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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.”

Somali News

Under Trump, The Pentagon Has Been Quietly Escalating Its Presence In Somalia

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Like Niger, the increase in US troops deployed to Somalia has gone largely unnoticed.

BUZZFEED — The Trump administration has been quietly but rapidly escalating its campaign against al-Qaeda-linked militants in Somalia, launching almost daily drone strikes in recent days and increasing the number of US troops deployed there almost tenfold since May.

Like Niger, where a growing US military presence was widely recognized only after four US troops were killed last month, the expansion in Somalia has been largely unnoticed. But this week, the Pentagon acknowledged that the number of US troops in Somalia had grown to 500 from 50 in the spring and that US aircraft had struck targets of the al-Shabaab terrorist group six days in a row.

The growing Somalia presence now rivals the US presence in Syria, where defense officials say 503 US troops currently are operating.

Still, US officials deny that the US is ramping up its involvement in Somalia 24 years after 18 US soldiers died in conflict, as memorialized in the movie Black Hawk Down.

“I would not associate that with a buildup,” Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, director of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, told reporters on Thursday. “I think it’s just the flow of forces in and out as different organizations come in that might be sized a little differently.”

A series of five US air strikes in Somalia killed 40 al-Shabaab and ISIS fighters between Nov. 9 and 12, according to the Pentagon. A sixth strike killed “several” more on Wednesday. The US military has carried out 28 drone strikes in the country this year, with 15 of those happening in the last three months, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which tracks the strikes.

There were 15 strikes against al-Shabaab in all of 2016. Even so, defense officials denied that this was an escalation.

“I certainly don’t think there’s a ramp-up of attacks,” McKenzie said. “There’s no particular rhythm to (striking targets), except that as they become available and as we’re able to process them and vet them, we strike.”

This month, the US also conducted the first strikes against ISIS targets in Somalia. Pentagon officials say the US is keeping a close eye on the movement of foreign fighters out of Iraq and Syria as ISIS is pushed back there, but gave no details on whether they might be trekking into Somalia.

“US forces will continue to use all authorized and appropriate measures to protect Americans and to disable terrorist threats,” US Africa Command said Wednesday in a statement on the strikes.

While al-Shabaab has called for attacks on the US and the West, and even featured comments by President Donald Trump about Muslims in a 2016 recruitment video, it has not carried out any attacks outside the region. The insurgents, who seek to impose their strict version of Islam on the country, have been fighting to recapture territory they’ve lost to African Union peacekeepers and topple Somalia’s Western-backed government.

Last month, al-Shabaab was blamed for the deadliest terrorist attack in Somalia’s history, a truck bomb that killed more than 350 people when it detonated at a busy intersection in Mogadishu, the country’s capital. Al-Shabaab also has been blamed for many other attacks, including the September 2013 siege of the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi that left at least 67 dead. It also has stepped up the sophistication of its attacks, nearly succeeding in bringing down a Somali commercial aircraft in February by hiding a bomb in a laptop computer.

A small number of US forces have been in Somalia on so-called advise-and-assist missions since 2013, working with the country’s military to plan and support raids against al-Shabaab. One such raid, targeting a terrorist compound in May, led to the first US combat fatality in Somalia since the Black Hawk Down attack in 1993. A Navy SEAL was killed and two other US service members were wounded.

The recently intensified campaign comes after the Trump administration in March gave the military broader authority to carry out counterterrorism strikes in Somalia, relaxing rules meant to avoid civilian deaths. Two months earlier, the White House had made a similar move in Yemen, giving the military more freedom to target al-Qaeda militants.

“It’s very important and very helpful for us to have little more flexibility, a little bit more timeliness, in terms of the decision-making process,” Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, who oversees US troops in Africa, explained in March. “It allows us to prosecute targets in a more rapid fashion.”

Under the previous restrictions imposed by President Barack Obama in 2013, raids and air strikes were vetted by multiple agencies, and targets could be struck only if they posed a threat to Americans and could be hit without killing civilians.

