is a relatively easy drive from Rift Valley Academy—40 minutes down the long ascent that runs above the Great Rift Valley and into Nairobi, Kenya’s western suburbs. It’s a popular hangout for the school’s boarding students on Saturdays, and faculty members often chaperone shopping trips there. When Somali militants attacked the mall on Saturday, two students had headed to Westgate with visiting family members and were there when masked gunmen stormed the busy mall, lobbing grenades and firing AK-47s. Forty-eight hours later the Red Cross said the death toll inside the five-story upscale shopping center had risen to 68 with hundreds wounded.
On Monday morning, four large blasts rocked the mall, sending plumes of black smoke into the air. According to the country’s interior minister, Kenyan Defense Forces closed in on the mall Monday, killing two militants and freeing most of the hostages being held inside the mall. About 40 people are still reported missing.
“It’s very hard to go to sleep tonight knowing that’s presently going on in our neighborhood,” Mike Delorenzo, a pilot with Africa Inland Mission (AIM) based in Nairobi, told WORLD on Sunday. Delorenzo lives with his family several miles from the mall, and was at Rift Valley Academy on Saturday when the attack began.
For Americans living in Nairobi, a hub for international aid and mission work in East Africa, “this attack has felt closer to home than even the embassy attack of 1998,” said Delorenzo, who lived in the city at that time. “This is a place we are familiar with. A place we take our kids to on their birthday, or have a business lunch with a coworker. I was just sitting on the terrace of Urban Burger a few weeks back with my daughter. I read today how the restaurant was turned over and bloodied while the music still played in the background. Surreal.”
Al-Shabaab militants from Somalia quickly claimed responsibility for the attack—the deadliest terrorist attack in Kenya since al-Qaeda bombed the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998, killing more than 200. This weekend’s victims ranged in age from 2 to 78 and represented a cross-section of nationalities. The Westgate Mall sits in a leafy section of Nairobi not far from the (newly relocated and highly fortified) U.S. Embassy and near the heart of the city’s substantial Indian community. It’s also close to offices of many international aid groups who make their East African headquarters in what’s been a staid section of Nairobi, and to Rosslyn Academy, an international Christian school and friendly rival to Rift Valley Academy.
Eyewitnesses said perhaps a dozen or more gunmen wearing dark clothes and masks entered the mall during peak Saturday afternoon shopping hours, firing weapons and throwing grenades. They ordered Muslims to leave the area while they picked off non-Muslims. Juan Jesus Ortiz, a friend of World Harvest Mission team members David and Rebecca Griffith, took his 13-year-old daughter Juanita to Westgate for a surprise birthday party. When the militants struck, Ortiz, a Peruvian doctor and senior official at UNICEF, was hit by gunfire and died at the scene. Juanita was shot in the leg and hand, and required surgery but is expected to live.
By Saturday evening, many of the gunmen were holding hostages inside Nakumatt, a supermarket inside the mall, exchanging fire with Kenyan police and soldiers in a battle that continued into Sunday. As shoppers fled, Elizabeth Muthona, who works at Nakumatt, hid from gunmen for several hours inside a cardboard box, holding her breath as the attackers walked through the store. “The gunmen came inside the store, but they didn’t find us,” she told The Washington Post, adding, “I didn’t expect this to happen. There was so much security inside the mall.”
The Rift Valley students and their families also hid for hours before they were able to leave the mall, uninjured. But a 10th grade student at the school had extended family members at Westgate who were shot, and two died. “So many of our students have experienced unrest or live where this kind of threat is a part of life,” said one teacher at the school, who is not identified for security reasons. “But an occurrence like this can cause anxiety, especially as families are separated.” Rift Valley opened in 1906 as a boarding school, and its student body includes children of Christian missionaries and international workers drawn from all over Africa.
Al-Shabaab is a brutal militant movement linked to al-Qaeda, but it has mostly limited its violent attacks to Somalia and eastern Kenya. The group has beheaded Somali Christians, especially targeting those who converted from Islam, and last month kidnapped a Christian mother and two young children from their home, vowing to rid Somalia of Christians. Morningstar News has documented at least eight targeted killings of Christians, with at least one beheading, attributed to the militants in Somalia this year. The militants lost control of several areas of Somalia after Kenyan military forces entered Somalia last year to fight against the insurgency, which has threatened Kenya’s border areas and has sent tens of thousands Somalis into Kenya as refugees.
Somali refugees also have increasingly taken up residence in Nairobi, including business developers rumored to be financed by Somali militant groups. A Kenyan government investigation in 2010 blamed soaring property prices in the Kenyan capital on money laundered from Somali piracy. It said millions of dollars in ransom acquired by pirates were being laundered through the purchase of property in East Africa, notably in Nairobi, where over 200,000 Somalis reside and some property values have tripled in recent years. Much of the development attributed to Somali piracy is in the suburbs surrounding Westgate Mall.