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US-Africa Foreign Policy: From Mogadishu Massacre in Somalia to the Green Beret Killings in Niger

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Rescue operations continue in Mogadishu, Somalia, after two massive truck bombs exploded Saturday, killing at least 300 in the country’s deadliest attack since the rise of the al-Shabab militant group a decade ago. The disaster is being referred to as the “Mogadishu massacre,” and some are calling it “the 9/11 of the Somali people.” The explosions came after the Trump administration stepped up a U.S. campaign against al-Shabab in Somalia. We speak with Somali scholar Abdi Samatar and journalist Amanda Sperber, who splits her time between Nairobi, Kenya, and Mogadishu, Somalia.

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Rescue operations are ongoing in Mogadishu after two massive truck bombs exploded in quick succession Saturday night, killing at least 300 people and wounding more than 300 others. It was the deadliest attack in Somalia since the rise of the al-Shabab militant group a decade ago, and one of the worst bombings by a non-state actor in recent years. The disaster is now being referred to as the “Mogadishu massacre,” and some are calling it “the 9/11 of the Somali people.” The Somali National Army, police and intelligence, as well as African Union forces, are searching for survivors.

ABDIWAHAB ABDULLAHI: [translated] We’e been here for the past three days and are continuing with the cleanup exercise. Yesterday, we pulled out five people alive from the rubble. We also managed to retrieve several dead bodies. In the nearby buildings, we’ve been notified there might be more bodies trapped under some damaged buildings.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In the worst of the two bombings, a truck packed with hundreds of pounds of explosives detonated near the Safari Hotel, collapsing the building and igniting a nearby fuel tanker. The resulting fireball set cars on fire and flattened nearby businesses and homes, trapping people under the rubble. On Sunday, hundreds of Somalis poured into the streets of Mogadishu to condemn the attacks. This is Rahma Abdi Ali, one of the protesters.

RAHMA ABDI ALI: [translated] It was a massacre that happened yesterday, and I never saw such a thing in the last 27 years. I witnessed a little boy’s head laying on the ground, and his mother and other children with their heads also cut in the explosion. People buried people’s body parts separately, because they collected them separately. It was a very shocking event.

AMY GOODMAN: Somalia’s president declared three days of national mourning after the attacks. There’s been no claim of responsibility, but Somalia’s government was quick to blame al-Shabab militants, who have been behind past bombings in Mogadishu.

The explosions came after the Trump administration stepped up a U.S. campaign against al-Shabab in Somalia. In March, President Trump declared Somalia a so-called zone of active hostilities, giving wide latitude to military leaders to launch airstrikes and ground assaults. In May, that led to the first U.S. combat death in Somalia since 1993, when Navy SEAL officer Kyle Milliken was killed in an assault on an al-Shabab radio station. In August, a raid by U.S. soldiers and Somali troops on a village outside Mogadishu left 10 civilians dead, including three children.

For more, we’re joined by Democracy Now! video stream by the Somali scholar and writer Abdi Samatar. He’s a professor of the Department of Geography, Environment & Society at the University of Minnesota, the author of Africa’s First Democrats: Somalia’s Aden A. Osman and Abdirazak H. Hussen. And joining us from Nairobi, Amanda Sperber, freelance journalist who splits her time between Nairobi, Kenya, and Mogadishu, Somalia. Her new article for IRIN News is headlined “Shock and revulsion over Mogadishu bombing.”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Amanda, let’s begin with you in Nairobi, Kenya. Can you explain what you understand took place, the horrific attack that killed more than 300 people and injured roughly that same number?

AMANDA SPERBER: Yeah. I mean, it’s pretty much what you said. The attacks were horrific. The outcome has been devastating. To me, what I think I’ve seen that’s been the most upsetting aftereffect is the—is really the lack of capacity that the country has to deal with this. People are still being pulled from the rubble. The hospitals are running out of blood. The hospitals don’t have enough supplies. So, I think, to me, what’s really devastating about this is—beyond what happened, it’s what happens next. And, I mean, I talked to one of the ministers who says there aren’t enough sheets, there aren’t enough water—there isn’t enough water, there isn’t enough antibiotics. So I think that’s where the real focus needs to be now.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Amanda, what do you make of the fact that no one has claimed responsibility for the attack up until now?

