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LEGAL VIEW WITH ASHLEIGH BANFIELD

Kenyan Mall Terror Attack; How Safe are American Shopping Malls?; United Nations General Assembly Kicks Off Tomorrow

Aired September 23, 2013 - 11:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN HOST: Hello everyone and welcome to LEGAL VIEW. I'm Ashleigh Banfield. It's Monday September 23.

And our breaking news continues almost after two and a half days after Islamic gunmen laid siege to a mall in Nairobi, Kenya. That country's interior minister says and I'm going to quote him here, "We are in charge of the situation."

That's not to say that this situation is over by any means. Just take a look at your screen. We've been hearing gunfire, we've been hearing explosions all throughout the morning, and we've just received word that approximately four people -- and that's their words, around four people have been arrested at the Nairobi airport.

They are suspected of having some involvement in the mall attack even if they were not among the actual attackers.

For much of this day, black smoke has been billowing from the four- story Westgate Mall where at least 62 people have lost their lives since Saturday.

That number has been revised downward to 62, but more than 175 people are said to be wounded after this attack.

Of the 10 to 15 suspected attackers, at least four are dead, two killed in a fresh assault by Kenyan forces just this morning. All of this coming to us from officials on the scene.

CNN's Zain Verjee is standing by live. Zain, give us an indication of what they actually mean by, we're in charge of the situation, because from the outside perspective, it does not look like anyone's in charge.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I spoke to officials here about that, and what I'm being told is, they feel that they, along with the Israeli special forces are in control, overall, of the Westgate Mall.

However, there are some pockets of gunmen and there are pockets that they do not have under control, and that's the reason you've heard this recent gunfire.

And also the smoke that's been billowing over the skies and buildings here, they are telling me that it's coming from a firefight now from in front of the grocery store, which is called Nakuma (ph), and this is happening on the second floor.

They said it was partly the mattresses that the terrorists were burning as some kind of a distraction, but also that that is where some of the fighting has been concentrated.

Now, it's really difficult to get a clear visibility into it because there were so many people involved in this operation, including where I'm standing right now.

The medical personnel here are doing an amazing job. They have really pulled together here, and this is kind of like base camp for emergency response teams

What I've been able to do is talk to one of them who actually got a chance to go there out the gate and that way toward Westgate Mall. And what she told me, what she saw was that the place was flooded with water. There were live wires. It was smelling pretty bad.

There were heaps of bodies piled up, and she saw a baby on top, and she also witnessed people, in particular, she remembered a man that had his throat slit.

And these are just some of the scenes that the people here have witnessed. They have also been asked to collect bodies that are still strewn there.

This is a horrific situation and many people are just trying to make a sense of what is happening here.

So the operations still going on. The helicopters are circling over the mall. The casualty numbers are unknown. Right now it stands at 62, but the Red Cross says they will rise.

Ashleigh?

BANFIELD: And, Zain, I just wanted to be very clear. When I watched your reporting early this morning, you did not have flak vest and helmet on, and as the day progressed I saw a scene that unfolded while you were reporting live.

I just want to replay that for our viewers who may have missed it a short time ago. Let's roll that tape and have a look at Zain's earlier reporting.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

VERJEE: Is that more gunfire? Was that more gunfire? OK. Can we have the helmet? Where's the helmet?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: So Zain, as these pictures unfolded live, we're watching just a whole throng of people running from an area that seems to be near the mall.

What was that, and who are those people, and is that situation under control now?

VERJEE: That was an exchange of gunfire between the Kenyan military and the al Shabaab-al Qaeda militants inside the mall.

The rush of people was a mixture of aid workers, emergency response teams and journalists that are standing here, which is the closest that we are allowed to get to Westgate.

You can see we're behind a wall, over a road, and behind some buildings.

So that's the situation right now. Also, Ashleigh, you know, I'm hearing from sources of a sniper sort of positioned inside the mall. And security officials are unable to access one particular area because the sniper fires into their knees.

But it's difficult for them right now to figure out exactly 360-degree visibility of what's happening inside the mall.

BANFIELD: All right. Zain Verjee live for us, do be careful, if you would. There's a lot of, obviously, scattered gunfire.

And just for anybody who is joining us, so much of that smoke that's been billowing, as you already have already heard reported, is from mattresses on fire inside that mall. So we're watching this carefully for every moving development.

And before we move on, I want to show you something else, some pretty incredible scenes from Nairobi if you weren't watching sort of moment by moment over the weekend because the drama just literally played out live.

I want you to take a look at how the attack actually unfolded and how the Kenyans responded.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The next thing we know, we heard some shots and people rushing. It sounded like AK-47s.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We started to run and there was a second explosion which knocked us on the ground.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You could hear, while we were back there, them methodically kind of going from store to store, talking to people, asking questions, shooting, screams, and then it would stop for a while.

