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Al-Shabab terrorists in training find inspiration in Kenya mall attack

January 7, 2014 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Terrorist groups are secretive by nature, using violent attacks to make public statements.

Tonight, we get a rare look inside a training camp for al-Shabab. That is al-Qaida-linked organization based in Somalia.

It comes from Jamal Osman of Independent Television News.

JAMAL OSMAN: In a secret location deep in the Somali bush, I meet al-Shabab, one of the most feared al-Qaida-affiliated organizations.

This is the jihadist group behind the attack at the Westgate shopping mall in Kenya that left 67 people dead. This is the face they want the world to see. This is the al-Shabab class of 2013.

Around 300 newly trained fighters have completed a six-month course, the same military training as the Westgate attackers. Today, they are rewarded with a visit from al-Shabab’s spokesman, Sheik Ali Dhere. He’s the public face of the group and the only one willing to show his face on camera.

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SHEIK ALI DHERE, al-Shabab (through interpreter): To free ourselves, we have to follow our religion. And that means preparing for jihad.

JAMAL OSMAN: Some Western analysts believe al-Shabab is in decline, but the groups say the Westgate attack proves how strong they remain.

That’s why al-Shabab viewed the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, as a P.R. victory. These terrifying images from the attack show al-Shabab fighters casually walking through the mall as they shoot civilians.

MAN (through interpreter): They were innocent shoppers going about their daily life. Why target civilians rather than the military?

MAN (through interpreter): Kenya attacked us. We have said many times, stay away from us. Leave our land, our people. Stop fighting us. We warned them again and again, but they ignored us. So, we had to send a message. Their women aren’t better than ours. Their sons aren’t better than ours. Their children aren’t better than ours. When they kill our people, we kill theirs.

JAMAL OSMAN: For al-Shabab, the attack has been used to inspire new soldiers.

MAN (through interpreter): Look at what the Kenyans are facing today. Boys who were like you, had the same training as you. They sacrificed their lives for God and brought huge victory for Muslims.

JAMAL OSMAN: Highly organized, these latest additions will soon decide which unit within al-Shabab to join.

Some show off their gymnastic skills to impress Sheik Ali Dhere. The recruits might remain regular fighters, become bomb-makers or work for the Amniyat, al-Shabab’s elite intelligence network. But the most popular unit is the suicide brigade, and, believe it or not, there is a long waiting list. Only the best recruits will be accepted.

MAN (through interpreter): When we fight and are martyred, we hope to be with God in paradise. We are hoping for beautiful women. What are the infidels hoping for? Nothing.

JAMAL OSMAN: al-Shabab has been designated as a terrorist organization by several Western nations. After losing control of four major cities, the Islamists were thought to have been defeated.

But they still control large parts of the country and see themselves as an alternative government. This is Bulo Burte, a key strategic crossing point on the Shabelle River. It’s an al-Shabab stronghold. It also happens to be the town where one of the Westgate attackers came from.

The number and identities of the attackers still remain a mystery. Kenyans claim there were only four, but locals here suggest there were more, and some are even believed to have returned to Somalia.

MAN (through interpreter): Are you going to release the identity of the attackers?

MAN (through interpreter): We will do that when we choose to. It happened at the heart of their country and the attack lasted days, and they still don’t know if our men have escaped or not. How many were there? That shows how weak they are.

MAN (through interpreter): So, are you enjoying that?

MAN (through interpreter): We are very happy to see their weakness.

JAMAL OSMAN: Unlike other parts of Southern and Central Somalia, there is peace here, but it’s under al-Shabab’s strict Sharia law, although women do go to a school and are allowed to run their own businesses.

The locals might not agree with al-Shabab’s military campaign, but they told me they appreciate them for bringing law and order. I asked local elder Muhammed Bedel what life is like now under the self-appointed al-Shabab rule.

MAN (through interpreter): It’s very good day and night. It’s a safe place. We’re not afraid. You don’t hear gunshots.

JAMAL OSMAN: I followed the Hizbat, the al-Shabab police, on their beat. None of them would let me film their faces. The first stop was this restaurant, telling the female owner to remove the rubbish from outside.

Then they make their way to the local hospital, where they check the pharmacy for out-of-date medicine

MAN (through interpreter): Has your medicine been checked?

MAN (through interpreter): Yes, it’s been checked and passed.

JAMAL OSMAN: And also the cleanliness of the facilities. They seem satisfied.

Our final stop is a mini-supermarket where they check product expiring dates. But as soon as they hear the call to prayer, everything stops. People head to the mosque for midday prayer, whether they like it or not. Passing vehicles are pulled over.

MAN (through interpreter): It’s prayer time. Park your car.

JAMAL OSMAN: The al-Shabab police make sure everyone goes to the mosque.

MAN (through interpreter): Stand up. You can come back to work later.

MAN (through interpreter): What are you doing?

MAN (through interpreter): I’m on my way.

MAN (through interpreter): Stand up. Let’s go.

JAMAL OSMAN: This butcher is reluctant, but no is not an option. The mosque quickly fills up, with some having to pray outside in the heat.

It’s a good opportunity for al-Shabab spokesman Sheik Ali Dhere, this time in civilian clothes, to drum up more support.

SHEIK ALI DHERE (through interpreter): It’s your duty to deal with the infidels. It’s you who should defend Islam. Victory is close, God willing. The infidels have little time left. They are in their 11th hour.

JAMAL OSMAN: It’s an ominous message from a group that says it’s been revived and is strengthened by the Kenya attack. They say they will strike again. The question is, where and when?