The loosened rules have led to some “very disturbing” incidents where civilians have died, setting off a furious debate among leaders of the fragile central government, said Roland Marchal, an expert on al-Shabaab at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, known as Sciences Po, who had just returned from Mogadishu when he spoke to BuzzFeed News on Friday.

In one incident, 10 civilians, including three children, were killed in a US-backed raid in August in the village of Barire. The wrapped bodies of the victims were displayed in the capital to garner media attention, as the deputy governor of the region described how unarmed farmers had been killed “one by one.”

US Africa Command confirmed that US troops had participated in the raid and that it was “aware of the civilian casualty allegations near Barire.” It said it would conduct an assessment but didn’t respond to a request for comment about the inquiry.

“This was a really bad moment for the government, a lot of infighting and turmoil with people saying contradictory things, they had to pay the families blood money, and at the end of the day nothing has improved on the ground,” said Marchal. “The US [efforts] are not becoming any more popular.”

Faulty intelligence has also hampered some previous US strikes. A September 2016 strike in Galcayo, a city more than 350 miles northeast of Mogadishu, killed local militia forces allied with the US, not al-Shabaab fighters as the Pentagon had thought.

Simply increasing the body count of al-Shabaab militants is unlikely to significantly change the group’s hold in the region, Marchal said.

“You may be counting the corpses of militants and make wonderful statements of victory, but politically you’re losing,” he said. “People have to be aware that this overwhelming military approach is dysfunctional. … On the ground there’s a situation where you may be killing important figures, but it’s difficult to believe that this will significantly harm al-Shabaab because it’s a widespread organization and the Americans are targeting military commanders who could be replaced.”

In May, Mattis attended a conference on Somalia in London, where he had a private meeting with Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed.

“I came away from that heartened,” he told reporters returning from the trip.

Mattis said international partners were working on “a reconciliation program designed to pull the fence-sitters and the middle-of-the-roaders away from al-Shabaab.”

US operations in Africa have been under scrutiny since the Oct. 4 ambush in Niger that killed four US soldiers, which drew attention to the little-known US involvement on the African continent. Lawmakers admitted they had no idea that the Pentagon had deployed more than 800 troops to that country.

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Briefing Room

U.S. says fresh drone strike in Somalia kills “several” Al-Shabaab militants

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Samuel Chamberlain

The US Africa Command announced the U.S. military conducted another airstrike in Somalia on Tuesday killing ‘several militants’ belonging to the terrorist group, al-Shabaab.

A defense official tells Fox that a drone carried out the strike 60 miles northwest of the capital, Mogadishu. The U.S. military has carried out airstrikes for six consecutive days in Somalia beginning last Thursday, killing over 45 al-Shabaab and ISIS fighters.

A spokeswoman from U.S. Africa Command tells Fox News it is not immediately clear if any more strikes have been launched Wednesday.

Earlier this month the US launched the first airstrikes against ISIS in Somalia. Last month, the U.S. conducted its first strikes against ISIS in Yemen, days after the ISIS so-called capital in Raqqa, Syria crumbled.

There have been roughly 30 airstrikes in Somalia in 2017 after President Trump authorized the military to begin conducting offensive airstrikes against terrorists groups in Somalia.

The rise of airstrikes in Somalia and Yemen coincides with more bombs being dropped in Afghanistan as thousands of American troops arrive to ramp up the fight against the Taliban.

The U.S. has dropped twice as many bombs on the Taliban and an ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan this year than all of last year, according to a new report from the U.S. Air Force.

As the ISIS fight in Iraq and Syria winds down, more jets are being tasked to conduct strikes in Afghanistan. The U.S.-led air wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan are run out of the same operations center on a base in Qatar.

There are roughly 400 US troops on the ground in Somalia. In May, a Navy SEAL was killed fighting al-Shabaab, the first US combat death in Somalia since the “Black Hawk Down” incident in 1993.

“Al-Shabaab has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and is dedicated to providing safe haven for terrorist attacks throughout the world. Al-Shabaab has publicly committed to planning and conducting attacks against the U.S. and our partners in the region,” said US Africa Command in a statement.

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Somali News

Newly released video footage shows seconds before the Oct. 14th suicide truck explosion happened 

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