Al-Shabaab, the armed Somali Islamic extremist group that attacked a shopping mall in Kenya, yesterday said foreigners were a "legitimate target" and confirmed witness accounts that gunmen tried to let Muslims go free while killing or capturing the others.
In an email exchange yesterday with the Associated Press, al-Shabaab said: "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."
According to published accounts, witnesses said the gunmen rounded up people, asked questions about Islam that a Muslim would know and told the Muslims to leave the mall.
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 in Nairobi on Saturday, slaughtering men, women and children with assault rifles and grenades and taking people hostage.
The death toll is 67 and is likely to climb with uncounted bodies remaining in the rubble.
Al-Shabaab had threatened retaliation against Kenya for sending its troops into Somalia against al-Shabaab, and many of those killed in an attack were Kenyans. Asked if al-Shabaab had intended to kill foreigners, the group said: "Our target was to attack the Kenyan Government on its soil and any part of the Kenyan territory is a legitimate target ... and Kenya should be held responsible for the loss of life, whether foreigners or local."
Despite their efforts to spare Muslims, some of those killed were members of the faith. Louis Bawa, whose wife, Zahira, and daughter, Jennah, were killed, told a London newspaper al-Shabaab was "using religion as an excuse to kill people".
"Zahira and Jennah were Muslims, but these animals just shot them the same as all of the others," Bawa told the Daily Telegraph.
Asked if the separation of Muslims from non-Muslims at the outset of the mall attack represented a change in tactics, the group insisted 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-Shabaab ("the Youth" in Arabic), has carried out suicide bombings in Somalia against military and government targets but has also set off bombs at a college graduation ceremony in Mogadishu, at restaurants and other locations, killing Muslim civilians.