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Terrorism Watch

AFRICOM at 10: Training partners is still the focus, but the fight has grown

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STUTTGART, Germany — When former President George W. Bush announced the formation of U.S. Africa Command in 2007, the idea was that it would be a new, friendlier American military face: a combatant command focused more on partnerships than fighting.

“Africa Command is not going to reflect a U.S. intent to engage kinetically in Africa. This is about prevention. This is not about fighting wars,” Theresa Whelan, then-assistant defense secretary for African affairs, said during the command’s October 2007 start-up.

But 10 years later, AFRICOM has turned into something more like a mini-U.S. Central Command than the low-intensity, soft-power oriented Southern Command — the early model for military efforts in Africa.

The flurry of recent high-profile, hard-power measures in parts of Africa, where five servicemembers have been killed in combat in the past six months, raises questions about AFRICOM’s role as the Pentagon’s soft touch.

“I think there are things that have changed in the command, and more importantly there are things that have changed in Africa,” said Joseph Mason, AFRICOM’s command historian, reflecting on how AFRICOM has evolved over 10 years.

During the past year, AFRICOM has launched 500 airstrikes against militants in Libya and conducted more than a dozen precision attacks on extremists in Somalia, where a Navy SEAL was killed in May.

The deaths last week of four U.S. soldiers, ambushed in a sprawling but obscure swath of territory in Niger, highlights how the AFRICOM mission has intensified since the early days.

At the outset, critics and skeptics of the Pentagon’s plan to set up a headquarters solely focused on Africa warned of the dangers of a militarization of foreign policy there. Much of the early concerns, often voiced by officials on the African continent and development organizations, resulted in widespread speculation that the U.S. would move large numbers of troops to the continent to set up a new headquarters.

Compared to other regions, the military footprint in Africa remains hard to quantify because forces rotate in and out of the continent on missions. At any given time, several thousand troops operate in Africa, according to publicly released estimates.

To counter such concerns, U.S. officials during AFRICOM’s early days talked up its unique structure, which includes a staff that is almost half civilian. It also contains numerous slots for officials from other government agencies in the command structure and touts a civilian deputy to the four-star chief.

AFRICOM’s focus on “African solutions to African problems” meant the U.S. was there to help militaries in their quest to professionalize and become more effective in providing security.

“We are not at war in Africa. Nor do we expect to be at war in Africa. Our embassies and AFRICOM will work in concert to keep it that way,” Jendayi Frazer, former assistant secretary of state for Africa, said in 2007.

The effort to soften and almost demilitarize the command’s image was reflected by AFRICOM not using traditional J-code nomenclature, a system that divides command responsibilities using cryptic military acronyms. “I think it was sold that way, and there was a genuineness to that,” Mason said.

Unchanged missions

While combat operations have surged over the past 12 months, AFRICOM officials still emphasize that the essence of its missions remains unchanged — training local militaries to handle their own security concerns. Most of the original structure is still intact even as AFRICOM adapts to a new threat environment, Mason said.

AFRICOM now conducts scores of annual training events on the continent, which can range from large-scale multinational exercises to small-unit efforts focused on improving tactics. Each year, AFRICOM conducts about 3,500 exercises and training programs, according to AFRICOM boss Gen. Thomas Waldhauser.

Since 2007, “AFRICOM has made great strides … maturing into an organization viewed by many today as ‘value added’ to the challenges we face,” said Waldhauser during a recent speech to Africa policy analysts.

AFRICOM’s focus, he said, continues to be “by, with and through” African partners.

But conditions on the ground have become more fraught in Africa, and U.S. policy has changed in response, showcasing more willingness to take lethal measures as AFRICOM aligns with fragile governments in Libya and Somalia to conduct airstrikes and occasional raids.

In 2014, then-President Barack Obama set up a $5 billion counterterrorism fund for efforts in Africa, which set the groundwork for more robust operations. President Donald Trump has granted expanded authorities to AFRICOM to make decisions on when to conduct strikes in Somalia.

While open talk of combat operations was an institutional taboo at AFRICOM’s outset, AFRICOM now publicizes many of its operations, releasing tallies of strikes.

