Nairobi Seeks Answers 2 Months After 'Kenya's 9/11'

On Sept. 21, terrorists attacked the upscale Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, killing at least 67 people. Despite early reports of as many as 15 gunmen, Kenyan police now know that the attack was the work of only four terrorist, all of whom died in the suicide mission. But some other very important questions remain unanswered.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

Kenya's 9/11 - that's how many have described the terrorist assault on a shopping mall in Nairobi that so traumatized the country in September. At least 67 people were killed.

Two months after the attack, the government's investigation continues. They've been able to dispel some of the confusion of the early reports, but fundamental questions still abound. Gregory Warner is NPR's East Africa correspondent, and he's in Nairobi.

Greg, early on, there were a lot of questions about where the attackers were from and why the attack. What do we now know about the gunmen?

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Well, one thing we know is that there were only four attackers, and that's different than what we're originally told during the attack, which was that there were 10 to 15 gunmen. We also know a lot about their activities in the months leading up to the attack. We know when they got to Kenya in late June, where they stayed in Nairobi. We even know which Nairobi gym they used to work out in in the weeks before this suicide mission.

We also know that all four attackers were ethnic Somalis. Rumors of American or British attackers were unfounded. One of the terrorists, though, did spend a fair amount of time in Norway. What we don't know, though, is who exactly these guys were fighting for. We've all said it was al-Shabab, which is the Somali jihadist group. But al-Shabab, like al-Qaida, is a very loose association.

Witnesses in the attack said some of these attackers were speaking fluent Swahili, which is the language of East Africa. It's not the language of Somalia. So what connections did these people have to larger jihadist networks in East Africa, and who's providing the funding? Those are the questions that's still need to be answered.

RATH: So the four gunmen who attacked the mall, they were all killed in the attack. But there are these four others who have been charged in connection with the attack. What is the government saying that those people did?

WARNER: What they are charged with is sheltering and assisting the gunmen and also obtaining false IDs for these terrorists. More details will come out in the trial, which is due to start as soon as January. There is a fair amount of skepticism in Kenya about this whole trial because in the past few years, there have been dozens of people accused of terrorism brought before the court. Not a single conviction has been handed down in the terrorism case because the judges always throw it out because of lack of evidence. This January, it's not going to be just be terrorists on trial. It's really the Kenya's anti-terror police.

RATH: I was seeing figures about the attack and around 20 people, they're saying, are still unaccounted for. How is that possible so long after the attack now?

WARNER: I think the best official explanation is the actual crime scene was just a complete mess. Three floors of this mall collapsed. There was a massive fire. There was water damage and also contamination of the scene by Kenyan military. Eighty FBI people were on the ground. There was also forensic experts from Scotland Yard and other places. With all that brain power, though, there's still not been DNA evidence of the attackers. And we have all these missings. So the idea is maybe some of them are still under the rubble.

RATH: Such an awful attack. Do you have a sense that this has changed people's daily lives in Nairobi?

WARNER: You know, people have compared this attack to 9/11. Certainly, there is a same sense of vulnerability, in Nairobi especially. I think, though, it's different than 9/11 in one important way. Look, the death toll - official death toll right now is 67, right? But more than 1,000 people were in that mall. It was a busy Saturday afternoon. And they're still telling their stories of survival. I go to dinner parties, I hear a new Westgate story. So the narrative of this event keeps rolling. The terror keeps rippling outward. And in that way, as a terrorist attack, it was and continues to be very effective.

RATH: That's NPR's Gregory Warner in Nairobi, Kenya. Greg, thank you.

WARNER: Thanks, Arun.

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