September 27, 2013

No signs tying Mainers to attacks at Kenya mall

By Kevin Miller
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON – Senior law enforcement and intelligence officials have told Maine's two senators that they have no indications that any Maine residents were involved in the recent terrorist attacks in a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya.

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This photo released by the Kenya Presidency shows the collapsed upper car park of the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013. Working near bodies crushed by rubble in a bullet-scarred, scorched mall, FBI agents continued fingerprint, DNA and ballistic analysis to help determine the identities and nationalities of victims and al-Shabab gunmen who attacked the shopping center, killing more than 60 people. (AP Photo/Kenya Presidency)

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The tabloids call her "the white widow," a British-born Muslim convert who was married to one of the suicide bombers in the 2005 attack on London's transit system. And for days now, the British media have been rife with speculation she took part in the terrorist takeover at a Nairobi shopping mall.

On Thursday, Interpol, acting at Kenya's request, issued an arrest notice for 29-year-old fugitive Samantha Lewthwaite -- not in connection with the mall attack, but over a 2011 plot to bomb holiday resorts in Kenya. If Lewthwaite indeed embraced the jihadi cause, it would mark a chilling turnaround for the apparently grieving widow who originally condemned the London transit bombings and criticized her late husband, Jermaine Lindsay, for taking part.

Officials have not made public any evidence linking her to the mall attack. The Interpol notice did not mention it. And al-Shabab, the group behind the takeover, denied any female fighters participated.

But the timing of Interpol's notice so soon after the attack fueled speculation she was involved in some way -- suspicions raised earlier by comments from Kenya's foreign minister that a British woman had a role.

-- The Associated Press

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, met Thursday morning with officials from the FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center in Washington following unconfirmed and conflicting reports that Americans – potentially including at least one Maine resident – were involved in the attacks. At least 67 people were killed in the days-long attack by the Somalia-based group al-Shabab.

"At this point, our counterterrorism officials have no information to corroborate reports that any Americans were responsible for the attacks, including anyone in Maine," King said in a statement. "Our government is continuing to review names and other information that has been posted on social media and in the press to determine the validity of such reports."

Republican Sen. Susan Collins also said Thursday that the FBI's special agent in charge in Boston, Vince Lisi, told her there was no evidence that individuals with ties to Maine were involved.

"The FBI tells me that it continues to remain concerned about efforts by al-Shabab to recruit Americans," Collins said in a statement to the Portland Press Herald. "Let me emphasize, however, that to date, the FBI has not confirmed the identities of the attackers in Kenya but has found no evidence linking the terrorists to Maine's communities."

While not definitive, the update will likely provide a measure of relief to members of Maine's small but growing Somali community who have steadfastly said they have no knowledge of al-Shabab recruiting in the state.

The organization has recruited young men from Minneapolis – home to the nation's largest Somali-American community – and even used the recruits in sophisticated propaganda videos. Several of those men have since been killed fighting for al-Shabab in Africa.

Questions about whether Somali-Americans were involved in the assault on the Westgate mall in Nairobi surfaced Sunday.

A message posted on what was originally attributed to an al-Shabab Twitter account -- but which has since been discredited by several sources -- listed several supposed U.S. residents involved in the assault.

One person was listed as coming from Maine, leading to speculation that someone had been recruited from one of the state's Somali-American communities. That speculation, in turn, heightened concerns that the rumors could fuel discrimination against the thousands of Somali immigrants who fled their war-torn country to settle in Portland, Lewiston and other Maine communities.

Kenyan officials and al-Shabab have since released conflicting information, with Kenya's foreign minister telling PBS that two or three Americans were among the attackers and al-Shabab disputing the claim. The FBI, the State Department and the National Counterterrorism Center are investigating the allegations but have released few details.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at: 

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