ounterterrorism forces were locked in a standoff with suspected al-Shabaab militants in an upscale hotel and office complex in Kenya’s capital Wednesday, more than 16 hours after the deadly attack began.
In the early morning hours, about 100 people who had been holed up in bathrooms and offices were released from the 14 Riverside complex, a popular meeting spot for both international business travelers and local Kenyan elites.
Gunfire could still be heard and ambulances were rushing to and from the complex, which has been cordoned off by police.
A Kenyan police officer said 15 bodies have been taken to the morgue, the Associated Press reported. An American was among the dead, a U.S. official said.
Somali extremist group al-Shabaab claimed responsibility Tuesday for the attack and siege, which forced workers to hide under their desks or run for their lives in the middle of the afternoon.
The gunmen moved from a local bank branch into the foyer of the Dusit D2 Hotel, where they detonated a suicide bomb, said Joseph Boinnet, Kenya’s police inspector general. “A number of guests suffered severe injuries,” he said.
At the Secret Garden cafe in the complex’s lush garden, the lifeless bodies of four office workers, some still in front of their laptops or snacks, were slumped over tables.
Security footage reviewed by The Wall Street Journal showed three unmasked gunmen, wearing ammunition vests and carrying AK-47s, walking through the complex’s courtyard before opening fire on a parked vehicle. A separate video showed a fourth, similarly equipped man, inside the normally tightly secured block.
In addition to the hotel, run by Thailand’s Dusit International, the 14 Riverside complex houses banks, stores, travel agencies and several offices. Hundreds, if not thousands of people, including employees and hotel guests, pass through the complex each day, a senior executive at the DusitD2 who had been rescued said. The executive said many hotel staff members had been taken to a nearby building, but others remained barricaded inside their offices and hotel facilities.
A senior Nairobi-based diplomat said intelligence officials had identified six attackers and a vehicle packed with explosives.
U.S. counterterrorism advisers were on the ground Tuesday to assist the Kenyan forces responding to the attack, an official involved in the response said. The advisers are part of a State Department program in Kenya to train and equip the country’s counterterrorism troops to respond to major attacks.
Al-Shabaab, an al Qaeda affiliate, regularly carries out deadly attacks, mostly inside Somalia, despite being the target of international operations, including U.S. drone strikes, for years. Its bloodiest attack to date, in 2017, claimed the lives of more than 500 Somalis in the capital Mogadishu.
Kenya, which shares a border with Somalia, is in al-Shabaab’s crosshairs for its contribution to Amisom, a regional military force that fights the insurgency inside Somalia.
For many Kenyans, the siege at 14 Riverside brought back painful memories of the 2013 attack on the Westgate shopping mall, which left 67 people dead. Two years later, militants rampaged through Garissa University, killing at least 147 students. Al-Shabaab claimed both attacks.
In recent years, Kenya has made advances against al-Shabaab. There haven’t been any major terrorist attacks in the country since the Garissa siege. Security at 14 Riverside has been among the tightest in Nairobi, with vehicles being checked for weapons and explosives at a boom gate located around 100 yards from its buildings. Pernod Ricard SA, the alcohol giant, and Adam Smith International, a prominent think tank, have offices there. It is frequented by international business visitors and upper-class Kenyans, including senior politicians, who go there to dine or hold meetings.
But while Kenya has worked closely with the U.S. and the U.K. to counter terrorism, and invested heavily in state-of-the-art surveillance equipment, it continues to suffer from weak border security. A group of United Nations experts said last year that al-Shabaab teams had been able to enter Kenya from Somalia by paying bribes as small as $20 to border guards; they were apprehended before carrying out their planned attacks.
Source – WSJ