For those familiar with the methods of the Somali Islamists, Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen [or Mujahedin Youth Movement], the attack on Nairobi’s Westgate mall initially appeared to be a textbook operation. A team of gunmen had blasted its way into a high-value target using assault rifles and grenades and proceeded to inflict as many casualties as possible.
What was surprising was not that Somali extremists might have struck at the wealthy heart of East Africa’s biggest economy, Kenya, by targeting a mall frequented mainly by the country’s elite, international diplomats and expats, but that the strike had become a siege that was still continuing last night, after 36 hours.
Reports that some civilians caught up in the attack had been taken by the fighters to use as a human shield or hostages marked a departure from the militants’ usual methods.
The group’s most high-profile attack this year had come in June in Somalia’s seaside capital Mogadishu, where a car bomb blasted open the gates to a heavily guarded compound allowing half a dozen gunmen inside, where they hunted United Nations staff until they were killed themselves by Somali security services and armed guards.
There was no attempt to take hostages. Soon after the attack, an al-Shabaab spokesman boasted on Twitter of another success for its “ martyrdom brigade”.
Similarly, earlier this month a car bomb was used to draw a crowd outside the popular Village restaurant near the Somali capital’s parliament building. Once the onlookers had gathered, a suicide bomber ran into their midst and detonated himself, killing some 15 people.
As with most of the Islamists’ operations there was one thing in common: none of the attackers had expected to survive. When al-Shabaab withdrew two years ago from the battle lines it had drawn and held for so long in Mogadishu – in response to internal criticism of the way it had handled an appalling famine blighting the country – it left behind evidence of the youth of the fighters it had relied on.
The bullet-riddled buildings where its young soldiers had spent their lives during the struggle to oust African Union forces from Uganda and Burundi were plastered with adolescent graffiti.
Alongside the vertical columns of religious writings, bored youths had scrawled fantastical figures of naked women. While the group’s leaders include a number of clan elders and some foreign fighters, battle-hardened in north Africa and Afghanistan, most of its rank and file are little more than teenagers lured with the promise of $300 and a trip to paradise via martyrdom. These young men, and sometimes women, have been the mainstay of suicide operations inside Somalia.
It had been assumed that the intentions of the Nairobi attackers were similar. A message on the al-Shaabab Twitter feed said the group would not negotiate with Kenyan forces, but the length of the attack suggests otherwise.
Video: Kenya shopping mall attack
The victims came from around the world. So did their killers
Was wife of 7/7 bomber among attackers?
'All hostages freed' as Kenyan soldiers take control of mall
Kenyans are more united in tragedy’s aftermath
The victims: The architect and his pregnant wife
Video: Amateur footage from Kenya shopping mall attack
Ian Birrell: How to fight al-Shabaab