NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — U.S. Rep. Peter King said Sunday night that it’s possible that Americans are were among those who launched an brutal terrorist attack, which has since turned into a standoff at a mall in Nairobi, Kenya.
King, who serves on the U.S. House Intelligence Committee, said Americans are known to be members of al-Shabab, the rebel group based in Somalia and linked to al-Qaeda.
“It’s an extremely deadly organization — very well trained — and it’s one of the only al-Qaeda affiliates which actively recruited here in the United States,” King said. “There are at least 40 to 50 Somali-Americans who have gone to Somalia to be trained.”
King also said Sunday that the United States is performing its due diligence to ensure Saturday’s attack on a mall in Nairobi, Kenya, does not indicate the U.S. is under any imminent threat. But he advised Americans not to disrupt their lives.
In an interview with WCBS 880’s Monica Miller on Sunday morning, King (R-N.Y.) said he’s unaware of any possible threat from al-Shabab, the al-Qaida-linked militant group that has claimed responsibility for the mall attack that left 59 people dead and at least 175 others wounded.
King said any time there is a terrorist attack overseas, “we have to see if there’s any possible connection to the United States.”
According to King, the chairman of the House subcommittee on counterterrorism and intelligence, al-Shabab, which is based in Somalia, is the only al-Qaida affiliate that has recruited Americans. The Long Island congressman said U.S. officials are aware of 40 to 50 Somali-Americans who have left the United States to be trained as terrorists in Somalia.
“It’s important right now for the FBI to go to communities such as Minneapolis and St. Paul, to Portland, Maine — this is where the Somali-American community is based,” said King, who added that authorities will be looking into communications and travel between the U.S. and Somalia.
“As far as day-to-day life, unless we hear from differently from the police, we should carry on,” he said.
As CBS 2’s Dave Carlin reported, a cell phone video documented the horrifying moments when the gunfire and explosions started.
“It was completely luck, because we were on the ground floor — easily accessible,” said Bendita Malakia, who was in the food court at the mall. She hid inside a store afterward.
She escaped uninjured. But she was just steps ahead of men launching grenades, firing machine guns and taking hostages.
“You could hear while we were back there them methodically going from store to store — shooting, screams.” She said.
Witnesses say the armed men targeted non-Muslims. Elderly people, women and children were among the dead.
Survivors were found in hiding places, forced to take cover for hours.
In response to the attack, the NYPD has redeployed counterterror units around the city.
The hostage crisis has passed the 24-hour mark and fears rose of a protracted standoff with terrorists using hostages as pawns. Kenyan security forces were seen entering Westgate Mall with at least two rocket-propelled grenades, heavy weaponry for a potential indoor battle with hostages present.
Elite military units were inside the Westgate mall, and volleys of gunfire continued into the afternoon Sunday. Two wounded Kenyan soldiers were seen being carried out of the mall in the morning.
Kenyan security officials didn’t — or couldn’t — say how many people the estimated 10 to 15 terrorists were holding hostage. Kenya’s Red Cross said in a statement citing police that 49 people had been reported missing. Officials did not make an explicit link, but that number could form the basis of the number of people held hostage.
In an interview with WCBS 880’s Alex Silverman on Sunday morning, Jeffrey Gettleman, The New York Times’ East Africa bureau chief, who is based in Nairobi, described the standoff as “tense.”
“There’s no clear answer what to do,” Gettleman said. “From the information that we have, there are dozens of people, maybe hundreds, still inside this mall. … And there’s about 10 to 15 militants in the mall, and these guys are armed with assault rifles, possibly explosives. So the question is how do you either arrest or kill these militants who have slaughtered dozens of Kenyans without harming any other innocent civilians.”
Gettleman added that Kenyans have feared for years that al-Shabab would strike in a manner that would disrupt the economy and terrorize residents.
“In a way, it’s worse than a bomb that kind of happens in an instant and is over,” he said. “This is just going on and on and on. And I think a lot of people vicariously are terrorized by thinking what it was like inside that mall, what it would be like if your kids were running for cover as men were shooting at them.”
Leaders of al-Shabab said the attack is retribution for a Kenyan forces’ push into Somalia two years ago.
U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, said the massacre shows al-Qaeda is getting stronger.
“They’re not on the decline,” he said. “They’re on the rise, as you can see from Nairobi.”
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