It was completely luck because we were on the ground floor and easily accessible, so I think part of it was luck. We did a lot of praying in there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As I approached the mall, I could see lots of people running away, and as I got closer, it was clear that there were -- people had been shot.

I saw people who had been shot in the stomach and the legs, dozens of injuries streaming out among terrified civilians.

The police and the army who were working there were desperately trying to get people evacuated out of the building.

It became clear within a few minutes of getting inside the mall that no one really knew where the gunmen were.

While we were getting from place to place, you could that there were see people who had been killed, who were laying in different parts of the mall.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: So the Somalia-based al Qaeda affiliate that really struck such a blow in this Nairobi mall has made some pretty strong claims that three of the attackers who were responsible for this mayhem were actually American from the U.S.

That, I want to be very clear, has not been confirmed, but the FBI is looking into it. It has not been clear that three of them are citizens, or even if they had lived here in the United States.

But the FBI says it's looking into these claims, and also a senior State Department official has said to CNN that there is growing confidence that there may be some veracity to the claim.

So while everybody tries to sort out what is clearly a very murky picture that's emerging from Nairobi, I want to bring in CNN's national security analyst, Peter Bergen, who joins me from Washington this hour with so much more on this.

And, Peter, I've got to be honest. While a lot of people may have heard some of these claims, and again, at this point, they're just claims that some of these recruits may have come from a place like Minnesota, again, these are al Shabaab claims, but they are not that shocking to people who have been deeply involved in the last 10 years with the recruitment process for not just al Qaeda but this offshoot, al Shabaab.

Can you explain that?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yeah, Ashleigh, I mean, no al Qaeda affiliate has had such deep roots in the United States as al Shabaab.

We've seen at least 15 American citizens or residents die in Somalia, fighting alongside Shabaab. We've at least three and perhaps four American citizens conduct suicide operations in Somalia on behalf of al Shabaab.

We've seen a leader of al Shabaab be an American citizen from Alabama. We've seen people recruited or sending money to al Shabaab in places as disparate as St. Louis, San Diego, Seattle, Minnesota, as you mentioned, Maryland, and Alabama.

So, you know, while we're not confirming that -- no one has yet confirmed whether, indeed, three Americans did play a role in this attack, it wouldn't be particularly surprising given this past history.

BANFIELD: What is it about the neighborhood in particular where they seem to certainly have some history here?

There are plenty of studies that have shown, without question, certain people have been recruited, have gone overseas and they ended up being one-way tickets and suicide bombs resulted from these people.

Why these neighborhoods?

BERGEN: Well, they particularly -- al Shabaab has particularly recruited in a neighborhood in Minneapolis, which is called Cedar Riverside, which is one of the poorest neighborhoods in the United States, average income around $15,000, very high unemployment rate.

And, you know, I think for a lot of these guys, they're all guys, you know, it was kind of a romantic idea to go and help fight in their homeland, and they became attached to al Shabaab.

And, you know, it was a way to maybe get out of a situation which wasn't that exciting back at home and attach themselves to a sort of romantic cause in their homeland.

BANFIELD: So let me just ask you, it seems confounding to a lot of people whether in fact Somalia, where this group was born, essentially, is like the new Afghanistan.

Because up until now, it seemed the story was those who wanted to go and effectuate their jihad went to Afghanistan for their training.

Has that now been taken over by Somalia, or is that just an area that has seen a lot of it, but hasn't organized to the extent that al Qaeda did in Afghanistan?

BERGEN: It's not as organized as Afghanistan, Ashleigh, where they were, pre-9/11, thousands from around the world, trained in al Qaeda's training camps.

But it's certainly been an attractive location, not just American citizens, by the way. A number of Europeans have also gone to fight there, including British citizens.

But there are other areas of -- you know, if you're interested in the jihad right now, Syria has become attractive. We've seen an American citizen, Nicole Mansfield, who was killed there earlier this year who's from Flint, Michigan.

So if you have this sort of ideology, there are a number of places that are attractive, Somalia certainly being one of those.

BANFIELD: And, you know, no one should be surprised. And there's even Operation Rhino, the FBI for years has been actually looking at that recruiting pipeline from the Twin Cities here in the United States, overseas to Somalia. Peter Bergen, if you can, stay put. I have a lot of other questions for you regarding this group and the significance of Nairobi, the significance of what this group is doing, and maybe why this group may be more of a mess than people actually think it is.

Peter Bergen is going to stay with us.

And then coming up next, why malls and theaters and gas stations are called "soft targets," and why you matter when it comes to soft targets and your behavior matters, too.

We're going to explain that to you in a moment.

And also, the United States is just one week away from a possible government shutdown. The Senate is going to take up the House bill.

