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Jeremy Scahill: Al-Shabab’s Nairobi Mall Rampage Tied to “Disastrous” U.S. Meddling in Somalia

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Kenya has begun three days of mourning for at least 67 people killed in the siege of the Westgate Mall in Nairobi. The death count could still rise if more bodies are found in the rubble of the mall’s three floors. The Somali militant group al-Shabab has claimed responsibility for the attack, calling it retaliation for Kenyan military intervention in Somalia. We’re joined by independent journalist Jeremy Scahill, who reported from both Kenya and Somalia for his recent book and film, “Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield.” Scahill says the Bush administration’s decision to back Ethiopia’s overthrow of Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union in 2006 helped fuel al-Shabab’s growth into the dominant militant group that it is today: “Al-Shabab was largely a non-player in Somalia, and al-Qaeda had almost no presence there. The U.S., by backing [Somali] warlords and overthrowing the Islamic Courts Union, made the very force they claimed to be trying to fight.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to Kenya, which has begun three days of mourning for at least 67 people who were killed in the siege of the Westgate Mall in Nairobi. The Somali militant group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the coordinated attack. The death count could still rise if more hostages and their attackers are found buried in the rubble of the mall’s three floors that collapsed. On Tuesday, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta declared final victory four days after the attack began.

PRESIDENT UHURU KENYATTA: Ladies and gentlemen, as I had vowed earlier, we have ashamed and defeated our attackers. That part of our task has been completed by our multi-agency security team. Five terrorists were killed with gunfire. Eleven suspects are in custody in connection with the attack. Intelligence reports had suggested that a British woman and two or three American citizens may have been involved in the attack. We cannot confirm the details at present, but forensic experts are working to ascertain the nationalities of the terrorists.

AMY GOODMAN: Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. Since the attack on the Westgate Mall, survivors have started to share their accounts of what happened. This is Aleem Manji, who, along with his wife, was helping to run a children’s cooking competition at the mall before the attackers struck.

ALEEM MANJI: And he turned, and he said, “You did not spare our women and children. Why should we spare yours?” And his colleague opened fire. They weren’t shooting to scare. They were shooting to kill. They aimed low at where the people were crouching, and they just opened fire, completely and absolutely. This is not Islam. Islam is something else altogether. Islam is peace. Islam is about togetherness, humanity. What I saw there was not Islam. And if you ever, ever think for a minute that those people represent us, they don’t. And they never will. And please don’t let them win by thinking it.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the victims in the attack on the mall in Nairobi.

The Somali militant group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack via Twitter. In a series of messages, the group described the assault on the mall as revenge for Kenya sending troops into Somalia in 2011.

To talk more about the situation there, we’re joined by Jeremy Scahill, national security correspondent for The Nation, producer and writer of the documentary film and book, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield. He has spent time in both Kenya and Somalia while working on Dirty Wars.

Jeremy Scahill, welcome back to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you here. Can you talk about what’s happened there?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, I mean, you know, right now, there is not just one al-Shabab. You know, I think there has been a real fracture within the organization. And a few weeks ago, the most high-profile American jihadist that was operating with al-Shabab, Omar Hammami, who is from Alabama and was sort of like a rapper and propagandist for al-Shabab, was killed. And it appears that he was killed by a rival faction of the group. And I think part of what we’re seeing is that the section of Shabab that is more aligned with the global vision of what was Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network and Ayman al-Zawahiri’s mission is trying to make a mark for itself, and I think that it’s a group that’s very much in trouble internally in Somalia and, I think, is trying to project that it has a more globalist, jihadist agenda. And so, this attack on the Westgate Mall, I think, was indicative of the fact that there are multiple versions of al-Shabab. One part al-Shabab is primarily focused on Somali politics and taking power within Somalia, and the other is intent on sort of making a name for itself as a global terrorist player. And I think that’s part of what we saw here at Westgate Mall.

AMY GOODMAN: And the issue of Americans involved in al-Shabab?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, well, I mean, you know, there’s been anywhere from, you know, a couple dozen to 50 or 60 Americans that have gone to Somalia to work alongside or fight alongside al-Shabab or other militant organizations. Many of them have come from the state of Minnesota. And, you know, the Somali-American community—I was there recently—is really caught in a difficult position, because on the one hand, they’re being targeted by federal agents, and they’re being targeted by surveillance, and they have their mosques and their community organizations being surveilled; on the other hand, people in that community are very concerned about the fact that young people are being recruited from Minneapolis to go to Somalia. There have been several young Somali Americans who have acted as suicide bombers, trying to blow themselves up at—or blowing themselves up at the gates of the U.S.-backed African Union forces that are in Somalia or attacking Somali government ministries. You know, and on the one hand, this is a real problem that you have these young people that are being recruited and going over there. On the other hand, there’s been this incredible overreaction to it. And I think a lot—you know, immigrant communities are being targeted for this. And in the whole scheme of things, it’s a relatively small problem. But I think that there is—you know, Representative Peter King has just been—you know, who’s the informal chair of the Islamophobe caucus in Congress, has really sort of tried to paint this as like some kind of bogeyman on steroids. But, I mean, it’s a real issue, but I think that the fact that the Somali community in Minneapolis is under this kind of intense scrutiny right now is unjust, on the one hand; on the other hand, they’ve really been unified in speaking out and demonstrating against what happened at the Westgate Mall.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what do you think, Jeremy, contributed to the expansion of al-Shabab and to the splintering of which you spoke?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Right, I mean, all of a sudden now we have—you know, we have like seahorses, where you pour the thing in, and it creates seahorses. We have that with like the terrorism expert industry now: Everybody knows everything about al-Shabab, and yet there’s very little context given to this. I mean, one of the things that I get into in my book, in Dirty Wars, is where al-Shabab came from.

