Al Shabaab, the militant Islamist group in Somalia, has taken over more territory over the past few weeks. With African Union and Somali troops stretched thin, particularly as Ethiopian forces withdraw from Central Somalia, the group been able to steadily add to its holdings. But there is only so much al Shabaab can do to extend its reach while international aid is being given to the Somali military. The group may have little choice but to dig in and wait, hoping that Mogadishu’s foreign partners lose interest in the conflict before the army becomes strong enough to stand on its own.
Ethiopia has a history of involving itself in the affairs of its eastern neighbor. After unilaterally intervening in Somalia toward the end of 2006, Ethiopia fought to beat back al Shabaab for several years before drawing down its troops in 2009. Some of its soldiers stayed behind, though most became part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Ethiopia’s intention, however, is not to stabilize Somalia or to ensure AMISOM’s success. Rather, it is to prevent the conflict from spilling into its own ethnically Somali regions and to keep the Ogaden National Liberation Front — an Ethiopian separatist movement — from using the war-torn country as a haven.
With these objectives in mind, Ethiopia has no need to keep a tight grip on Somalia’s rural regions. Instead, it can afford to trade some territory for greater military might elsewhere. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ethiopia has been slowly pulling its troops out of Somalia over the past year. But Addis Ababa recently picked up the pace of its withdrawal after declaring a state of emergency in response to a political uprising at home. The Ethiopian government is likely hoping to keep its forces closer at hand in case its own security problems escalate.
Even so, Ethiopia’s gains will come at Somalia’s expense. The drawdown of Ethiopian troops has already given al Shabaab an opportunity to ratchet up the pressure on AMISOM forces.
Just last week, the militants promptly recaptured the towns of Halgan and Tayeeglow after Ethiopian soldiers vacated them. And despite its opponents’ best efforts, al Shabaab continues to move freely in southern Somalia and in the swaths of territory it still controls.
A Record of Resilience
Al Shabaab has shown its ability to rebound from defeat before. In the wake of Ethiopia’s initial invasion nearly a decade ago it did just that, gradually rebuilding its capacity by unleashing a relentless campaign of terrorist attacks and ambushes. After a string of modest military victories, the group eventually regained control over most of Somalia, becoming a formidable foe to AMISOM. Still in its infancy when Ethiopian troops began to depart in 2009, AMISOM consisted of a mere 6,000 soldiers. Since then, however, it has swelled into a 21,000-strong force, thanks to additional contributions from African countries and Ethiopia’s renewed interest in Somalia. The mission’s expansion helped to shift the tide against al Shabaab once again, eventually leading to the group’s expulsion from Mogadishu in October 2011. From that point onward, AMISOM and Somali troops made their way throughout the rest of southern Somalia, freeing cities such as Kismayo and Baardheere from the militants’ grasp. And as al Shabaab lost access to the coastline and its traditional smuggling routes, it also lost access to foreign recruits and illegal weapons trade.
Yet these offensives never fully destroyed al Shabaab, nor did they rob it of all its territory. In fact, the group continued to control a significant portion of the country along the eastern banks of the Jubba River. Though its movements and resources were more restricted than they had been in the group’s heyday, it was still able to gather enough manpower and revenue to survive. Meanwhile, AMISOM, Ethiopian and Somali troops’ ability to hold and rebuild reclaimed towns and cities remained limited. When Ethiopian and Kenyan forces tried to recapture Baardheere from al Shabaab in mid-2015, for example, al Shabaab quickly overran the areas troops temporarily took control of as they moved toward the city.
From these toeholds, al Shabaab has spread back into parts of the country that had previously fallen to AMISOM troops. (The most notable of these areas is the coastal region that lies just south of Mogadishu.) AMISOM forces often end up abandoning isolated rural outposts that are not worth the effort needed to defend them from al Shabaab’s attacks. But by leaving them to the militant group, African troops give al Shabaab the space it requires to target other bases and acquire resources, revenue and recruits from villages close by. Recently, the group even managed to briefly seize the towns of Muuri and Afgooye, which are located near the country’s capital. Though unable to hold them for long, al Shabaab continues to be active in the area and has demonstrated its ability to launch attacks in the vicinity of Mogadishu, where the largest concentration of security forces in Somalia is stationed.