“The threats have evolved and U.S. government policy has evolved,” Mason said.

A gradual evolution

Around 2010, traditional military J codes were put in place to line up with other combatant commands, a small but notable step as AFRICOM matured.

In 2011, the Arab Spring brought chaos to Libya. AFRICOM conducted its first major combat mission there, leading the initial wave of airstrikes that helped overthrow Moammar Gadhafi. After-action reviews of the operation, however, exposed that AFRICOM wasn’t structured to lead in a crisis. Numerous reforms were made, including the establishment of a new joint operations center at AFRICOM’s Kelley Barracks headquarters in Stuttgart.

Efforts to assemble a more agile headquarters were on display when AFRICOM helped coordinate the U.S. response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Liberia, which involved the mobilization of about 2,800 U.S. troops, Mason said.

In 2012, the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi, Libya, highlighted other holes in the command, which didn’t have forces in close enough proximity to conduct rescue operations on a diplomatic facility targeted by militants. In response, AFRICOM has set up small outposts scattered around the continent, where troops can be mobilized and rotated during a crisis. Today, there are about a dozen such facilities, including two in Niger, where the U.S. has about 800 troops, according to AFRICOM.

Meanwhile, during the past year, the resurgence of al-Shabab in Somalia and signs of the Islamic State in Libya have been AFRICOM’s primary focus. In Libya, a U.S. air campaign conducted over several months late last year helped local forces push militants out of a key stronghold in Sirte. AFRICOM officials continue to monitor the region and have promised more strikes will be carried out as needed.

“Our mission statement describes our three main tasks: to build defense capabilities, respond to crisis, and deter and defeat transnational threats,” Waldhauser said. “As you might expect, the last of these, to deter and defeat transnational threats, is something we focus a good deal of our attention on.”

Crime

Kansas bomb plot trial drawing to a close as testimony ends

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WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — The trial of three men accused of plotting to bomb an apartment complex housing Somali refugees in western Kansas is drawing to a close after weeks of testimony.

All sides have rested in the federal case against Patrick Stein, Gavin Wright and Curtis Allen on charges of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and conspiracy against civil rights. Wright also faces a charge of lying to the FBI. The judge dismissed two weapons-related charges against Stein.

U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren plans a hearing on Monday to hash out the final jury instructions. Closing arguments are scheduled for Tuesday. The jury trial began March 20.

The three men were indicted in October 2016 on charges they planned set off bombs the day after the Presidential election.

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Terrorism Watch

In Somalia, Al Shabab Is Stronger Now Than in Years

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During the morning of April 1, 2018, a car drove up to an Ugandan army base in Bulamarer, Somalia, and blew up — the beginning of an Al Shabaab attack that, in combination with another suicide attack on a convoy of reinforcements, left at least 46 Ugandan soldiers dead.

The radical Islamist group has carried out many such attacks in recent months, which has put increased pressure on the Somali government and the African Union peacekeeping mission, AMISOM, which numbers some 22,000 troops from Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti and Burundi. In February, at least 18 people died in Mogadishu, the capital, in twin car bombings.

A recent analysis by Christopher Anzalone, a Ph.D. candidate of Islamic Studies at McGill University, concludes that the militant and terror group is possibly — now — in one of its strongest positions in years given its increasing willingness to launch bolder attacks while penetrating into Mogadishu with bombings and assassinations. Anzalone’s article is available at CTC Sentinel, the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point’s monthly journal.

Al Shabab also has a cohesive and adaptable organization with dedicated military, governing and intelligence structures capable of rooting out spies, launching company-sized infantry operations and governing its limited territory.

U.S. air strikes — numbering more than 40 since 2016 — and commando raids, while successful in killing Al Shabab militants, may have also increased opposition to the Somali government, the U.S. military and the African Union in a country marked by local divisions characterized by tribal loyalties.