You know, in the early 2000s, the Bush administration made a disastrous decision to put all of these warlords on the CIA payroll, and they came up with this name called the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism. And I tracked down some of these warlords when I was in Somalia and in Kenya. And they basically had them acting as an assassination squad. Most Somalia experts said that there were no more than a dozen al-Qaeda-connected individuals in Somalia right after 9/11. And so, the CIA hires these warlords ostensibly to go in and hunt these people down. Well, they end up murdering vast numbers of people who were imams or religious scholars, and in some cases, I was told, that they would literally like chop people’s heads off and then bring them to their American liaison and say, “This is so and so, and I’ve killed them.” And so, you had this utterly thuggish collection of warlords murdering people, and doing so, they believed, with the backing of the United States of America, the most powerful nation in the world.

That sparked then a revolt against the warlords. And so, what happened was that these coalitions of religious figures from different regions of Somalia formed something called the Islamic Courts Union, and basically these were—it was 12 sharia courts, meaning that there were 12 regional authorities who had imposed some version of law in the areas that they controlled. They came together and united as one body, and they started to pool their resources in an effort to overthrow the CIA’s warlords from Mogadishu.

There was a 13th unofficial member of the Islamic Courts Union, and that was Harakat Shabaab al-Mujahideen, which is the—which is al-Shabab. And so, and al-Shabab was the only faction within the Islamic Courts Union that had any presence of foreign fighters, and they were the least powerful. They had the least credibility in Somalia, the least visibility. And so, when Islamic Courts Union took Mogadishu, they expelled the CIA warlords. They imposed a brutal but effective form of governance on Mogadishu, effective in the sense that it stabilized the city. Crime rates plummeted. They reopened the ports. You know, there were also all sorts of vicious, violent punishments meted out against people who violated what they perceived to be the tenets of Islamic sharia law. But it was—I mean, almost everyone except probably Bush-era officials would agree that it was the only moment, from the time Siad Barre’s regime fell in the early-1990s until 2006, that there was anything vaguely representing stability in Mogadishu. The CIA’s warlords are kicked out. The Islamic Courts Union is in control.

The U.S. then covertly partners with the Ethiopian dictatorship, and Ethiopia launches an overt invasion of Somalia to overthrow of Islamic Courts Union. And, you know, the fact that they were called Islamic probably—you know, Bush is like batting a ball of yarn in the back, while Dick Cheney is running the country, and they hear “Islamic,” and it’s like, “Oh, we got to overthrow them.” So, you know, I mean, that’s basically what happened. It was this knee-jerk reaction. I mean, if you actually look at the people that made up the Islamic Courts Union, there was a mishmash of people. Yes, there were people that were extremists, but most of them were not. Most of the them were people that more closely resembled the Taliban government—not the Taliban movement, but the Taliban government. I mean, it’s, by all standards, a brutal form of government, but these were not people that wanted to attack the United States at all. There was no U.S. interest in doing this except for knee-jerk sort of neocon reactionary politics. So, they overthrow that government.

And then JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command, and the CIA use the cover of this overt invasion to go in and start hunting people, and they want to take out all of the leaders of the Islamic Courts Union. They’re looking for people that were attacked—involved with the '98 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and they start this assassination campaign. And they use drones, and they're using AC-130 gunships. And basically the Islamic Courts Union is totally dismantled.

Somalia then returns or reverts to this state of brutality and civil war, and you then have the Ethiopians committing rape, murdering civilians, torturing people, setting up their own prisons, rendering people back to Ethiopia. It becomes an utter disaster. And what ends up happening is that Shabab, this group of relative nobodies for so many years, who were sort of on the periphery of this movement, start to say, “Well, we will be the vanguard in the fight against the U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion, and we will take up arms, and we will defend Somalia.” And they started mixing together the ideas and rhetoric of Osama bin Laden with a sort of Somali nationalist politics, and end up getting a tremendous amount of support because they were the only people fighting.

And so, what happened there—I mean, this is incredible—is that Osama bin Laden tried to take credit for the Black Hawk Down incident, you know, in the early 1990s, and it was a complete lie. I mean, he had—they had nothing to do with it. Maybe there was some people that were—could reasonably be called jihadists that were involved with that, but it was not Osama bin Laden’s plot. And yet Osama bin Laden had tried to take responsibility for it.