AMANDA SPERBER: I mean, that’s pretty interesting. As far as we know, al-Shabab is the only legitimate contender. What I’ve heard, I think there are a few different options for what the strategy could be behind that. One that I’ve heard speculated, especially from the International Crisis Group, is that there has been a conversation-slash-tension between al-Shabab about whether or not to stay linked to al-Qaeda, which they currently are, or whether to join IS, and that this more aggressive attack was the result of the hardliners expressing affiliation with IS. Another conversation—another option that’s been speculated is that this was honestly a mistake and that the truck was headed for the Foreign Ministry’s office and that the reason al-Shabab hasn’t claimed responsibility is strictly because they don’t want to be affiliated with an attack this deadly. A third option that’s been speculated is that it’s actually in some ways more terrorizing to not claim responsibility and to sort of let that kind of ominous fear of “we can’t control what’s happening, we can’t protect ourselves, we don’t know who’s after us” sort of linger. So, I think there are a few different factors at play in terms of what could cause the fact that no one’s taken responsibility yet.

AMY GOODMAN: Abdi Samatar, you’re a Somali scholar and writer. Can you talk about your thoughts on what has taken place, how unusual this is, if you feel it has anything to do with the increased U.S. military push in Africa? And we’re also going to speak, beyond Somalia, about what’s happening in Niger with the four U.S. Special Forces soldiers killed. But first, let’s focus on Somalia with this horrific death toll.

ABDI SAMATAR: It’s a pleasure to be with you, Amy and Democracy Now!

This is more than a massacre. It’s carnage. I have absolutely no doubt that this is the work of al-Shabab. The truck came on the road that comes from the west part of the city into the heart of the capital, and that area of the country and that area west of Mogadishu is completely controlled by al-Shabab. There’s nobody else. There’s no ISIS. There’s nobody else there. And so, speculations aside, this is a fact, if you look at the geography of the route that the truck took. So that’s the first thing to note.

The second thing to note is that, yes, this is carnage, but Somalis have been bleeding slowly to death in what professor Michael Watts calls “silent violence” over the last two-and-a-half decades or so. So, yeah, the concentration of the death in a small period of time in one place is horrific, but death of this kind has been taking place among the population by terrorists and by African Union forces over the last decade or so. So we should not be really surprised at this, but we should take stock of the sober nature of the calamity that’s Somalia.

And then the final thing I would like to say is this, that the United States government and the European Union, who support AMISOM, the African Union force in Somalia, populated by Ugandans, Ethiopians, Kenyans, Djiboutians and whatnot, they spend a billion-and-a-half dollars a year on that force. And that force is a conventional military force that’s placed, holed in, in locations outside and inside Mogadishu. If they were to spend a quarter of that sum of money on developing a Somali security force that’s mobile, that it can engage in guerrilla tactics and go after al-Shabab, this kind of a carnage would have been easily sort of avoided, and the people would have been saved. I don’t think the international community is serious about this. I don’t think they are interested in helping the Somali people. I think they are more interested in containing the Somali problem, as they call it, in Somalia, rather than claiming that they are nurturing the development of peace and democracy in that country.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Abdi Samatar, I wanted to ask you about that African Union force. And specifically, what are the interests of—because they’re basically functioning as a proxy force for the United States and the European Union, that’s bankrolling them. What are the interests of specifically Ethiopia and Kenya in the ongoing military operations in Somalia?

ABDI SAMATAR: Well, let’s start with Kenya. Kenya invaded southern Somalia in 2011. The claim was that al-Shabab was damaging its economy because of a number of hostage takings along the Indian Ocean coast, the high tourist area of Kenya. Actually, the United States’ sort of reports from both the embassy and the Secret Service—I mean, the CIA, demonstrated that Kenya had this lust to occupy parts of Somalia long before those two incidents took place in 2010 and 2011. So, both Kenya and Ethiopia are interested to making sure Somalia never really comes back as a country and as a state that can challenge them in any way or sense.

So, there’s a—you have a problem here. Why would the African Union allow two countries who are neighbors, who have conflict of interest, to engage in Somalia? For instance, the Ethiopians control much of the southwest part of the country, and the Somali forces cannot really go there. They are dominated by the Ethiopians. And the Ethiopians and the Kenyans are nurturing what I consider to be tribal fiefdoms, much like apartheid and sort of bantustans, such that the central government never gains full authority across the country so that peace and order can be restored.

So, the United States is an ally of the Ethiopians. That’s where we use our drones to bomb places in the region. The Kenyans are close allies of the United Kingdom and the European Union. So, the question is really—Somalia is not the issue for them to save. It’s about sort of making sure Kenya and Ethiopia are doing what they do in the region in order to support the United States and the European Union.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. Our guests are Abdi Samatar, who is a Somali scholar and writer; Amanda Sperber is with us from Nairobi, Kenya, freelance journalist who splits her time between Nairobi and Mogadishu, in Somalia. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: That is “Somalia,” by Somali-Canadian musician K’naan. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. In Somalia in August, U.S. soldiers and Somali troops carried out a raid in which 10 people were shot dead, including three children, in a village near the capital Mogadishu. Local lawmakers say the victims were farmers. Now, the most recent attack was the attack that took place on Saturday of over 300 people. But let’s go back to this August attack, the eyewitness then.

