NAIROBI, Kenya -- Masked gunmen stormed into a fancy, crowded mall in Nairobi on Saturday and shot dead at least 39 people in one of the most chilling terrorist attacks in East Africa since al-Qaida blew up two U.S. embassies in 1998.
Parents threw their bodies over their children, people climbed into ventilation shafts to save themselves, and shoppers huddled behind the plastic mannequins of designer clothing stores as two squads of gunmen moved through the mall, shooting shoppers in the head.
The mall, called Westgate, is a symbol of Kenya's rising prosperity, an impressive five-story building where Kenyans can buy expensive cups of frozen yogurt and plates of sushi. On Saturdays, it is especially crowded, with loose, sometimes lackadaisical security. U.S. officials have long warned that malls are ripe targets for Islamist terrorists, especially Westgate, because a cafe on the ground floor is owned by Israelis.
Fred Ngoga Gateretse, an official with the African Union, was having coffee at that cafe, ArtCaffe, around noon when he heard two deafening blasts. He cowered on the floor and watched eight gunmen with scarves twisted over their faces firing at shoppers and then up at Kenyan police officers who were shooting down from a balcony as panicked shoppers dashed for cover. "Believe me, these guys were good shooters," Mr. Gateretse said. "You could tell they were trained."
Several witnesses said the attackers shouted for Muslims to run away while they hunted down other shoppers. The mall, one of Nairobi's most luxurious, with gleaming escalators and some of the most expensive shops in town, is also popular with expatriates. It has served as the place for a power lunch, to catch a movie, to bring children for ice cream. On Saturday, the State Department said there were reports of injured U.S. citizens but declined to elaborate, citing privacy considerations.
Four Americans were believed to have been injured in the attack, U.S. officials said. No Americans were reported killed, but Secretary of State John Kerry, who called the attack "a heartbreaking reminder that there exists unspeakable evil in our world," said that the wife of a local employee of the U.S. government was among the dead. Two Canadians, one of them a diplomat based in Nairobi, and two French citizens were killed in the assault, their governments said.
Several Western intelligence officials said they suspected that the attack was carried out by al-Shabab, an Islamist militant group based in Somalia that has carried out suicide attacks and beheadings inside Somalia and threatened Kenyan malls before. A confidential U.N. report Saturday described the attack as "a complex, two-pronged assault" with two squads of gunmen dashing into the mall from different floors at the same time and opening fire immediately.
Al-Shabab sent out several Twitter messages after the massacre, suggesting that its fighters were responsible for an attack that they said represented "just a very tiny fraction of what Muslims in Somalia experience at the hands of Kenyan invaders." One message said al-Shabab had warned the Kenyan government "that failure to remove its forces from Somalia would have severe consequences." Kenya sent troops into Somalia in 2011 to help fight al-Shabab and to prevent violence from spilling over across the border the countries share.
The president of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta, said at least 39 had died and 150 were injured in the assault. "Terrorism is and of itself is a philosophy of cowards," he said in an address to the nation Saturday night. "We are as brave and invincible as the lions on our coat of arms."
As midnight approached, Kenyan commandos had cornered several of the assailants on the third floor of the mall, witnesses said. Western officials said they expected that the assailants would fight to the death, although the Kenyan news media reported that one wounded gunman had been captured, and that he had later died in a hospital. Witnesses who escaped the mall said that the assailants were holding hostages at gunpoint and that one of the assailants was a woman.
Kenya serves as the economic engine of East Africa, and while it has been mostly spared the violence and turmoil of many of its neighbors, it is no stranger to terrorist attacks. In 1998, al-Qaida killed more than 200 people in an enormous truck bombing of the U.S. Embassy in downtown Nairobi, while simultaneously attacking the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Islamist terrorists also struck an Israeli-owned hotel on Kenya's Indian Ocean coast in 2002 and fired missiles at an Israeli airliner.
More recently, al-Shabab has put Kenya in its cross hairs, especially after Kenya sent thousands of troops into Somalia in 2011 to chase al-Shabab away from its borders. Al-Shabab has attacked churches in eastern Kenya, mosques in Nairobi and government outposts along the desiccated Kenya-Somalia border.
But this was the boldest attack yet. Within minutes, as the gunmen opened fire with assault rifles, Westgate was plunged into mayhem and carnage. People ran out screaming, and victims soaked in their own blood were wheeled out in shopping carts. Bodies were still sprawled on the mall's front steps hours afterward, and woozy shoppers continue to emerge from the stores where they had been hiding.
As the episode unfolded, helicopters hovered overhead while soldiers in flak jackets and helmets jogged single file into the mall, faces grim, guns cocked. Gunshots continued to ring out after nightfall, although the Kenyan authorities did not provide much information about what was happening inside the mall. Several Kenyan soldiers were wounded.
Al-Shabab, once again in a Twitter message, said the fighters inside the mall would not give up.
"There will be no negotiations whatsoever at .Westgate," the message said.