Story by the Associated Press; curated by Dave Urbanski
As terrified civilians hid in toilet stalls, behind mannequins, in ventilation shafts and underneath food court tables, the masked gunmen who infiltrated Nairobi’s Westgate mall last weekend began a high-stakes game of 20 Questions to separate Muslims from those they consider infidels.
- A 14-year-old boy saved himself by jumping off the mall’s roof, after learning from friends inside that they were quizzed on names of the Prophet Muhammad’s relatives.
- A Jewish man scribbled a Quranic scripture on his hand to memorize, after hearing the terrorists were asking captives to recite specific verses.
- Numerous survivors described how the attackers from al-Shabab, a Somali cell which recently joined Al Qaeda, shot people who failed to provide the correct answers.
Their attack was timed to coincide with the highest traffic at the upscale mall after 12:30 p.m. on Sept. 21, a Saturday. More than 1,000 people, including diplomats, pregnant women with strollers and foreign couples, were inside when the fighters armed with grenades and AK-47s burst in and opened fire.
At first the attack had the indiscriminate character of all of Shabab’s previous assaults.
Rutvik Patel, 14, was in the aisles at Nakumatt, the mall’s supermarket which sells everything from plasma TVs to imported kiwis, when he heard the first explosion.
“They started shooting continuously, and whoever died, died,” he said. “Then it became calm and they came up to people and began asking them some questions. If you knew the answer, they let you go,” he said. “They asked the name of the Prophet’s mom. They asked them to sing a religious verse.”
Just across from the Nakumatt supermarket, a 31-year-old Jewish businessman was cashing a check inside the local Barclays branch when he, too, heard the shooting. The people there ran to the back and shut themselves in the room with the safe, switching off the lights. They learned, via text messages, that the extremists were asking people to recite an Arabic prayer called the Shahada.
“One of the women who was with us got a text from her husband saying, they’re asking people to say the Islamic oath, and if you don’t know it, they kill you,” said the businessman, who insisted on anonymity out of fear for his safety.
He threw away his passport. Then he downloaded the Arabic prayer and wrote it on his palm.
Al-Shabab’s attempts to identify Muslims are clear in the 16-page transcript from the conference of Islamic scholars held in the Somali town of Baidoa, an area known to be under Shabab control in 2011, according to Somalia specialist Kenneth Menkhaus, a political science professor at Davidson College in North Carolina. The scholars issued several fatwas defining exactly who was a Muslim and who was an apostate.
The document states it is halal, or lawful, to kill and rob those who commit crimes against Islam: “The French and the English are to be treated equally: Their blood and their money are halal wherever they may be. No Muslim in any part of the world may cooperate with them in any way. … It leads to apostasy and expulsion from Islam,” it says. Further on it adds: “Accordingly, Ethiopians, Kenyans, Ugandans and Burundians are just like the English and the French because they have invaded the Islamic country of Somalia.”
Several hours after the gunshots at Westgate Mall, the people cowering inside the Barclays bank heard a commotion. As the attackers approached, the Jewish businessman spit on his hand to erase the words he had by then committed to memory.
The door opened.
He exhaled. It was the police.
Several floors above, 14-year-old Patel looked for a place to hide on the roof. When the jihadists came up the stairs and threw a grenade, he didn’t hesitate. He jumped, crushing his ankle on the pavement below.
He said he would not have known how to answer their questions.
Their chilling accounts, combined with internal al-Shabab documents discovered earlier this year by The Associated Press, mark the final notch in a transformation within the global terror network, which began to rethink its approach after setbacks in Iraq. Al Qaeda has since realized that the indiscriminate killing of Muslims is a strategic liability and hopes instead to create a schism between Muslims and everyone else, whom they consider “kuffar,” or apostates.
“What this shows is Al Qaeda’s acknowledgment that the huge masses of Muslims they have killed is an enormous PR problem within the audience they are trying to reach,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization. “This is a problem they had documented and noticed going back to at least Iraq. And now we see Al Qaeda groups are really taking efforts to address it.”
This is a concession for an organization that since its inception had killed people constantly, said Rudolph Atallah, who tracked Shabab as Africa counterterrorism director in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2003 to 2007.
“They would just go and mow people down,” Atallah said. “They are now sending a clear message that, ‘Look, we’re different … We’re no longer indiscriminately killing. We’re protecting innocent Muslims and we are trying to kill quote-unquote ‘infidels,’ nonbelievers.”
Associated Press writers Jason Straziuso in Nairobi and Andrew O. Selsky in Johannesburg contributed to this report. The documents are available in Arabic and English at: