“Boldest attack yet”: 59 dead and 30 still held hostage in Nairobi

The terrorist attack on an upscale Kenya mall continues to unfold

Topics: al-Shabab, al qaeda, Nairobi, Terrorism, Shooting,

Over 24 hours later, the attack by Islamist militants on an upscale Nairobi mall continues to unfold. The latest count finds 59 dead and 175 injured — and as many as 30 hostages remain in the building.

Ten to fifteen assailants stormed the mall Saturday afternoon, wielding grenades, machine guns and Ak-47s, while al-Shabab, a Somali insurgent grouped affiliated with al-Qaeda, live-tweeted the attack (its account has since been suspended).

The siege marks Kenya’s deadliest terrorist attack since 1998, when al-Qaeda bombed the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, killing 200. And according to the New York Times, it’s the Shabab’s boldest attack yet. The way in which it was carried out, writes CNN, aligns neatly with a new plan of action put forward just last week by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri:

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1. Ensure the target is Western. The Westgate Mall has several Israeli establishments and is popular with expatriates. Those killed include three British citizens, two French nationals and two Canadians, their governments said. In his September 13 message, al-Zawahiri warned against attacks on non-Western states unless the regime was part of “the American forces.” Kenya, with its long tradition of pro-Western governments and close relationships with Western militaries, fits that bill.

2. Take hostages where possible. Al-Zawahiri recommended taking “the citizens of the countries that are participating in the invasion of Muslim countries as hostages so that our prisoners may be freed in exchange.”

3. Try to avoid Muslim casualties. Al-Shabaab claimed on its Twitter feed that the gunmen escorted Muslims out of the mall, before turning on the “disbelievers” inside. Witnesses said the gunmen at the Westgate tried to identify Muslims by asking shoppers the name of Mohammed’s mother. They shot those who didn’t know.

Tyler Hicks, a New York Times photographer who happened to be nearby when the attack began went inside the mall and managed to capture shocking images of the carnage. “This is just plain and simple murder of unarmed civilians,” he said of what he witnessed. “It’s not a war. These militants went into the mall and executed people: women and children, anyone who got in their path.”

Lindsay Abrams

Lindsay Abrams is a staff writer at Salon, reporting on all things sustainable. Follow her on Twitter @readingirl, email labrams@salon.com.

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