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Attack in Kenya; Drama at U.N.

Aired September 23, 2013 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, terror at the mall. New gunfire, new uncertainty about the deadly siege in Kenya and whether there's a link to America's heartland.

Plus, drama here at the United Nations before big speeches by President Obama and Iran's new president. Will they meet face-to- face?

And Hillary Clinton now back in the spotlight, schmoozing with world leaders and political donors, while talk of 2016 takes off.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer at the United Nations. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Right now, police are vowing to finish and punish terrorists who slaughtered dozens of civilians who did nothing more than go shopping. Authorities say government troops are now in control of an upscale mall in Kenya more than two days after it was attacked, but two senior officials tell CNN that's not the case. They say several gunmen are still inside the mall, including snipers. It's not clear if they still have hostages. At least 62 people are dead, killed by members of the Al-Shabab affiliate that's part of al Qaeda's Somalia wing.

Our senior international correspondent, Arwa Damon, is in Nairobi.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's nothing that would prepare you that feeling of, this is it, you're going to die. I looked at her. I just held her close and I prayed on her in case I got shot, if there was a chance that she would make it. And I held his hand and I told him I love you.

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It had started out a beautiful day. Turnout exceeded expectation for the East FM radio station children's cooking competition. Alim (ph) Sima Manji (ph) and are the station's popular husband-and-wife presenting team.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The kids are just running around in their little aprons chopping up. We heard a series of gunshots. We called everyone to the corner, all the kids and the moms and the parents, and everyone, and we said get down, get down, get down on the floor. And just as we did that, the gunmen tossed a grenade to where we were.

DAMON: The blast sent slivers of shrapnel and glass into Alim's eye.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The guy with the white shirt spoke first. He said, we're from Somali. And we don't normally kill women and children, but then again you have killed our women and children. His colleague next to him --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thin, tall, skinny face.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He just opened fired.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Fire. I got shot here. I had so much blood everywhere. I thought she was dead and I was holding a dead baby.

DAMON: They decided to take their chances and confront the gunmen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I am a Muslim, and I went up and said -- and he asked, are you Muslim? And I said, yes, I am. And she was behind me with the baby. He said, is that your woman? I said, yes.

DAMON: The storm of emotions so many here are going through is still so raw.

Janet Mutali's (ph) husband worked at the supermarket in the mall. As she cradles her granddaughter, she tells us how she joined the crowds that were waiting outside. She was hoping to find her husband. She didn't.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But I hope. Of course, I do pray.

DAMON: There are so many who have not yet been accounted for, possibly including some survivors. Janet clings to the hope that her husband is one of them. They have been married since she was 24.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He's the love of my life.

DAMON: And she doesn't want to imagine what he might be going through right now. She's heard more than her share of horror stories from those who escaped.

The Manjis' (ph) radio station colleague, Rula Dikasud (ph), seven months pregnant, was killed in the attack.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Rula was standing at the counter, and she's like, oh, my baby's kicked. So Jasmine (ph), she's like, oh, the baby must be hungry. So I told her sit down and I gave her the other banana.

DAMON: They say the mall massacre had nothing to do with religion.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our religion preaches peace, understanding and humanity.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My husband is Muslim. I am not. My daughter is Muslim, and I want her to grow up to be a good Muslim. (END VIDEOTAPE)

DAMON: Wolf, it is eerily calm where we are here tonight, just around the corner from the Westgate Mall, conflicting messages coming out from the government about exactly how many gunmen may be inside and of course what the fate of the remaining hostages could be, people here really hoping that this will be over soon.

The Red Cross is saying there are 65 people that are still missing or unaccounted for, Wolf.

BLITZER: What a heartbreaking story. Arwa, thank you for that report. We appreciate it, Arwa Damon on the scene for us, as she always is, this time in Nairobi, Kenya.