A War of Attrition
This is not to say that al Shabaab is capable of defeating the Somali army outright, supported as it is by Mogadishu’s numerous allies. But persistent attrition and battlefield failures are weighing heavily on AMISOM. Several countries have even threatened to reconsider their contributions to the mission, or, in Ethiopia’s case, have already begun to withdraw their troops.
Few of the mission’s participants want to be responsible for ensuring Somalia’s security in the long run, a fact al Shabaab is keenly aware of.
The group’s leaders know that if they keep pressure on AMISOM troops while surviving any reprisals, they may someday see the mission’s end. Should the group outlast the forces trying to destroy it, it may have a chance of regaining control of the country.
Of course, al Shabaab will not be without its challenges in the meantime. The high-value target campaign being waged against it has begun to take a toll, as has infighting over the group’s allegiance to other jihadist groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State. To make matters worse for the group, it currently does not have the ability to seize and hold Somalia’s largest population centers. Moreover, though the capabilities of the Somali military are similarly constrained, it has made progress in forming several professional units. All of these factors point to a long battle ahead for al Shabaab, one it may only win if Somalia’s foreign backers pull away from the fight before the army is ready to shoulder the burden of protecting the country on its own.
Pentagon Foresees at Least Two More Years of Combat in Somalia
WASHINGTON — Amid its escalating campaign of drone strikes in Somalia, the Pentagon has presented the White House with an operational plan that envisions at least two more years of combat against Islamist militants there, according to American officials familiar with internal deliberations.
The proposed plan for Somalia would be the first under new rules quietly signed by President Trump in October for counterterrorism operations outside conventional war zones. The American military has carried out about 30 airstrikes in Somalia this year, twice as many as in 2016. Nearly all have come since June, including a Nov. 21 bombing that killed over 100 suspected militants at a Shabab training camp.
In a sign that the Defense Department does not envision a quick end to the deepening war in Somalia against the Shabab and the Islamic State, the proposed plan is said to include an exemption to a rule in Mr. Trump’s guidelines requiring annual vetting by staff from other agencies — including diplomats and intelligence officials — of operational plans for certain countries.
Instead, the Pentagon wants to wait 24 months before reviewing how the Somalia plan is working, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. Moreover, they said, the Defense Department wants to conduct that review internally, without involvement from other agencies — a request that would further a Trump-era pattern of giving the Pentagon greater latitude and autonomy.
Luke Hartig, a senior director for counterterrorism at the White House National Security Council during the Obama administration, said he supported delegating some greater authority to the Pentagon over such matters, but found it “problematic” that the military wanted to be unleashed for so long without broader oversight.
“A ton can happen in 24 months, particularly in the world of counterterrorism and when we’re talking about a volatile situation on the ground, like we have in Somalia with government formation issues and famine issues,” he said. “That’s an eternity.”
The Defense Department has submitted the plan to the National Security Council for approval by other agencies. Representatives for Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and for the council declined to comment on the details, other than to stress that the military took seriously its need to mitigate or prevent killings of civilian bystanders.
“We are not going to broadcast our targeting policies to the terrorists that threaten us, but we will say in general that our counterterrorism policies continue to reflect our values as a nation,” said Marc Raimondi, a National Security Council spokesman. “The United States will continue to take extraordinary care to mitigate civilian casualties, while addressing military necessity in defeating our enemy.”
Approving the plan would also end the special authority that Mr. Trump bestowed on the top State Department official for Somalia to pause the military’s offensive operations in that country if he saw problems emerging, the officials said. The Pentagon has objected to that arrangement as an infringement on the chain of command, the officials said, and the new plan would drop it — further eroding State Department influence in the Trump administration.
