A brutal attack on a crowd of World Cup watchers at a hotel in northern Kenya has reportedly left at least 48 people dead. One of the survivors told The Daily Beast that the assailants were killing non-Muslims execution-style.
Kenyan government officials claimed the attack could be the work of al-Shabaab, an Islamist terror group that killed more than 60 people during an attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi last year.
Mohammed Shariff, who was among the viewers at the Breeze View hotel in the coastal town of Mpekatoni, said the gunmen were asking people whether they were Islamic before opening fire. “They told us to say, ‘There is no god but Allah.’ Then they told the non-Muslims to lie down and then shot them,” Shariff said through a translator.
When Shariff and his friends tried to flee, they found that the assailants had surrounded the hotel, but he managed to escape the gunfire. Many of the others weren’t so lucky.
In Kibaoni, a village less than a mile from Mpekatoni, shooters were reported to be going from door to door demanding that those inside recite the shahada. “Joseph,” a friend of one man who was shot dead, told The Daily Beast that the militants threatened to continue their assaults: “We are al-Shabaab and we will come back until the government removes the dogs from Somalia.”
The scene was reminiscent of the stories that emerged from the Westgate attack, in which al-Shabaab militants stormed an upscale shopping center. Early reports claimed that the armed assailants demanded that everyone present recite the shahada, “Laillhailla Allahu.” However, as many Muslims as non-Muslims were killed at Westgate.
So far, only adult men have been reported killed in Sunday’s attack. But military spokesman Major Emmanuel Chirchir stated via Twitter that on Sunday afternoon attackers driving two Nissan minivans sped into Mpeketoni and began shooting people indiscriminately.
The wide-ranging attack targeted two hotels, a gas station, and a police station in the thriving and fast-growing town, which is just under 15 miles from the island of Lamu, a UNESCO World Heritage site popular with tourists.
The coastal town was once populated by Swahilis (who are predominantly Muslim), but it became part of a “settlement scheme” for landless Kikuyus implemented by Jomo Kenyatta after independence. It is now a booming region that serves as a base for building crews, commercial developers, and services for the multibillion-dollar mega seaport under construction in nearby Magagoni.
Officials said assailants stole vehicles and weapons from the police station and that two policemen were among the dead. A witness told The Daily Beast that a bank also had been torched.
The identity of the attackers remains unclear, but government officials suggest that al Qaeda-allied Somali militant group al-Shabaab is likely to have carried out the attack.
Kenya has suffered a wave of political violence since 2011, when its armed forces invaded Somalia in response to a rash of kidnappings of tourists and aid workers. Al-Shabaab officially claimed responsibility for the mall attack as retaliation for Kenya’s keeping troops in Somalia. The Westgate mall attack was the deadliest since the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi.
While the attack did not affect Lamu, town residents say they are worried. “Everyone either knows someone or has family in Mpekatoni,” said a resident. Her daughter, who attends boarding school in Mpekatoni, fled into the bush with classmates and teachers. The daughter reported hearing the assailants singing Somali songs.
Many residents of the area are Kikuyu farmers as well as Somali pastoralists. “What we could have here is another Tana River massacre,” said the resident, referring to a series of deadly tribal clashes in 2012 that left 52 dead.
At a news conference Monday afternoon, Kenya’s interior minister, Joseph Ole Lenku, did not rule out internal politics as the cause of the Mpekatoni attack.
Later Monday evening, al-Shabaab issued a statement claiming responsibility for the attack, citing the same reasons it offered for the Westgate mall assault—to force the removal of Kenyan forces from Somalia. The statement also cited the recent extrajudicial killings by police of prominent Muslim preachers, particularly in Mombasa, and the illegal detention of thousands of Somali civilians in Nairobi.
But the land issue is still relevant. Tensions between upcountry Christian tribes, who also happen to be the country’s ruling elite, and Swahili residents, many of whom are of Arabic origin, have been mounting since independence. Arab traders began traveling to the Kenya coast beginning the first century A.D. and settling on the coast in the 17th century. Many of today’s Swahili residents are said to be descendents of Oman.
“The town [Mpekatoni] raided by the Mujahideen was a Muslim town before it was invaded and occupied by Christians,” al-Shabaab added in its statement claiming responsibility for the attack.
Equally ominous was the militant group’s warning to foreigners: “Kenya is now officially a war zone and as such any tourists visiting the country do so at their own peril. Foreigners with any regard for their safety and security should stay away from Kenya or suffer the consequences of their folly.”
Raids that involved the kidnapping of tourists in 2011 had already reduced the number of visitors to Kenya to 1.4 million last year from 1.7 million in 2012. The tourism industry is the nation’s second-biggest source of foreign currency, generating $1.1 billion in 2013, Bloomberg reports.
While pundits are saying the new attack will bring the country’s tourist sector to its knees, the Kenya Tourist Board (KTB) is trying to assure the public otherwise. “There were no tourists in the area at the time of the incident. Lamu Island, one of Kenya’s primary tourist resorts, is in no way affected by this attack and neither is any other part of the Kenya coast,” the board said in a statement.
Postscript - Despite al-Shabaab claiming responsibility, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta addressed the nation on Tuesday blaming the opposition for the massacre. “The attack in Lamu was well-planned, orchestrated and politically motivated ethnic violence against the Kenyan community, with the intention of profiling and evicting them for political reasons," said Kenyatta. "This, therefore, was not an al-Shabab terrorist attack. Evidence indicates that local political networks were involved in the planning and execution of the heinous crime.”
Tensions have been on the rise recently after a rival leader called for dialogue concerning the nation's deteriorating security, economic and political situation. Raila Odinga dismissed Kenyatta's claims that he is trying to overthrow the government.