U.S. officials, meanwhile, can't confirm Al-Shabab's claim that three Americans actually took part in the Kenyan mall attack. The FBI is investigating, the White House acknowledging it's been worried about Al-Shabab's efforts to recruit right here in the United States, particularly in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

Brian Todd is on the scene for us there.

Brian, explain what's going on.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this community of Somali- Americans has been devastated by that terrorist group in recent year. In English, Al-Shabab in English means the youth and here in Minneapolis, that's just who they take.


(voice-over): It was thousands of miles away on her TV screen. But it might as well have been at her front door. The attack in Kenya has torn open Abayte Ahmed's deepest wound.

ABAYTE AHMED, MOTHER (through translator): I automatically got those traumatic memories of my son and what has happened to him.

TODD: Her son, Jamal Banah (ph), a handsome 19-year-old college engineering student in Minneapolis. His family says he gave up everything to fight with Al-Shabab in Somalia. He was one of dozens of young Somali-American men in the Minneapolis area secretly targeted for recruiting by the terrorist group in recent years.

In 2009, Jamal, like many orders, simply disappeared one day with no warning. A few days later, his mother says, he made his only call home.

AHMED (through translator): He called me saying, mom, I'm in Somalia. And I said, why? What are you doing in Somalia? Why did you go? And when? And he said, I will tell you. I just wanted to let you know that I'm OK.

TODD: But within days, his family saw a pictures of him on the Internet dead in the streets of Mogadishu from a bullet wound to the head. To this day, his mother doesn't know how the Al-Shabab recruiters lured him away.

Community activist Abdirizak Bihi, who lost his nephew to those recruiters, says one way they do it:

ABDIRIZAK BIHI, SOMALI COMMUNITY LEADER: If Al-Shabab guy who pretends to be a sheik or imam or nice person comes and takes him to the Mall of America, have him play games, takes him to the movies, and gets him (INAUDIBLE) in school --

TODD (on camera): That's what they do?

BIHI: That's what they do. And he directs his anger at what they want to, the infidels.

TODD (voice-over): Bihi says he and others in this community have created mentorship programs for young Somalis here, had local imams speak to them, have repeatedly shown them TV images of Al-Shabab's terrorist attacks to try to counter the recruiting. But he says the recruitment is still going on, emotional torture for one mother.

(on camera): What did they take from you when they took this boy?

AHMED (through translator): They took my heart. Before he left, I was a whole person. He was very active in doing everything for himself, raising a family. Since he left, up to today, I'm on medication. I live by medication.


TODD: Abayte Ahmed has testified against her son'S recruiters. Some of them have been indicted and imprisoned in the U.S. in recent years, but the threat of young Somali-Americans coming back into this country with U.S. passports and launching an attack on a soft target like a shopping mall is, as one federal law enforcement official source told us, what keeps us all up at night.

BLITZER: Brian Todd on the scene for us in Minnesota, thanks very much.

Let's bring in our national security analyst, Fran Townsend. She's on the external advisory boards for both the CIA and the Department of Homeland Security.

I know there's been deep concerns about Al-Shabab's efforts to recruit Americans, bring them over there, train them and bring them back in effect to the United States. Give us your perspective because I know you have studied this potential problem.


The FBI, as a result of this threat, this concern, the FBI has worked very closely with community organizers just like the one that Brian Todd interviewed in that last piece.

The communities really, the FBI has persuaded the communities that they're as much victim, these young men who are recruited and taken from their families are as much victim. And while they closely watch sort of the movements of these individuals, and then they try to screen them at our borders from coming back in, more often than not what happens is -- Peter King, the chairman of the then Homeland Security Committee, now the Intelligence Committee, held a hearing in 2011.

They found that there were as many as 50 Americans, more than half of which came from the Minneapolis area, recruited to Al-Shabab, taken over to Somalia to fight. More often than not, tragically, like the boy in Brian Todd's piece, they're killed in the fight in Somalia, and while the FBI watches for them very closely, in fact, they have not seen them coming back into the United States.

BLITZER: What's the role, Fran, of social media in recruiting these potential terrorists out there?

