The last deployment of regular U.S. troops to Somalia led to an incident that sparked widespread horror.
Somali militiamen shot down two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters in the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, killing 18 American soldiers. They captured several of the corpses, dragging them through the streets of the Somali capital. The attack contributed to then President Bill Clinton’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops within six months from Somalia, where they had been serving on a humanitarian mission.
But now, as the embattled African state struggles with a long-running jihadi insurgency, the Trump administration has authorized the deployment of U.S. soldiers to Somalia for the first time since 1994. (U.S. military and counterterrorism advisors have been present in Somalia for several years, but regular troops have not.)
The U.S. military command for Africa (AFRICOM) confirmed to Voice of America on Thursday that American soldiers from 101st Airborne Division had been deployed at the request of the Somali federal government to carry out a train-and-equip mission until September. An AFRICOM spokeswoman later confirmed the deployment to AFP and said that “a few dozen” troops would help Somalia’s army to “better fight Al-Shabab” and would conduct “security force assistance,” without elaborating on what this might entail.
Things are quite different in Somalia now from the time of the so-called Black Hawk Down incident, when the country had been plunged into civil war after overthrowing its strongman leader Siad Barre in 1991. The country has a recently-elected federal government, led by a dual U.S.-Somali national who has thrown down the gauntlet to Al-Shabab, an extremist militant group with ties to Al-Qaeda. Yet some of the same scourges that roiled Somalia in the early 1990s—including a harrowing drought that is threatening to escalate into famine; clan rivalries; and the instability caused by frequent bombings in the capital—remain.
President Donald Trump has outlined defeating “radical Islamic terror groups” as the foremost foreign policy goal of his administration. But given the U.S. leader’s insistence on putting American interests first, the Somalia deployment raises the question of what threat Al-Shabab poses to the U.S.
“The question is a fair one. From the U.S. perspective, do we really have a dog in this hunt?” says Kenneth Menkhaus, professor of political science at Davidson College and a Somalia expert. “That’s one of the things that the Trump administration is going to have to explain to its constituency.”
U.S. military personnel have been involved in Somalia’s battle with Al-Shabab for over a decade. An AFRICOM spokesperson recently told Newsweek that around 100 personnel were deployed in Somalia; the focus of their mission was to train African Union and Somali forces, but the U.S. also regularly carries out drone strikes on the militant group. U.S. forces have carried at least 42 strikes in Somalia since 2007, killing up to 449 people—including up to 28 civilians—according to the Bureau for Investigative Journalism.
The State Department classified Al-Shabab as a foreign terrorist organization in 2008. Early U.S. operations in Somalia aimed at surgically taking out high-value targets associated with the group and Al-Qaeda’s East African franchise, which preceded Al-Shabab and orchestrated the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing more than 200 people.
But this tactic has changed in recent months and years, according to Roland Marchal, an Al-Shabab expert and research fellow at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. According to Marchal, the U.S. has now widened the scope of its operations to include Al-Shabab training camps and fighters on the move; in March 2016, for example, the Pentagon took responsibility for strikes on an Al-Shabab training camp that killed more than 150 people. Marchal says that this tactic has likely been motivated by the seeming inability of the 22,000-strong African Union force in Somalia (AMISOM) to keep Al-Shabab at bay: The militants have frequently targeted AMISOM bases in recent months and the group has taken over territorywhere AMISOM troops have pulled out.
According to Marchal, the deployment of a few dozen more U.S. troops is unlikely to have a determinative effect on the outcome of the war on Al-Shabab. “What is the aim of the war? Is it just to kill Al-Shabab fighters? If you kill 100, 200 Al-Shabab fighters, it needs only three or four months to get this number of fighters back,” Marchal adds. Only a political solution, he says, can end the insurgency, and that can only be instigated by the Somali federal and state governments.
There is also the risk of U.S. forces being manipulated by opposing sides in Somalia’s complex, clan-based society. In September 2016, security forces in the semi-autonomous state of Puntland requested U.S. strikes on opposition fighters believed to be Al-Shabab; the U.S. obliged, killing 10 armed fighters. But it later transpired that the fighters were not Al-Shabab—they were from another region of Somalia that is in conflict with Puntland.
Besides the 1998 embassy bombings, Al-Shabab has not launched any successful attacks on U.S. interests in the region. But the group has called for attacks in the West—and even used Trump in a 2016 propaganda video—and tens of American citizens have joined or attempted to join the group, many coming from Minneapolis, which has one of the largest concentrations of Somali immigrants in the United States. The deployment of extra U.S. troops to Somalia follows a presidential directive in March that loosened the conditions for airstrikes against Al-Shabab in Somalia, a sign that the Trump administration may wish to expedite its military efforts against the group. (This was also suggested by a set of leaked queries from the Trump transition team to the State Department in January, which included the question: “We’ve been fighting Al-Shabab for a decade, why haven’t we won?”)
Ultimately, the Trump administration—like previous administrations—is aware that U.S. firepower alone cannot defeat the militant group, according to Menkhaus. “I’ve never met an American government official, whether civilian or military, who believes that Al-Shabab can be defeated outright just by U.S. military [action in Somalia],” he says.
