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As Kenyan Mall Attack Ends, The Search For Answers Begins


The president of Kenya says the siege is over. Uhuru Kenyatta says 67 people died in the attack on an upscale mall in Nairobi. That does not include the deaths of several suspected terrorists. Nearly a dozen suspects are also in custody. The firefight lasted four days, and there are still many questions about what happened, including questions about who exactly was behind the attack. Kenyan intelligence indicated Westerners were among the terrorists. NPR's Gregory Warner is in Nairobi.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Last night, Kenya's foreign minister, Amina Mohamed, told PBS "NewsHour" that the gunmen who attacked a mall in Nairobi included two or three Americans.


WARNER: She also said there was a British woman among the attackers who has done this many times before.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...Samantha Lewthwaite, a feared female terrorist who, at one point, was suspected to coordinate this siege at Westgate. The government has...

WARNER: Kenyan media immediately knew who to finger. Samantha Lewthwaite, the so-called White Widow, British-born handmaiden to al-Shabab. And this rumor persisted despite the fact that both Kenya's interior minister and the spokesman for al-Shabab, the terrorists, insisted that all the militants were men. FBI and counterterrorism officials in the United States reached by NPR say they're not sure how the Kenyans are so confident in their assessment of U.S.-born attackers.

So I took the 20-minute drive from the tony neighborhood of Westgate to the muddy, potholed streets of Eastleigh, known as Little Mogadishu for its large community of Somali immigrants. In a cafe opposite the Nomad Palace Hotel, I met Ahmed Mohamed, secretary general for the Easleigh business community. He says all of Eastleigh's on tenterhooks, fearing a violent backlash from Kenyans always quick to blame Somalis for acts of terror.

AHMED MOHAMED: People are naturally twitchy in Eastleigh, you know, when these things happen, and when you have al-Shabab claiming responsibility, al-Shabab is known to be a Somali problem.

WARNER: When I told him that Kenya's own foreign minister said that some of the attackers may have been American-born or British, he wasn't surprised.

MOHAMED: She just basically confirmed what a lot of Somalis believe in Eastleigh that there are people who go outside of the country, go out of Somalia, and go out to America and come back radicalized.

VALENTINA SORIA: Well, it's an interesting point, but it's not entirely inaccurate.

WARNER: Valentina Soria is a security analyst for IHS Jane's. She said that in the past three years, al-Shabab has increasingly focused on recruiting from Western nationals and members of the Somali Diaspora across Europe and the United States. That's led to more hardened and committed extremists coming from the West.

SORIA: There is a history of fighters from across Europe and across the U.S., going to Somalia, trying to join the al-Shabab group.

WARNER: So while she advised to treat the suggestions by Kenyan authorities with caution, it would not surprise her if such a carefully orchestrated and brutal attack like this weekend's assault on the mall was done with the assistance of Western-born terrorists, which brings us back to Samantha Lewthwaite.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior research fellow with the Royal United Services Institute. He says that Lewthwaite, the widow of a suicide bomber who killed 26 people on a train in Britain, herself achieved semi-mystical status in the minds of East Africans since moving to Kenya in 2007 with her children.

RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI: You know, her personal narrative is a very compelling one. She is a white girl from the home counties in the United Kingdom, who converts to Islam, marries a man who's involved in this important terrorist operation, who then resurfaces out there as this support network figure with al-Shabab and al-Qaida. She's a face that people would immediately recognize.

WARNER: Many survivors of the mall attack told local reporters they witnessed a white woman, some said British woman, playing a leading role in the onslaught. So maybe Samantha Lewthwaite was among the attackers, or maybe a lot of people in Nairobi just expected her to be. And we may never know for sure. Several witnesses say the woman terrorist changed clothes and escaped, hands up, with the fleeing survivors.

Kenya's president says his forces killed five suspected terrorists and captured 11, but the remains of others may still be in the mall rubble. He said fingerprints and DNA tests could help determine their nationalities. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi.



You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.