TOWNSEND: You know, Wolf, we see them like the -- they're an al Qaeda affiliate. We see them using sort of these password-protected Web sites, the distribution of extremist media, whether it's videotapes or audiotapes.

In terms of the social media, in the Kenya case, the interesting thing was they were using Twitter, Al-Shabab was, as they went through executing this attack. Of course, Twitter then responsibly quickly acted to take that account down. There have been spoof accounts, spoof Al-Shabab accounts that are not true, but equally interesting, Wolf, this is the first time we have seen the Kenyan police chief and the police service both them also use social media to release information, to notify the media about press conferences, and to actually direct-message with families of victims of those who were missing or perhaps caught inside as hostages inside the mall.

And so both sides, good guys and bad guys, are using social media to collect data, collect information and get out their message.

BLITZER: Fran Townsend, thanks very much.

Up nest, the Iranian president's charm offensive with the West certainly will be tested in the coming hours. Can he be believed?

And President Obama's new revelation about his smoking habit and why he was very scared.


BLITZER: A surprising confession by President Obama today, after he asked a U.N. official about his smoking habit. Listen to this.




OBAMA: No, no, I haven't had a cigarette in probably six years. That's because I'm scared of my wife.


BLITZER: Scared of his wife. Be careful. Be careful with those open microphones.

More from the United Nations right after this.


BLITZER: Right now, the White House is keeping the door open, open to a potentially groundbreaking, historic meeting between President Obama and the new president of Iran. It could happen, by the way, within the next 24 hours or so on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly session here at the U.N., but that's still a huge if.

Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is here at the U.N. watching what is going on.

What are you hearing? What's the latest?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, U.S. and its allies very much on message in terms of engaging with Iran, saying they're willing to engage as long as it's tied to concrete action, U.S. officials saying as long as Iran is willing to "engage seriously."

The British foreign minister saying now is the time for concrete steps, code language, in effect, for action on Iran's nuclear program, but when you think of where we were just a year ago here at the U.N. General Assembly, or even several weeks ago, a dramatic difference in terms of Iran's relations with the U.S. and the West.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): For years, it was a U.N. General Assembly annual ritual. Iran's president shouts at the U.S.

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, FORMER IRANIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): Continual threats by the uncivilized Zionists to resort to military action against our great nation is a clear example of this bitter reality.

SCIUTTO: The American president fires back.

OBAMA: In Iran, we see where the path of a violent and unaccountable ideology leads.

SCIUTTO: This year, New York is brimming with talk of new diplomacy. Today, U.S. officials repeated no meeting between the presidents is on the schedule, though they remain open to engagement.

One direct contact confirmed, however, Secretary Kerry with his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Zarif. They will meet Thursday with the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany. The topic, restarting talks on Iran's nuclear program. CATHERINE ASHTON, FOREIGN POLICY CHIEF, EUROPEAN UNION: In terms of whether we're on the verge of a breakthrough, I would put it like this. I was struck, as I said, by the energy and determination that the foreign minister demonstrated to me.

SCIUTTO: So what are the chances of concrete progress here?

KARIM SADJADPOUR, ASSOCIATE, CARNEGIE ENDOWMENT FOR INTERNATIONAL PEACE: There's a lot of signs to suggest that Iran is preparing for a nuclear compromise, but there are few signs to suggest that Iran is preparing to cut loose Bashar al-Assad.

SCIUTTO: And Syria's President Assad grabbed some of the spotlight back today, saying inspectors trying to access Syria's chemical weapons could face security threats.

BASHAR AL-ASSAD, PRESIDENT OF SYRIA (through translator): If some countries give orders to those terrorists to stop experts' arrival and accuse the Syrian government of doing it, this remains a possibility.


SCIUTTO: Some positive progress with Syria over the weekend, U.S. officials saying they were -- quote -- "pleasantly surprised" with Syria's report on its chemical weapons stockpile, but still the hurdle now is on a U.N. Security Council resolution backing that U.S.-Russia deal. Many more hurdles to go with that.

