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Experts say Westgate attack was surprisingly sophisticated, given apparent decline of Somali extremist group
September 25, 20138:15AM ET
The leader of the Somali armed group Al-Shabab has for the first time confirmed claims by members of his group that it was behind the attack on a Nairobi shopping mall that killed at least 67 people, with additional victims possibly buried beneath the mall’s wreckage.
In an audio message posted on the Al-Shabab-linked website www.somalimemo.net on Wednesday night, Ahmed Godane, also known as Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr, said the Sept. 21 attack on the Westgate shopping mall was in retaliation for Kenya's October 2011 incursion into southern Somalia in an attempt to eliminate the insurgents.
"Take your troops out or prepare for a long-lasting war, blood, destruction and evacuation," Godane said in the message, apparently directed at Kenya’s government.
Al-Shabab, which formally merged with al-Qaeda in 2012, once held parts of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, but has been on the decline since the 2011 “Linda Nchi” invasion thwarted an attempted takeover of the deteriorating Somali state.
The group is perhaps best known for the twin bombings in Uganda that killed 74 people during the 2010 World Cup. That attack was also the first major Al-Shabab strike outside of Somalia.
Analysts say the Westgate attack was surprisingly sophisticated given the group’s apparent decay over the past couple of years, and indicates that Al-Shabab is still capable of inflicting large-scale casualties in nearby countries.
“Perhaps we were exaggerating the decline,” said Randy Bell, an East Africa expert with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington, D.C. Bell noted that while Al-Shabab is “on the wane," it still controls a large portion of the Somali hinterlands and has links to other armed groups in Mombasa and Nairobi.
“On the wane doesn’t mean gone,” he said.
In the audio message, Godane also said the attack sought to punish the West for its involvement in Somalia -- the U.S. and France were party to the 2011 invasion -- a statement that shed light on the group’s choice to attack Westgate, a popular shopping destination for expatriates.
Asked if Al-Shabab had intended to kill foreigners, the group told The Associated Press in an email exchange: "Our target was to attack the Kenyan [government] on [its] soil and any part of the Kenyan territory is a legitimate target … and Kenya should be held responsible for the loss of life, whether foreigners or local."
Godane’s proclamation came near the end of the first of three government-declared days of mourning for victims of the Westgate tragedy.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, echoing the assurances of other government officials, declared in a televised address Tuesday night that his forces had “ashamed and defeated” Al-Shabab.
“As a nation, our head is bloodied but unbowed,” said Kenyatta, who has repeatedly declared his intention to stay the course in neighboring Somalia, where Kenya maintains a military presence.
Al-Shabab has not yet acknowledged defeat at Westgate. On Wednesday, the group alleged over its Twitter account that Kenyan forces were directly responsible for the death of 137 hostages.
“Kenyan govt employed chemical agents to end the siege at #Westgate Mall, killing all the hostages in the process,” the tweet said.
Three floors of the mall collapsed toward the end of the government operation. The Interior Minister said Wednesday evening that “only terrorists” would be found beneath the rubble.
It is unclear what the “long war” referenced by Godane would entail for Kenyans, but Al-Shabab has proven in Westgate that it still has the resources and coordination to strike foreign targets.
“It definitely shows a morphing of the group,” said Bell, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies -- “but what it’s morphing into, I can’t say right now.”
Michael Pizzi contributed reporting to this article, with wire services