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Terrorism Watch

Al-Shabab Defectors Being Rehabilitated to Re-enter Somali Society

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HARUN MARUF

Last June, al-Shabab militants attacked an Ethiopian base in the Somali town of Halgan, one of several raids on African Union military camps. The Ethiopian troops repelled the attack, causing massive casualties.

One of the al-Shabab fighters, Mohamed Daud Mohamed, known as Mohamed Dhere, said his unit lost 45 men.

“It was a difficult fight; we left behind the wounded as we didn’t have a chance to evacuate them. … Everyone ran for their lives,” he told VOA’s Somali service.

For Dhere, 20, it was a lesson. He decided to desert al-Shabab, but said his commanders were suspicious. After eight months, he found his opportunity in February when his commander sent him to attend a seminar.

Instead, he contacted relatives, who handed him over to the government. He is living at a rehabilitation center for militants in Mogadishu, one of 70 former al-Shabab members recently granted amnesty by the Somali government.

Abdirashid Ibrahim Mohamed directs the program to reintegrate former al-Shabab foot soldiers and low-risk individuals into society. He saod defectors receive food, exercise, health checkups, education and vocational training.

They also get religious lessons, aimed at guiding them away from the al-Shabab’s radical views of Islam.

“There are clerics who give awareness lectures, hold debates about the position of Islam, about extremism,” Mohamed said. “Normally when these youngsters defect from al-Shabab, they already know that what they were involved in is wrong, and they came to us to save themselves.”

The amnesty and rehabilitation program was launched in 2009. The Somali government says thousands of militants have passed through, although Mohamed says only 800 have come through the Mogadishu center. There are also reintegration programs in Baidoa, Beledweyne, Huddur and Kismayo, each treating 30 to 70 men.

Mohamed says those who completed the retraining in the past have moved on to run businesses, pursue education or just return to society. Security sources say others have joined the army or decided to work with the government.

Defector turns rogue

But not all graduates of the program undergo genuine change.

Omar Mohamed Abu Ayan, a former al-Shabab member, said the rehabilitation program is not changing the ideology of hard-core militants who claim to have defected but actually have “other agendas” in mind.

“For some they use it to continue their acts, such as suicide attacks, and for some others they just want to clean their names,” he said. ” … Even those with other agendas, if they could get a real doctor who could treat them ideologically from misinterpretation and deviation in their thinking, they would have changed.”

By “a real doctor” he meant someone who understands the extremism of the defectors and can lead them toward a more moderate position.

FILE – Mohamed Abdi Abdullahi, left, and Abshir Ali Mohamed, both defectors from the Somali militant group al-Shabab who became fighters with Somali government forces alongside the African Union peacekeeping force, speak to reporters at the AU base in Elasha Biyaha on the outskirts of Mogadishu, Somalia, June 7, 2012.

One who had another agenda was Abdirahman Mohamed Abdulle, who was welcomed by authorities in Kismayo in 2013. He earned their trust and was assigned to the security detail of Isse Kamboni, Jubbaland region’s chief intelligence officer.

Abdulle assassinated Kamboni and then escaped back to al-Shabab. He was in communication with the militants all along. Three years later, Abdulle became a suicide bomber in the January attack on Mogadishu’s Dayah hotel that killed 28 people.

It’s not clear whether Abdulle went through a rehabilitation program or authorities simply trusted him too quickly.

Ayan said militants are not going to change their ideology by being in a center, learning vocational techniques, and talking to military or intelligence officials. He said the government needs people “who have direct knowledge of the environment these young men departed from, who discuss and debate them about ideology.”

“You need people like Robow,” he said.

High-profile defector

Mukhtar Robow is a founder of al-Shabab and the group’s former deputy emir. He defected to the government last month, five years after he became inactive with al-Shabab, because of ideological differences with the group’s then-supreme leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane.

Robow is too prominent and powerful to go through the regular rehabilitation program, but Ayan said that if Robow is willing to cooperate, he could help change the minds of other hard-core militants.

“I believe if Robow accepts to work with the government, they should use him on the ideological approach,” he said.

Rashid Abdi, an International Crisis Group analyst, said Robow’s defection could “incentivize” more defections, if the government publishes a clear policy on how it will treat defectors. “Many people will abandon al-Shabab if they know they are secure,” he said.

But Abdi said if the government is too kind to the militant leader, it will send the wrong signal.

Critics say the government’s stance toward defectors is inconsistent, because low-profile al-Shabab members are usually tried and sometimes executed when they turn themselves in.

Hussein Moallim Mohamud, a former counterterrorism officer and national security adviser, said the amnesty program has led to the defection of up to 30 high-profile al-Shabab members.

“When a top official with information defects, that causes a big problem for al-Shabab,” he said. “I believe the program is equally as important as military operations against al-Shabab.”

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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