BLITZER: We will see if they can work it out. Be good if they can. Thanks very much, Jim Sciutto, for that report.

Still ahead, lots more news, including a new appeal by a Republican lightning rod. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, is he making a government shutdown right now more likely?


BLITZER: One week before a possible federal government shutdown, a controversial Republican now making a new appeal. Senator Ted Cruz spoke with our chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash.


DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You want Republicans to stand by you in the House and the Senate, but that's not happening right now.

I'm sure you have seen some of the things your colleagues in your own party have said. For example, Senator Corker said, I didn't go to Harvard or Princeton, two institutions that you graduated from, but I can count. Peter King of New York called you a fraud. They don't like what you're doing. They don't like what you're putting them through. These are fellow Republicans.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: Well, you know, individual politicians can choose to say whatever they want. They can launch whatever personal insults they want.

I would note in the House that the Republicans, including those who have criticized me, voted to defund Obamacare. And in the Senate, I think the votes are very fluid in the Senate. I believe every Senate Republicans should stand united. Any senator who votes for cloture on this bill is voting to give Harry Reid the authority to fund Obamacare with just 51 votes.

I hope and believe Senate Republicans will stand united. I hope all 46 Senate Republicans stand united against cloture on this bill, because no Senate Republican wants to give Harry Reid the ability to use 51 votes to fund Obamacare.


BASH: Wolf, the way he framed the argument is relatively new.

What he is basically saying is, Republicans, if you don't stand with me, you're standing with the Democrats. It's a very complicated procedural thing. And guess what? That argument already is not playing with a very important Republican, and that is the Republican leader, Mitch McConnell.

Just a couple minutes after I spoke with Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell said that he is not going to support his filibuster. He is going to basically not stand with him. And so that will make Ted Cruz's job a lot harder, but he will still play it out probably until down to the wire, which is a week from today.

BLITZER: What a story. All right. Thank very much. We will see what happens. Dana, thank you.

There's another big event here in New York this week, the Clinton Global Initiative. One might argue that Hillary Clinton is more of an attraction this year perhaps even than her husband.

Here's our chief domestic affairs correspondent, Jessica Yellin.


JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF DOMESTIC AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As major donors gather at the Clinton Global Initiative this week, look for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to turn up on stage when her husband and President Obama address health care reform, once her signature issue as first lady, and speak at the same awards dinner as good friend of Vice President Joe Biden, her would-be 2016 opponent.

She is dipping her toe into domestic political waters, but she will also tackle the kind of do-no-harm issues that keep her poll numbers in the stratosphere, programs for women and girls.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: I have always believed that women are not victims.

YELLIN: Promoting clean cook stoves for the developing world and a plan to help save Africa's elephants. Who could be against that?

ROBERT ZIMMERMAN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Right now, the best politics is really focusing on issues and avoiding the partisan rancor. I have never met anyone on the political scene, Jessica, who ever said they wish they had gotten involved in partisan debates earlier.

YELLIN: Since leaving office, the former diplomat has weighed in on controversial topics very few occasions, voicing support for the Voting Rights Act, the president's position on Syria and gay marriage.

H. CLINTON: Gay rights are human rights.

YELLIN: Even as Clinton is leaning in to politics again, she's signaling she's not all in. She tells "New York" magazine she's -- quote -- "pragmatic and realistic" about the possibility of running for president and -- quote -- "will just continue to weigh the factors."

In the meantime, she says she's enjoying ordinary, everyday pleasures living in New York with former President Clinton. "We laugh at our dogs. We watch stupid movies. We take long walks. We go for a swim."

Apparently, talking about 2016 is not on their list of favorite things.

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There's no such thing as a done deal ever by anybody, but I don't know what she's going to do.


BLITZER: That report from CNN's Jessica Yellin.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer at the United Nations.

"CROSSFIRE" starts right now.