Instead, the deployment constitutes an attempt to help Somalia help itself. “The idea is if you can bottle them up, degrade their leadership and buy time for the Somali federal government and regional states to establish themselves,” says Menkhaus, “then this problem will largely take care of itself.”
U.S. military denies Al-Shabaab killed its soldier in Somalia
MOGADISHU, Feb. 20 (Xinhua) — The United States military confirmed Tuesday no American soldier was killed or injured in southern Somalia as claimed by the Islamist militant group, Al-Shabaab.
The U.S. Africa Command (Africom), which oversees American troops on the continent, dismissed the report as incorrect that the insurgents killed the American soldier on the outskirts of Kismayo during a gun fight early Tuesday.
“We are aware of the reports, but they are incorrect. No U.S military were killed or injured in Somalia, as alleged in the reports,” Africom spokesperson Samantha Reho told Xinhua.
The militants through their radio station, Andalus had reported that the American soldier was killed in a gun battle that took place outside Kismayo town on Tuesday morning.
The allegations came amid intensified security operation by the African Union peacekeeping mission (AMISOM) backed by Somalia National Army (SNA) on Al-Shabaab controlled areas in the Lower Shabelle region, destroying several militant bases, checkpoints and explosives including an FM station run by Al-Shabaab.
The allied forces have ramped up offensives against the militants as the African Union forces continue with the drawdown which started with 500 troops last December.
Al-Shabaab plundering starving Somali villages of cash and children
Al-Shabaab militants in Somalia are extorting huge sums from starving communities and forcibly recruiting hundreds of children as soldiers and suicide bombers as the terror group endures financial pressures and an apparent crisis of morale.
Intelligence documents, transcripts of interrogations with recent defectors and interviews conducted by the Guardian with inhabitants of areas in the swath of central and southern Somalia controlled by al-Shabaab have shone a light on the severity of its harsh rule – but also revealed significant support in some areas.
Systematic human rights abuses on a par with those committed by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria are being conducted by the al-Qaida-affiliated Islamist militants as the west largely looks away because most analysts do not see the group as posing a threat to Europe, the UK or the US.
The group has put to death dozens of “criminals”, inflicted brutal punishments on gay people, conducted forced marriages, and used civilian populations as human shields.
In one 2017 incident investigated by the Guardian, a man was stoned to death for adultery. In another, four men and a 16-year-old boy were shot dead by a firing squad after being accused of spying for the Somali authorities. In a third, a 20-year-old man and a 15-year-old boy were killed in a public square after being found guilty by a religious court of homosexuality.
Last year at least five people were lashed publicly after being accused of “immoral or improper behaviour”. They included a 15-year-old and a 17-year-old who were given 100 lashes each for “fornication”.
UN officials said they had received reports of stonings for adultery. The former al-Shabaab leader, Hassan Dahir Aweys, who defected in 2013, described the group’s aim as “Islamic government without the interference of the western powers in Somalia”.
Al-Shabaab, which once controlled much of south and central Somalia, including the capital Mogadishu, was forced to retreat to rural areas by a military force drawn from regional armies seven years ago. Since then it has proved resilient, and remains one of the most lethal terrorist organisations in the world, but appears to be suffering a crisis of morale and financial pressure, prompting the drive to squeeze revenue out of poor rural communities.
One recent defector from central Somalia told government interrogators that the group forces “Muslims to pay for pretty much everything except entering the mosque”. Another said that al-Shabaab’s “finance ministry” – part of the extensive parallel government it has set up – is “hated”.
Al-Shabaab used to demand money or children from clans: now they demand both
The former mid-ranking commander, who defected four months ago, described how wells were taxed at $20,000 (£14,000) per month and a fee of $3.50 levied at water holes for every camel drinking there. One small town in Bai province was forced to pay an annual collective tax of a thousand camels, each worth $500, and several thousand goats, he said.
In addition, trucks using roads in territory controlled by al-Shabaab have to pay $1,800 each trip. Five percent of all land sales is taken as tax, and arbitrary levies of up to $100,000 imposed on communities for “educational purposes”, the defector said. There is also evidence that the movement is suffering from manpower shortages.
A third defector said al-Shabaab now insisted that all male children attend its boarding schools from the age of about eight. The children train as fighters and join fighting units in their mid-teens.
“By that age they are fully indoctrinated. They are no longer under the influence of their parents,” said Mohamed Mubarak, research director of the Horn Institute for Security and Strategic Policy thinktank.
According to Somali authorities, troops stormed a school run by al-Shabaab in January and rescued 32 children who had been taken as recruits to be “brainwashed” to be suicide bombers. “Al-Shabaab used to demand money or children from clans: now they demand both,” the defector said.
Al-Shabaab has also told people they will be punished – possibly put to death as spies – if they have any contact with humanitarian agencies.
Somalia has been hit by a series of droughts, and only a massive aid effort averted the deaths of hundreds of thousands last year.