MUQTAR MOAALIM ABDI: [translated] American forces attacked us in our farms and killed these people, including children. Those killed were farmers who were innocent, and not al-Shabab fighters.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re still joined by Abdi Samatar, who is a Somali scholar and writer, and Amanda Sperber, freelance journalist who splits her time between Nairobi, Kenya, and Mogadishu, Somalia. Amanda, can you talk about the response in Somalia when President Trump announced that he was activating forces there? Explain what those forces were.

AMANDA SPERBER: Well, I think President Trump first made an announcement that he was activating offensive drone strikes. I believe that was back in March. And response then was kind of a mixture of skepticism, because, obviously, America is not known for successful drone strikes necessarily, but at the same time, Somalis really revile al-Shabab. There’s a sense that they want to move forward. So I think that there was also really a sense of hope and, genuinely, appreciation that they want—you know, like they don’t want al-Shabab to be the influential force that it is, so I think that they were—there was also a level of—a level of hope that this could turn things around. But all in all, I mean, that was mixed with a healthy sense of skepticism, given America’s reputation in this part of the world.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Amanda, you’ve written that you were surprised in your visits to Somalia about the extent of the U.S. presence there. Could you talk about that?

AMANDA SPERBER: Sure. I mean, I think when I went to Somalia, my understanding was not that the U.S. was leading—was not that the U.S. was leading the way in the country. My sense was that Turkey, the Gulf states and the United Kingdom were sort of taking the way. But upon getting on the ground, it was pretty clear to me, and made clear both by just the expats that I spoke to as well as the locals, that America is kind of at the forefront of operations and is invested strategically in Somalia’s security, both in terms of financial and—both in terms for financial reasons and security reasons.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask Professor Abdi Samatar about this question, in April, President Trump signing the directive classifying parts of Somalia as areas of active hostilities, meaning the Pentagon now has more power to carry out airstrikes and ground raids in the region, the classification also meaning the Pentagon will have more permission to kill bystanders.

ABDI SAMATAR: Well, I mean, the president did sign that, and that’s what it has meant. But as Amy suggested, we are not known, as Americans, particularly, I mean, our forces, to do the kind of surgical targets that can take terrorists out. I think if President Trump and his team were interested in reducing the level of tyranny and the, if you like, terrorism in the country, what they would have done is use the Somali security forces and spend maybe a couple of hundred million dollars on that rather than a billion dollars on the operations, and develop a mobile force that will act as a sort of a counter-guerrilla tactics—use counter-guerrilla tactics to go after al-Shabab, without involving Americans and anybody else, and, in that process, help Somalis rebuild the social and the sort of political infrastructure of their country. What you have, what Trump and his team are doing is doing their dirty work, as another scholar wrote in a book a few years back, and, in the process, not actually helping the Somali people take care of al-Shabab. I think Amanda is correct that Somalis revile al-Shabab, and I think they are capable of taking care of al-Shabab if they get the kind of resources they need to be able to go after them. So that’s one issue about that matter.

The other issue that needs to be brought to the table is that the Somali political class, not so much as the current government cabinet, but the Somali political class, is a rump, corrupt bunch of people who are less interested in their country and in their own people, and who are more interested in corruption and looting whatever little resources the country has, and is remaining in power. If that political class was on the same page as the Somali people in getting rid of Shabab, I am pretty certain the Somali people can raise enough resources to mobilize sufficient number of security forces that can drive al-Shabab into the sea. Unfortunately, you have two forces: the international community, who is not interested in helping Somalis save themselves, and you have a local political class, who are almost on the same page. And in between those two, the folks who are caught are ordinary people who have paid the ultimate price in this latest carnage in Mogadishu.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor Samatar, the goal of al-Shabab, if you could talk about that? What is the long-term political goal of al-Shabab? And also, the spread of the U.S. war on terrorism across sub-Saharan Africa—we had the report recently of four U.S. servicemen killed in Niger—could you talk about that, as well?

