Sense Of Foreboding Lingers After Mall Bombing

Kenyans are feeling helpless a week after gunmen stormed a Nairobi mall in a carefully orchestrated terrorist attack. NPR's Gregory Warner looks at what we now know about those terrorists, including claims that a British woman was among the attackers.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. One week ago, gunmen stormed a crowded mall in Nairobi, Kenya, and when our East Africa correspondent Gregory Warner arrived on the scene, he saw scores of wounded, and anxious onlookers waiting for the loved ones inside.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Matthew Den Dulk was trying to telephone his wife, Grace, an employee at one of the banks inside.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

WARNER: Just then gunshots rang out and Den Dulk took shelter behind a kiosk. How do you feel?

MATTHEW DEN DULK: Helpless. Helpless, yeah.

SIMON: One week later, much of Nairobi still feels helpless in the wake of the terrorist attack carried out by Al-Shabab, the al-Qaida-linked militant group that's based in Somalia. Gregory Warner looks at what we now know about those terrorists, including claims that there was a British woman among the attackers. But first, he followed up on the fate of Matthew Den Dulk and his wife, Grace.

WARNER: It took many hours, but Grace finally made it home. Over the phone, Matthew Den Dulk said that his wife hid out the initial assault in a vault in the bank. When members of an elite group of Israeli-trained Kenyan Special Forces came to rescue her, they gave her one piece of advice before leading her and her co-workers down a back passage under occasional fire from terrorist snipers. Don't, they said, make eye contact with the terrorists.

DULK: You know, whatever you do, don't try to seek contact because that was apparently one of the triggers for releasing fire. As long as no eye contact was being made with the terrorists, they were allowed to walk out.

WARNER: So many survivor stories from the mall attack contained this element of randomness. If someone lived or died depended on where in the mall they were or the particular gunman's whims. Sometimes children were allowed to go, sometimes not. Some Muslims were set free. Others weren't, for instance a Muslim mother and daughter who passed the gunman's test - reciting Islamic prayers from memory - were killed for not wearing the traditional head covering, the hijab. Latif Sadik lost his Muslim friend Shairoz.

LATIF SADIK: She was a lady with three kids. And I spoke to her at 12:44 for 18 seconds. She told me you stay where you are because I've been shot.

WARNER: Where Sadik was, was in the soda aisle of a supermarket in a different part of the mall. From there, he got a good look at one of the gunmen. And to his surprise, his was not what most Kenyans think of as the face of terrorism.

SADIK: He was not a Somali guy. He was an Arab guy.

WARNER: Of the nearly 100 terrorist attacks in Kenya over the last four years claimed by Al-Shabab, in nearly every case ethnic Somalis are fingered as the attackers. Somali jihadists have a specific regional beef with Kenya for sending troops into the country to fight Al-Shabab. But the Westgate Mall attack, according to multiple witnesses, may have included Kenyans, Arabs, and even possibly a British woman, according to Kenyan intelligence. Interpol has issued an arrest warrant for Samantha Lewthwaite, the British-born widow of a suicide bomber who blew up a train in the UK in 2005. The warrant is in connection with her alleged plot to blow up tourist lodges in Kenya in 2011, but it was issued after speculation of her involvement in Saturday's attack. So, why, if this turns out to be true, might non-Somali fighters have been drafted for the Westgate operation? I put that question to Bill Braniff. He's director of a terrorism research institute at the University of Maryland called the START consortium. He used a word that you almost never associate with terrorists.

BILL BRANIFF: Somali members of Al-Shabab might have a greater sense of risk aversion when it comes to targets.

WARNER: Somalis are risk averse, he says, to angering the large Somali diaspora population of Kenya who they rely on for funding. The foreign nationals have no such concern.

BRANIFF: If you're not interested in controlling territory in Somalia per se, but you're interested in more cosmic goals, you might see the upshot of targeting a civilian international high-profile target in Kenya.

WARNER: Even if it sets you back a step in the war in Somalia. And we may never know for sure how many foreign fighters carried out the Westgate massacre. U.S. counterterrorism officials told NPR they're concerned that some terrorists escaped with the civilians. Latif Sadik saw the gunman change clothes and exit with him.

SADIK: He joined us. So, when I saw him outside and I was telling everybody he's one of them, he was one of them, but everybody was in shock.

WARNER: That shock has given way to foreboding. Al-Shabab has tweeted that Westgate Mall was just Act One. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi.

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Clarification Sept. 28, 2013

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In the original audio for this story, the suicide bomber married to Samantha Lewthwaite was said to have blown up a train in Britain. To clarify, Germaine Lindsay was one of four bombers who attacked London's metro system in 2005.

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