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Questions linger after Kenya mall attack

Complexity of attack raises questions about planning, possible collusion

CNN News Wire | 9/25/2013, 2:48 p.m.
Exterior of the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, Kenya on September 25, 2013.

NAIROBI, Kenya — Some answers may be revealed in blood-stained halls or deep in the rubble of Nairobi’s Westgate Mall. Others may never be known.

That’s the reality for investigators and the people of Kenya on Wednesday, still coming to grips with a vicious attack and armed standoff that ended a day earlier.

At least 61 civilians and six Kenyan security officers died in the four-day attack and rescue efforts, President Uhuru Kenyatta said Tuesday, but the death toll will rise as recovery workers retrieve bodies buried in the rubble of the partially collapsed mall.

Kenyan forces killed five terrorists, and 11 others are in custody over possible links to the attacks, Kenyatta said, declaring that his country had “ashamed and defeated” the attackers.

But even though Kenyatta declared the siege over, an immense amount of work remains to learn how Al-Shabaab, a terror group thought to be badly bruised by recent losses in its Somalian homeland, was able to pull off such a well-coordinated and brazen attack.

How did they do it?

It started Saturday when the attackers stormed into the upscale mall and began shooting. A senior Kenyan government official said they took “very few” people captive; the attackers were primarily out for blood.

“They were not interested in hostage-taking,” the official said. “They only wanted to kill.”

The attackers were equipped well enough to kill dozens of civilians, then fend off Kenyan security forces for four days — not the sort of action that can be pulled off on a whim.

That raises a number of questions: How could such a significant plot, involving travel arrangements, arms transfers and other details, have escaped the attention of intelligence officials? Did the attackers have inside help, either at the mall or within security forces?

So far, Kenyan and U.S. authorities aren’t answering such questions, certainly not publicly.

U.S. wants access

U.S. security and law enforcement personnel are pressing for access to the mall and the bodies of the terrorists so they can begin to determine if Americans were among the attackers, according to a U.S. official with direct knowledge of the situation.

“That is the million-dollar question,” the official said. “We do not have much fidelity on this. We haven’t had access to the scene.”

But based on what the United States knows so far, “this was meticulously planned,” the official said. “This is not something where the attackers walked into the mall all of the sudden.”

The United States is looking at the possibility the attackers stored their weapons inside the mall ahead of time and may have even rented a store there as a base of operations. The Americans are also looking at reports the attackers may have had access to blueprints of the mall and knowledge of the location of employee and service personnel stairways as well as ventilation systems.

FBI experts from the Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center are assisting Kenyans on a preliminary basis. They have specific expertise in analyzing explosives and fingerprints. But the United States wants autopsy and forensic data, including DNA samples, to help determine if Americans were involved, the official said. The United States also will scour any communications or intercepts for clues, according to other officials.