NAIROBI, Kenya -- Soon after gunmen stormed a Kenyan shopping mall on Saturday, killing dozens in a spray of bullets and grenades, triumphant tweets swept the Internet.
"The Mujahideen entered #Westgate Mall today at around noon and are still inside the mall, fighting the #Kenyan Kuffar inside their own turf," cheered the Twitter account of al Shabab, al Qaidas affiliate in Somalia. "The Mujahideen inside the mall confirmed to @HSM_Press that they killed over 100 Kenyan kuffar & battle is ongoing."
Hours later, the account disappeared. For the third time this year, Twitter tried to kick al Shabab off its social media platform.
Within hours, a new account popped up once again, tweeting mocking jibes at Kenyans as if it had never stopped. Then it too went silent.
As the horror of the assault on Nairobis Westgate mall spun unresolved through a second day Sunday, with the death toll rising and uncertainty surrounding what was taking place at the multi-story complex, the Internet became the only way to learn the motivations of the attackers amid fierce debate over whether terrorists should have their own platform.
The Saturday attack on the upscale Israeli-owned shopping mall a popular destination for wealthy Kenyans and Nairobis large expatriate community was the deadliest terror attack since August 1998, when the U.S. Embassy here was bombed, killing more than 200.
Kenyan officials on Sunday issued revised accounts of the mayhem: 59 people dead, more than 175 wounded. Security forces were battling to claw control of the shopping center from the attackers who remained inside. More than 1,000 shoppers had been rescued, officials said, but an unknown number remain trapped inside.
There was little said publicly about the perpetrators of the attack, except for what emerged on Twitter.
In Afghanistan and Pakistan, al Qaida spokesmen regularly communicate directly with journalists, often by phone. Shabab, too, has an official spokesman but he is in Somalia, is rarely reachable, and communicates mostly to only a trusted ring of media contacts.
So, when news broke of the attack on Saturday, practically every journalist in East Africa turned immediately to the unsavory sarcasm flowing out of @HSM_Press, Shababs latest Twitter account.
So, too, did the Kenyan government.
"The al Shabab terror group has claimed responsibility for this cowardly act of terror on social media. However, investigations are underway to conclusively establish those responsible for this mayhem," President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya said in a televised statement Sunday evening.
The sheer scale of the damage inflicted by the armed attack began to sink in on Sunday, as the number of dead continued to climb and the bloody standoff inside the mall spilled into a second night, with the chance of even more casualties to come.
President Kenyatta told the nation his nephew and nephews fiance were among the dead.
The U.S. State Department said it knew of no Americans whod died in the attack, but that five had been wounded. It said in addition to Kenya, the dead came from Australia, Great Britain, Canada, France, Ghana and Somalia.
Kenyatta said that the assailants, estimated to number 10 to 15 and possibly including women, had been cornered in one location at the mall. He declined to give many other details, asking the nation to let "professionals" do their work.