Case in point, in August 2017, a firefight between a joint U.S.-Somali force and Al Shabab reportedly resulted in the deaths of 10 civilians including children during a raid in Bariire. The U.S. military denied it killed any civilians in the raid. The Daily Beast later reported that U.S. commandos fired on unarmed civilians, and placed weapons seized during the raid next to the bodies of slain civilians before photographing them.

“Different parts of the government’s security forces … rely on the control of lucrative checkpoints and the fees and bribes they can charge civilians,” Anzalone writes, “and they have engaged in gun battles over these checkpoints and regular protests decrying the government’s failure to pay them.”

Somalia lacks a true national army, which is more akin to a coalition of local tribal forces. The Somali government’s own pronouncements of Al Shabab’s failings cannot be taken at face value, according to Tricia Bacon writing separately for War on the Rocks. “There are questions about the reported surge in defections, with well-connected sources privately telling me that the Somali security services are hyping this trend to stoke dissension within Al Shabab,” Bacon writes.

U.S. air strikes and ground raids have not, at the least, stopped Al Shabaab.

“While airstrikes have taken a significant toll on al-Shabaab, including the targeted killings of senior leaders and administrators,” Anzalone adds, “and despite claims made in late January by a senior African Union official that drone attacks were ‘wiping out Al Shabab in good numbers’ the insurgents continued throughout 2017 to be able to assemble large forces of fighters and launch major attacks on AMISOM and Somali government bases.”

Fortunately, the Islamic State’s affiliate in Somalia, primarily base in Puntland, is small and appears disorganized compared to Al Shabab — which emerged out of the Islamic Courts Union and which controlled Mogadishu for a brief period in 2006.

To defeat both groups, however, the Somali government will need to substantially improve its own armed forces — marred as they are with corruption — along with the political and economic relationship with the country’s states.

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Briefing Room

Shabab says it killed Ugandan peacekeepers in Somalia

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NYTIMES — NAIROBI, Kenya — Islamist militants in Somalia carried out multiple coordinated attacks against African Union peacekeeping forces on Sunday, and claimed to have killed at least 59 Ugandan soldiers.

Ceaser Olweny, a spokesman for the Ugandan peacekeepers, said four soldiers had been killed, and six wounded.

The Shabab, a Somali terrorist group affiliated with Al Qaeda, made the attacks on three military bases and two Somali government outposts in the Lower Shabelle region, a Shabab stronghold near Mogadishu, the country’s capital.

Mr. Olweny said the attacks were coordinated.

Somali officials confirmed the attacks to the local news media.

“The number of casualties, and whether or not the dead were combatants, is used by all sides for propaganda and political objectives,” Abukar Arman, an analyst and former Somalia special envoy to the United States, said from Columbus, Ohio.

The attacks began on Sunday morning when two car bombs exploded outside the African Union base in the town of Bulo Mareer, 100 miles southwest of Mogadishu, according to Abdifatah Haji Abdulle, the deputy commissioner of Lower Shabelle.

The car bombs destroyed one African Union vehicle and one Somali government vehicle, according to Maj. Farah Osman of the Somali Army, who is stationed near the base.

“Then a large number of Al Shabab fighters began firing from under the trees,” Mr. Osman told Reuters. “It was a hellish battle.”

The Shabab claimed to have killed dozens of peacekeepers in the hourslong firefight, but the group is known to exaggerate such figures.

Mr. Olweny said soldiers in the African Union peacekeeping mission, known as Amisom, had killed 30 Shabab militants during the attacks. The Shabab said only 14 of its members had died.

Amisom has steadily pushed the Shabab out of major towns, but the group controls large sections of rural territory. It frequently targets Amisom bases and Somali government institutions — attacks that have intensified recently, even as American strikes against the group have increased.

The United States Africa Command, which cooperates with Somalia’s national military and security agencies, carried out nearly three dozen drone strikes against the Shabab last year.

The Amisom peacekeeping force was first deployed in Somalia in 2007. More than 20,000 soldiers and police officers from six countries serve in the mission, including more than 6,000 from Uganda.

The African Union plans to gradually withdraw its troops from the country and to hand over security operations to the Somali Army by 2020.

Hussein Mohamed contributed reporting from Mogadishu, Somalia.

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