So what can we expect? A scalpel? We're going to take you live to Capitol Hill later this hour.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: Those images of the deadly terror attack in Kenya, it's more than 7,000 miles away from the United States, and yet it does hit close to home because you have no doubt heard about mall shootings in the United States, but what about a full-blown terror attack at a mall, a soft target? Are we at risk? John Berman is looking at your local mall security and also law enforcement officials are doing. Maybe you don't even see it, but what they're doing to protect you in the event of an attack like that.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHN BERMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The shocking mall attack in Kenya, carried out by a Somali terror group linked to al Qaeda and hostile to the United States, has many U.S. citizens concerned. Could a similar attack happen here? Gunmen have terrorized American shopping malls in the past, but those attacks have been carried out by lone assailants with no apparent cause to promote.

In 2007, the 19-year-old man killed eight people and himself in Omaha, Nebraska. That same year, an 18-year-old man killed five people in Salt Lake City before he was killed by police, and last year, weeks before Christmas, a 22-year-old gunman killed two people and himself at a mall near Portland, Oregon.

It is preventing scenes like this one that keeps FBI officials up at night, and law enforcement says they have been successful at stopping planned attacks before they happen.

A Somali citizen living in Columbus, Ohio was sentenced to ten years in prison in 2007 after admitting he sought training to carry out attacks on a mall, and a man in Rockford, Illinois, was sentenced to 35 years in prison after plotting to setting off grenades at a shopping mall.

LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA, CNN MILITARY ANALIST: Soft targets are always attractive to terrorists, because they are usually not defended.

BERMAN: Mall representatives in the U.S. stress that security is front and center. The Mall of America, one of the largest shopping centers in the country, holds lockdown drills twice a month. Tenants and customers practice sheltering in back rooms of doors, aiming to prevent causalities in an attack.

DOUG REYNOLDS, MALL OF AMERICA: If something bad should happen here, we don't want our response to start with, and law enforcement will be here and they will protect you. We want to know what will be done until law enforcement gets here.

BERMAN: But even with heightened security, experts say your best defense may be simply to be aware of your surroundings.

TOM FUENTES, LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: You go to the shopping mall, you go to a movie theater, any one of those situations could make you vulnerable if other people or another person is out there determined to conduct an attack.

BERMAN: John Berman, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BANFIELD: I want to bring in CNN's military analyst Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona, who you just saw in a report of John Berman's report. He's a former U.S. military attache. Okay, Colonel, here's the sad reality. These soft targets, while they make not wreak as much damage as you've seen happen in Nairobi typically, the bigger damage is the fear and the terror and it works because if we look back to Spain in 2004 and Madrid, the train bombings, it actually effectuated a change in how they supported the United States foreign policy when it comes to Iraq. Is that what Shabaab is up to?

FRANCONA: Yeah. What we see here is they are trying to punish the Kenyans for their operation in Somalia. The Kenyan army, the Kenyan airforce have been very effective killing a lot of al Shabaab. So, what they are doing is trying to get back at them, and in the terrorist manual, if there is one, what you're trying to create terror. You're trying to create an a significant emotional event. That's what they are doing here very effectively in Nairobi.

They are going after people that can make differences in that government. They have wealthy Kenyans, they've got foreign diplomats. They are going to put a lot of pressure on the government. Will the government be able to stand up to it? That's al Shabaab's thinking here.

BANFIELD: And it's not just Kenya's actions in trying to quash what'e baan going on in Somalia, with regard to al Shabaab. It's also Kenya happens to be supportive of the United States as well. If that is a message, is it possible that we might be seeing that spread of soft target terror to the U.S.? Because, quite frankly, it's been 12 years since 9/11 and there's been no terror attack in a mall. There have been shootings in a mall, don't get me wrong, but no terror attack in a mall so far. FRANCONA: We've taken steps to secure aviation, and we've made it that much harder to do. They are going after a soft targets. Soft because they are vulnerable. When you start shooting up American citizens inside the United States, you start creating that emotional event that starts people putting pressure on their government to make changes and that's what they are hoping for. You can win the war from within because you can't win it from without.

BANFIELD: Let me ask you about this issue that, you know, when they tweet you can't really know to take it at face value or not but when they tweet," we will not negotiate," what does that mean? If you take hostages, aren't you taking hostages to negotiate something? What does it mean when they say, no negotiation?

FRANCONA: This has been very confusing from the beginning.. They've taken hostages. There are some reports that they even have some IEDs that they strapped to the hostages. If they don't want to negotiate, what exactly do they want? They have the bargaining chips. They can start talking to the Kenyan government. They can start asking for things, but if they won't negotiate I don't see the point of taking hostages. If they just went in there to die and to kill as many people as they can, they don't need to have the hostages.

BANFIELD: Maybe what they want is more air time or a longer story. But God forbid that's what they mean. Rick Francona, thanks so much. It's always good to see you. Thank you for that.