AMY GOODMAN: Where 18 U.S. soldiers were killed, but also thousands of Somalis.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Oh, yeah, I mean, thousands and thousands of Somalis were killed. I mean, it was—I mean, it’s basically one of the only things most people know about Somalia, was Black Hawk Down. And most people don’t even know. It’s like when we talk about the Vietnam War, people know, you know, that there were 65,000 U.S. troops killed. Do people know that multimillion Vietnamese were killed? It’s the same with the Black Hawk Down incident. I mean, thousands of Somalis were butchered in the aftermath of that.

AMY GOODMAN: When the U.S. helicopters came in to—

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, the U.S. helicopters in. They were hunting—

AMY GOODMAN: This was under George H.W. Bush.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. Well, President Clinton ended up pulling the Army Rangers and the whole U.S. presence out of Somalia, but they were hunting Mohamed Farrah Aidid, this warlord, who had basically destroyed Mogadishu and created the situation where you had this civil war in Somalia.

But the point I’m getting at here is that al-Shabab was largely a non-player in Somalia, and al-Qaeda had almost no presence there. And the U.S., by backing these warlords and then overthrowing the Islamic Courts Union, made the very force that they claimed to be trying to fight the most powerful force in Somalia.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, what is at stake for the U.S. in East Africa and the Horn of Africa? What are their interests there?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I mean, I think, initially, it started with a—you know, with a sort of knee-jerk reaction to 9/11. And, you know, I mean, the fact was that there were major terrorist events that happened as a result of Somalia’s lawless situation. There were people being harbored in Somalia that were involved with the '98 embassy bombings. And I think that Rumsfeld and Cheney, early on after 9/11, developed this program called Next Steps, and they were citing all these countries that they intended to go into, and Somalia was on the early list of countries. And, you know, you had the State Department, Colin Powell and others, cautioning against it and saying we shouldn't go in here. But there were people in the Pentagon who wanted to run the deck all over the world and wanted to send people in there.

And so, you know, I mean, I think part of it—there are natural resources in Somalia. It has the largest coastline of any nation in Africa. There’s a very potentially lucrative fishing industry that exists there. It’s part of why you see the rise of piracy, is that European and other shipping companies are coming in, they’re dumping in the Somali waters, but also Illegal fishing is happening all the time. When people eat lobster and they’re told it’s Kenyan lobster, it almost certainly is actually from the Somali coastline or from the Somali waters. So, I mean, I don’t think that there is some nefarious conspiracy behind the scenes, but Somalia—if Somalia was a stabilized country, there is tremendous natural resources and wealth in Somalia. But I think it has more to do with this narrow U.S. view of terrorism being this epic global threat and reacting in that way constantly or consistently.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, I want to turn to a clip of your film, and then we’re going to talk about President Obama’s address yesterday at the U.N. General Assembly.

And one correction: Black Hawk Down, as you said, that happened, that period in 1993, was under President Clinton.

But in your new documentary, that’s now just going to be released on DVD, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, you meet the notorious Somali warlord, Indha Adde, who was working with the United States. This is a clip.

JEREMY SCAHILL: In an earlier life, Indha Adde had been America’s enemy, offering protection to people on the U.S. kill list. But the warlord had since changed sides. He was now on the U.S. payroll and assumed the title of general.

So he’s saying that the fiercest fighting that they’re doing right now is happening right here.

The men fired across the rooftops, but it didn’t make sense to me what we were doing here—or what the Americans were doing here in Somalia, arming this warlord-turned-general for what seemed like a senseless war.

UNIDENTIFIED: We’ve got to move.

JEREMY SCAHILL: So these were Shabab fighters you buried here.

GEN. INDHA ADDE: [translated] If we capture fighters alive, we give them medical care, unless they are foreigners. The foreigners, we execute.

JEREMY SCAHILL: If you capture a foreigner alive, you execute them on the battlefield?

GEN. INDHA ADDE: [translated] Yes. The others should feel no mercy.

AMY GOODMAN: From the film Dirty Wars, written by Jeremy Scahill, directed by Rick Rowley. Jeremy?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, I mean, this is part of what the U.S. is doing right now. They have this huge counterterrorism base that they’ve built at the airport in Mogadishu, and they’re paying Somali thugs, basically, to go out and do the bidding of the United States. So we’re basically back to where we are when Donald Rumsfeld and Cheney and others decided to start arming and backing warlords. I mean, it’s just—Somalia is just an utter hell, and, you know, I mean, it’s some of the greatest suffering on planet Earth, and the U.S. has played a very significant role in destabilizing Somalia for many, many years.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, then come back to talk about President Obama’s address yesterday at the U.N. General Assembly. Our guest is Jeremy Scahill, independent journalist, national security correspondent for The Nation, Democracy Now! correspondent and producer and co-writer of the documentary, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield. Stay with us.

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