A new military campaign launched by President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed and supported by the US has seen intensive drone strikes on al-Shabaab targets, putting the militants under significant pressure. Fears of spies have led to a series of internal purges. Suspected agents are jailed and brutally tortured.
Al-Shabaab cuts thieves’ hands and kills looters . Everyone is scared of them
“Distrust is so high that when they go into battle, everyone is afraid of being shot in the back by his comrade,” one of the defectors said. “When soldiers get leave, half come back. Al-Shabaab now send patrols to collect people who have fled home. They stay in jail until they agree to rejoin.”
Abdirahman Mohamed Hussein, a government official overseeing humanitarian aid in southern central Somalia, told the Guardian that extremists used local populations as human shields. “They do not want people to move out because they are worried that there could be an airstrike if the civilians leave,” Hussein said.
Al-Shabaab also imposes tight restrictions on media, the defectors said. “Most people only listen to al-Shabaab radio stations or get news from al-Shabaab lectures which go on for hours and which cover religion and which all must attend,” one said. Another said some people risked harsh punishments to listen in secret toVoice of America and the BBC.
“Life is really tough in al-Shabaab-controlled areas. There is no food, no aid and children are being taken,” said Mubarak, the thinktank director. “Al-Shabaab are still trying to portray themselves as defenders of Somali identity. The message has a lot of sympathy but is not translating into active support.”
The draconian punishment, seizures, taxes and abductions run counter to the strategic guidance issued by al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who has called for affiliates of the veteran group to build consensus and support among local communities. Their practices do, however, recall those of Isis.
Al-Shabaab also manipulates rivalries between clans and tribes, and benefits from the failures of local authorities to provide basic services. Several interviewees said they preferred using al-Shabaab’s justice system, and that the group had brought security.
In once case in May last year, two clan elders in Beledweyne in Hiran region agreed to seek al-Shabaab justice to settle a case of rape. The attacker was found guilty and stoned to death.
“We decided to go to the al-Shabaab court because the judge rules under the Islamic law and there is no nepotism and corruption,” said Abdurahman Guled Nur, a relative of the rape victim, in a telephone interview. “If we went to a government court, there would be no justice because the rapist could have paid some cash to the court and he would be freed.”
Mohamed Hussein, a farmer in Barire, a town 40 miles south of Mogadishu that has seen fierce fighting, returned home when al-Shabaab took control of the area in early October. “When the government soldiers were here, there was looting, illegal roadblocks and killing,” he said. “But al-Shabaab cuts thieves’ hands and kills looters. The Islamic court gives harsh sentences for the criminals, so everyone is scared of them. That way we are in peace under al-Shabaab. If you do not have any issue with al-Shabaab, they leave you alone.”
Additional reporting by Abdalle Mumin
Somalia Appoints New Security Chiefs to Combat al-Shabab
VOA — The Somali government has appointed new security chiefs, nearly four months after firing the previous commanders after a series of deadly al-Shabab attacks. But experts warn that the new security chiefs are not “miracle” workers and need support from the public and their own government to win the war against the militants.
During a special meeting in Mogadishu on Monday, the Cabinet approved the appointment of Hussein Osman Hussein to become director of the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) and General Bashir Abdi Mohamed to be the commissioner of the police.
Also appointed was Major General Bashir Mohamed Jama, known as “Gobe,” who returns as commander of the prison guards, a position he lost less than a year ago.
New blood, old blood
Hussein, who currently serves as the deputy minister of health, has been a long time member of the parliament and previously held the position of deputy security minister. He will lead a small agency with about 4,500 personnel, half of whom are plain-clothed officers.
General Mohamed is a career police officer who held various positions within the department, including chief of police engineers, commander of training department and head of the central investigations department. He joined the police in 1971.
Last year, Somali leaders agreed to create a police force of about 32,000 nationwide. The current force is about half that size.
Hussein and Mohamed’s predecessors — Abdullahi Mohamed Ali Sanbalolshe of NISA, and General Abdihakim Dahir Saaid of the police — were fired on October 29 last year, a day after an al-Shabab attack on a Mogadishu hotel left nearly 30 people dead. Two weeks earlier, a massive truck bomb in the capital killed 512, making it the largest terrorist attack in African history.
State minister for the office of the prime minister, Abdullahi Hamud, defended the long process it took to appoint new commanders.
“It was just a matter of caution and for the government to pick the right person who can fit in the job, it wasn’t because of other things,” he said.
Former NISA director General Abdirahman Mohamed Turyare said the new commanders have a chance to do well if they learn from “mistakes” made by predecessors.
“They can look back on mistakes made so as to avoid them, and bring on board ideas that worked,” he said.
Turyare urged the commanders not to confine operations to Mogadishu but to spread the war against al-Shabab beyond the capital, take care of their agencies’ personnel and make sure they get better technology.
He cautioned that the new commanders could probably not solve security failures immediately.
“They bring experience, work ethic and dedication but they are not miracle people,” he said.
There have been no major al-Shabab attacks in Mogadishu in almost four months, since the firing of the previous commanders back in late October. The new commanders will hope to continue that streak.
Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulle contributed to the report from Mogadishu.
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