As this terror attack is happening, world leaders are gathering here in New York at the United Nations for that annual meeting. President Obama is leaving any moment now. We've been watching, actually, the South Lawn. Right now that's Joint Base Andrews where Air Force One is scheduled to pick him up just as soon as Marine One gets him from the White House to the base. That's probably coming any moment now, in fact.

So he's on his way to New York to meet with world leaders to the United Nation's annual general assembly. So he's going to not only be speaking here, but meeting with a lot of the top leaders today. The Iranian president is also on his way here. This is critical.

You're seeing live but that's actually President Obama from 2012. You can see in the corner of the screen. That's essentially the image that you're going to see in the days to come as the president gets ready to leave the White House and then Joint Base Andrews. We'll try to bring it to you live as it happens as well.

What topics are going to be front and center as the president meets these leaders? Syria, nuclear weapons, what's happening in Nairobi? We're going to take you there live, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: Lawyers for Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev are due in court in federal court in Boston today. Associated Press is reporting that the defense wants the court to address the timeline and procedure the prosecutors plan to take in deciding whether or not they are going to seek the death penalty against this young man.

You'll remember, Tsarnaev is accused of killing three people in the Boston marathon bombing, and then also a police officer while he and his brother were on the run. He, himself, is not expected to make that appearance in the courtroom today.

Just a short while ago the Boston police commissioner, Edward Davis, announced his resignation at a news conference. It was not an unexpected move. Davis' calm and reassuring response to the Boston marathon attack illicited national praise, but as for what's next he says he is considering an offer to teach at Harvard.

At this hour, President Obama is getting scheduled to leave the White House and jump on Air Force One to head right up to New York City for the United Nation's general assembly. It's in New York and gets underway officially tomorrow and one highly anticipated speech will come from Iran's new president, Hasan Rouhani. He's already surprised a lot of people with an op-ed in "The Washington Post" saying that we need to end, quote, "unhealthy rivalries."

Nick Paton Walsh is live at the United Nations right now. So, let me know what some of the bigger headlines. There's always an agenda, there's always an official agenda for the UNGA. But what's the unspoke agenda? What is everybody really watching for here today?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think in broader terms people are trying to work out exactly what Barack Obama will do at this UNGA to try to define America's policy in the Middle East now. In so many ways at crossroads, and the key point of that is he going to meet up with Hasan Rouhani?

Now, we've heard there's no scheduled meeting. The two men have exchanged letters. There's a degree of feeling now that there's a warmth from Tehran that hasn't been there towards that kind of idea for quite a number of years.

Remember, just a year ago, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former Iranian president, gave a very strong speech against both the U.S. and Israel at this particular forum. People looking today also, we've seen a little flurry of activity by the Iranian foreign minister, Zarif here. He will later in the week be meeting with the permanent five members of the Security Council plus Germany to perhaps speed up diplomacy around talks on Iran's nuclear program.

And I think there's a general feeling that once Tuesday's meeting between Hasan Rouhani, the Iranian president, and his French counterpart Francois Hollande, once that has passed, you may see determinations from the White House. Whether they think it's too big a risk or a good idea for a potential one-on-one between Barack Obama and Rouhani.

BANFIELD: So, as we await that, and that would be monumental, I look at the official agenda as being really focused on the millennium development goals and we're woefully behind in child and maternal mortality rates, gender imbalances. But methinks that the headlines won't even scratch that area. Instead it will be all about what is going on in Syria, what just happened in Kenya, whether the Kenyan president will even show up given that he's wanted on war crimes. Is that what people are really talking about?

WALSH: In many ways, it's become Iran and in many ways Syria is always going to overshadow the agenda here. But in some ways, too, the technicalities of the process of getting Syria to give over their chemical weapons has been slowing down talking about whether a U.N. resolution will come even this week.

We're hearing from one official that the organizations the prohibition of chemical weapons who in fact have to technically have to rubber stamp the agreement in Geneva between American and Russia. They may not get round to that till later in the week. Until they have done their job, they can't sit down here authentically and write down a resolution text which could even begin to back up what was agreed to in Geneva. So, that process now, slowing diplomatically in a remarkable fashion while even the at the weekend Syria did give an initial declaration of its chemical weapons to the OPCW, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: It makes great television to have a Chavez moment, certainly not great for diplomacy. Let's hope for cooler heads. Nick Paton Walsh, thank you.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: And still on THE LGAL VIEW, just ahead we're going to return to the Kenyan mall where terrorists have been holding hostages for days. Fortunately, some have been able to escape alive.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Bullets were running over my head but God protected me. Until around 11:00, that is where I crawl until I left my office and locked myself inside.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: Let's hope those still being held inside will have similar stories of survival. We're live in Nairobi when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)