With increased speculation that a British woman was among those responsible for the atrocity, which has left at least 62 people dead, Kenyan officials warned that they were fighting a “global terrorism” attack.
After four days of carnage at the Westgate shopping complex, jihadist blogs and social networking channels indicate that those who carried out the slaughter were recruited from Britain, Sweden and Finland, as well as the United States and Canada. Other information online suggests some nationals were involved from as far afield as Syria, Russia and Dagestan.
Kenyan interior minister Joseph Ole Lenku said “a multi-national collection from all over the world” had descended on Nairobi, while General Julius Karangi, head of the military, referred to “foreigners from so many nations”, adding: “We have an idea who they are, their nationalities. We are fighting global terrorism here.”
Yesterday, Kenyan foreign minister Amina Mohamed said “two or three Americans” and a British woman were among the militants. The woman, she said, had “done this many times before”, adding that the Americans were “young men, between maybe 18 and 19” years old, who were of Somali or Arab origin and had lived in “in Minnesota and one other place”.
The minister’s comments gave rise to speculation over the possible involvement of British terrorist suspect Samantha Lewthwaite, the widow of the 7 July 2005 suicide bomber Germaine Lindsay.
However, there was confusion over Ms Mohamed’s remarks – made while attending the UN General Assembly in New York – with no confirmation either from the authorities in Nairobi or the Foreign Office in London.
They directly contradict Mr Ole Lenku, who said on Monday that all the attackers were male – although he suggested some may have been dressed as women. The Foreign Office said only that it was aware of the foreign minister’s comments.
According to Kenya’s Star newspaper, two Radio Africa Group employees caught up in the gun battle said a woman appeared to be giving orders on Saturday afternoon, while reports from South Africa suggested Briton Lewthwaite may have travelled to Kenya on a forged South African passport.
Lewthwaite, dubbed “the White Widow”, is known to be in east Africa and is wanted by Kenyan police over alleged links to a terrorist cell that planned to bomb the country’s coast. In March last year, officials said she had fled to Somalia.
At a press conference in Pakistan, Home Secretary Theresa May, asked about Ms Mohamed’s remarks, said: “I’m aware that there have been reports of a British woman being involved but until we have seen the investigations completed, it is not possible to give further details to confirm or deny that issue.”
In Britain, MI5 officials have been warning for two years about the number of young Somali Britons being radicalised and sent for training in Somalia, estimating that at least 100 have joined the al-Shabaab terror group.
In September 2011, Jonathan Evans, former director-general of MI5, stressed: “It’s only a matter of time before we see terrorism on our streets inspired by those who are today fighting alongside al-Shabaab.”
In the US, security officials are understood to be scrutinising links with the so-called “Little Mogadishu” Somali community in the Midwest, after claims on Twitter accounts linked to al-Shabaab also named two men from Minnesota as participants.
Even before the terror in Nairobi, an online video suggested the city was fertile ground for finding those amenable to al-Shabaab’s cause. The footage, entitled Minnesota Martyrs: The Path to Paradise, told the story of the recruitment, training and deaths of three young men recruited in Minneapolis-St Paul.
The US attorney for Minnesota has estimated that at least 20 young men left for Somalia between 2007 and 2009, while other US officials have put the number at more than 50.
Kyle Loven, a spokesman for the FBI in Minneapolis, said yesterday: “The vast majority of Somali Americans living here are appalled by what’s happening; they are desperate for a solution and we are going to continue to work with the community.”
For its part, al-Shabaab, has rejected suggestions that US and British citizens were involved in the attack, describing those who spread such theories as “people who do not know what is going on in the Westgate building”.
John Campbell, a former US ambassador to Nigeria, said Islamist insurgencies in Africa were diffuse and did not suggest an organised network: “There is no cave in Afghanistan where it’s all being worked through.”