Horror in Kenya: Islamist terrorists prey on innocent shoppers

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Americans' hearts go out in sympathy to the families and friends of Kenyans and other nationalities, and to Kenya in general, at the losses suffered from the horrendous terrorist attack Saturday at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, the country's capital.

Witnesses over the weekend said masked gunmen stormed the crowded shopping center, yelling that Muslims should run away, then shot at men, women and children. After the four-day siege ended Tuesday, at least 67 civilians and government troops were dead and 175 were reported injured.

The attack has been claimed by a militant Somali Islamist organization, al-Shabab, and is not the first atrocity carried out by the group. It was responsible, for example, for a coordinated bombing in 2010 in Uganda's capital, killing 74 World Cup rugby fans, in what it called revenge for Uganda having provided troops to support the government in Somalia against al-Shabab.

Al-Shabab, which has links to al-Qaida, has issued warnings that it would attack Kenya for sending troops to Somalia in 2011. The United States, which has a close relationship with Kenya, encouraged it to put troops into Somalia, which has been torn by internal fighting since 1991.

What Kenya does next, in response to the horrific assault, is not clear. It has more than a half-million Somali refugees and the 424-mile border with Somalia is indefensible, as is the Indian Ocean sea lane between the two countries. Adding to the complexity of the problem, the Kenyan population includes a Somali ethnic component, estimated at more than 1 million. One neighborhood of Nairobi, Eastleigh, is populated almost entirely by Somalis, hosting Kenyan Somalis as well as registered and unregistered refugees from Somalia.

This is not the first terrorist attack in Nairobi. In 1980 there was a bombing at the historic Norfolk Hotel, owned by Israelis. In 1998 terrorists bombed the American Embassy, killing more than 200. The Westgate Mall was built and is partly operated by Israelis. Kenyan Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed, an ethnic Somali born in Kenya, has commented, without providing evidence, that two of Saturday's attackers were American citizens, possibly of Somali origin. That is possible, given that an estimated 100,000 Somalis have emigrated to the United States due to the disorders there and some have returned to Somalia to fight.

The United States is providing technical assistance to the Kenyan government regarding Saturday's attack. Tourism constitutes 10 percent of Kenya's economy, second in importance only to agriculture. It is important that order be restored quickly in Kenya and that the world stand united against terrorists who would prey on innocent civilians.

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