Al-Shabab, the armed Somali Islamist extremist group that attacked a shopping mall in Kenya, said Wednesday that foreigners were a "legitimate target" and confirmed witness accounts that gunmen tried to let Muslims go free while killing or taking the others captive.
In an email exchange Wednesday with The Associated Press, Al-Shabab said the jihadis "carried out a meticulous vetting process" so that Muslims would not be harmed. According to published accounts, witnesses have said the gunmen rounded up people, asked questions about Islam that a Muslim would know and told the Muslims to leave the mall.
It was only on Wednesday that the leader of Al-Shabab for the first time confirmed claims by members of his group that it was behind the attack.
In an audio posted on a Al-Shabab-linked website on Wednesday night, Ahmed Godane, also known as Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr, said the attack on the mall was in retaliation for Kenya's incursion in October 2011 into southern Somalia to crush the insurgents.
"Take your troops out or prepare for a long-lasting war, blood, destruction and evacuation," Godane said in the message, apparently directed at the Kenyan government.
At least 18 foreigners were killed, including six Britons, citizens from France, Canada, Trinidad, the Netherlands, Australia, Peru, India, Ghana, South Africa and China, when the militants entered the Westgate Mall on Saturday, slaughtering men, women and children with assault rifles and grenades. The current death toll is 67 and is likely to climb with uncounted bodies remaining in the rubble of the Nairobi mall. Five gunmen were also said to be killed.
"The Mujahideen carried out a meticulous vetting process at the mall and have taken every possible precaution to separate the Muslims from the Kuffar (disbelievers) before carrying out their attack," Al-Shabab said in an email from the HSM Press Office. HSM are the initials of Al-Shabab's full name in Arabic.
Al-Shabab had threatened retaliation against Kenya for sending its troops into Somalia. Asked if Al-Shabab intended to kill foreigners in the mall attack, the group said "our target was to attack the Kenyan govt on it's soil and any part of the Kenyan territory is a legitimate target for HSM ... and Kenya should be held responsible for the loss of life, whether foreigners or local"
Many of those killed in an attack that horrified the world were Kenyans.
Al-Shabab controlled much of Somalia, which borders Kenya to the east, for several years, including most of the capital Mogadishu. African Union forces pushed the Al-Qaida-affiliated group out of Mogadishu in 2011 and Kenya sent in troops that year, further squeezing the group into smaller territory in Somalia's south. Al-Shabab has responded with attacks against government and AU targets in Somalia, usually suicide bombings, but has also set off bombs at a college graduation ceremony in Mogadishu, at restaurants and other locations, killing Muslim civilians.
Asked if the separation of Muslims from non-Muslims represented a change in tactics, the group insisted in an email that it "has never deliberately targeted Muslims."
"Our targets have always been disbelievers, invaders and the apostate governments officials/troops who are allied with them," it said.
Al-Shabab, whose name means "The Youth" in Arabic, has said the mall attack was in retribution for Kenyan forces' push into Somalia.
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