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Editorial: U.S. ignores Kenya massacre at its peril

Civilians who had been hiding inside the Westgate

Civilians who had been hiding inside the Westgate Mall during the gun battle hold their hands in the air as a precautionary measure before being searched by armed police, in Nairobi, Kenya. (Sept. 21, 2013) Credit: AP

The 1998 truck bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi is now considered one of the first signs of the emerging threat of global terrorism. Back then its significance was not so clear. The latest carnage in Kenya could well be another warning of trouble ahead.

This massacre at Nairobi's Western-style luxury mall by al-Shabab, an Islamist extremist group based in Somalia with declared ties to al-Qaida, already has a toll of more than 60 killed and many more injured. It shouldn't have come as a surprise. Ever since Kenya's 2011 military invasion of an al-Shabab base in southern Somalia, in an effort to drive it out of that war-torn nation, the jihadist group has vowed revenge. And Western intelligence agencies, including the CIA -- whose largest African headquarters is in Nairobi -- have been saying the Westgate Premier Shopping Mall was a top target. But the attackers weren't stopped.

The FBI and U.S. intelligence agencies are investigating reports the terrorist group posted on Twitter, claiming Americans and other Westerners were among the gunmen. Amina Mohamed, the Kenyan foreign minister, told PBS that "two or three" Americans were among the mall gunmen. According to Gen. Julius Karangi, chief of Kenyan Defense Forces, "We are fighting global terrorism here."

The Somali group is known for its extensive recruiting in the United States. Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) estimated on Sunday there could be 15 to 20 Americans actively involved with the group.

The method of slaughter in this case -- assault weapons, not bombs -- hints at possible changes in means and global strategy. And if reports by witnesses that the mall killers targeted non-Muslims are accurate, a new form of Islamist extremism is spreading in North Africa.

Even if al-Shabab wants to expand its struggle beyond the region, few experts believe it has the means to attack on U.S. soil. Unlike our reaction in 1998, however, we should consider ourselves warned.

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