ABDI SAMATAR: I think the loss of American lives in the form that took place in Niger is quite tragic and not necessary. I think if we—as a government and as a country, if we were serious—that’s Americans—if we were serious in developing a mutually beneficial strategy, mutually beneficial for Americans, mutually beneficial for Africans, whether they are Somalis or Nigeriens or whatnot, we will do a very different strategy in which local people are mobilized to defend themselves, and we will provide the resources necessary. So, my thinking is that sort of AFRICOM is doing the wrong tactics, much like AMISOM in Somalia is using conventional military resources and strategy to fight al-Shabab. So, it’s the wrong strategy, in my opinion. And the American government—not the American people, but the American government—is more interested in this, rather than in helping the local populations at a lower cost to all of us. So that’s the first thing.

If we come back to al-Shabab, al-Shabab controls much of the rural areas of southern Somalia, while AMISOM is holed in, in particular locations. And so, when AMISOM, for instance, moves into a town, takes over that town, Shabab just simply melt away into the bush, if you like, into the tropical bush in Somalia. The minute AMISOM withdraws, Shabab comes safely back and controls that territory. What you need here is a 10,000 to 20,000 Somali security forces, military and police forces, that are trained in guerrilla tactics, that are highly mobile. And the cost of that will be literally a fraction of the amount of money the European Union and the American government is spending on AMISOM, $1.5 billion. We can spend less than $200 million and get the job done and help the Somalis put Humpty Dumpty back together in a way that’s beneficial to them. But that doesn’t seem to be in the gray matter of those who are running the “war on terror” in Washington, D.C.

AMY GOODMAN: And I wanted to bring Amanda Sperber back into conversation around this latest news about what happened in Niger, President Donald Trump breaking his silence Monday over the deaths of the four U.S. Army Green Berets who died in an ambush in Niger two weeks ago, saying he would contact the families of the soldiers, falsely claiming that President Obama did not reach out to U.S. troops killed in combat. Trump’s comments came only after he was questioned over his silence by reporters during a news conference at the White House that he held with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The traditional way, if you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls. A lot of them didn’t make calls. I like to call when it’s appropriate, when I think I’m able to do it. They have made the ultimate sacrifice.

AMY GOODMAN: Trump’s false claim drew outrage from former members of the Obama administration, like Ben Rhodes, his former deputy national security adviser, who said it was an “outrageous and disrespectful lie even by Trump standards.” The four Green Berets killed on a joint patrol with Nigerien troops on October 4th, as President Trump gave wide latitude to his generals in AFRICOM to unilaterally pursue militants across much of Africa. The four are Staff Sergeant Bryan Black, Staff Sergeant Jeremiah Johnson, Staff Sergeant Dustin Wright, Sergeant La David Johnson, whose body was reportedly left behind for 48 hours before it was recovered. Can you talk about what you understand took place and what they were doing in Niger?

AMANDA SPERBER: From my understanding, the American Special Forces were embedded with Nigerien troops in a remote, extremely remote, scrubby western part of Niger, conducting an operation. My understanding is that they were ambushed. And at that point, the four men were killed. As far as I can tell, I was—as a journalist based in Africa, something that I noticed was, I was surprised that there were so many Americans surprised about the U.S. presence in West Africa. That’s something we’ve been expanding for some time. We have a drone base set up in Niger, as well. And the American presence on the continent, in general, is wildly underreported and misunderstood.

AMY GOODMAN: A final comment, Professor Samatar, on Niger and Somalia and the connection we should see? In the U.S. media, far more attention is being paid to, of course, the four U.S. Special Forces soldiers dead than the more than 300 people dead in Somalia.

ABDI SAMATAR: I think it’s really quite tragic that a strategy run from Washington, D.C., and from the European headquarters in Brussels pays so little attention when to—over 300 people are killed, massacred, and another 500 people are struggling for their lives, and that very little support comes from the United States and the European Union to help the Somali government clean up this, help the people who have been injured or people who have lost their parents or their children. By contrast, the Turkish government, literally immediately, as the explosions took place, sent a military plane with doctors and whatnot. Even the small country of Djibouti did something like that. So, the contrast between the bravado about fighting terrorism and supporting the local people who have become the victims of such terror is quite telling about what our agenda and strategy is in that part of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us. Abdi Samatar is a Somoli scholar and writer, a professor of the Department of Geography, Environment & Society at the University of Minnesota. And Amanda Sperber, joining us from Nairobi, Kenya, a freelance journalist who splits her time between Nairobi and Mogadishu, Somalia.

When we come back, a lot is being said of the “Me Too” campaign, as women post their sexual harassment and assault and rape experiences online. But, overall, it’s being attributed to the wrong person. We have the originator of that campaign in our studio. Stay with us.

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