Still, eliminating the State Department authority might make little difference in practice, said Joshua A. Geltzer, who was senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council during the Obama administration. Either way, he said, if the State Department wanted to stop airstrikes in Somalia and the Pentagon wanted to keep going, the dispute would be resolved in a meeting of top leaders convened by Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster.
“The question of whether to allow a veto has been a source of tension before,” Mr. Geltzer said of the State Department authority. “But it’s not clear to me how much it’s worth fighting over — so long as those channels for communicating and working out concerns are functioning.”
According to the officials familiar with it, the Pentagon plan would also exempt operations in Somalia from another default rule in Mr. Trump’s guidelines: that airstrikes be allowed only when officials have determined there is a near certainty that no civilians will be killed. Instead, the officials said, the plan calls for imposing a lower standard: reasonable certainty that no bystanders will die.
However, it is also not clear whether altering that standard would result in any changes on the ground in Somalia. Mr. Trump has already approved declaring much of Somalia an “area of active hostilities,” a designation for places where war zone targeting rules apply, under an Obama-era system for such operations that Mr. Trump has since replaced. That designation exempted targeting decisions in that region from a similar “near-certainty” rule aimed at protecting civilians and instead substituted the looser battlefield standards.
Nevertheless, the head of the United States Africa Command, Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, decided not to use that added flexibility and instead kept the near-certainty standard in place. His decision stemmed from the challenges of distinguishing fighters from civilians from the air in Somalia, a failed state with complex clan dynamics and where a famine has uprooted people, many of them armed, in search of food and water.
Robyn Mack, a spokeswoman for General Waldhauser, declined to say whether he would again decide to keep the near-certainty standard in place if the Pentagon’s new plan were approved, writing in an email that it would be “inappropriate for Africom to speculate on future policy decisions.”
However, asked whether General Waldhauser is still imposing the near-certainty standard for strikes in Somalia, she invoked his comments at a Pentagon news conference in March, while the White House was still weighing whether to designate Somalia as an active-hostilities zone, saying what he said then “still stands.” General Waldhauser said then that he did not want to turn Somalia into a “free-fire zone,” adding, “We have to make sure that the levels of certainty that have been there previously, those are not changed.”
Ms. Mack wrote that “it is very important for Africom to have a level of certainty that mitigates or eliminates civilian casualties with our strike operations.”
Mr. Trump’s rules, which have been described by officials familiar with them even though the administration has not made them public, are called the “P.S.P.,” for principles, standards and procedures. They removed several limits that President Barack Obama imposed in 2013 on drone strikes and commando raids in places away from the more conventional war zones that the government labels “areas of active hostilities.”
Among other things, Mr. Trump dropped requirements in Mr. Obama’s rules — called the “P.P.G.,” for presidential policy guidance — for interagency vetting before each offensive strike and determinations that each person targeted pose a specific threat to Americans.
Instead, under Mr. Trump’s guidelines, permissible targets include any member of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Islamic State or any other terrorist group deemed to fall under the 2001 congressional authorization to use military force against the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks, even if they are mere foot soldiers who pose no specific threat on their own.
Moreover, instead of interagency vetting before each strike, Mr. Trump’s guidelines call for agencies to approve an operational plan for particular countries, after which the military (or the C.I.A., which also operates armed drones in several countries) may carry out strikes without first getting approval from higher-ranking officials.
How drones could be game-changer in Somalia’s fight against al-Shabab
A former member of U.S. military intelligence is helping fight one of the deadliest terror groups in Africa. He is also a pioneer in the U.S. military’s use of drones and is now using that expertise to help Somalia in its fight against the Al-Qaeda-linked terror group al-Shabab.
The threat of unpredictable violence is ever-present in Somalia. Al-Shabab’s reach is vast and it is one of the most organized and dangerous of Africa’s militant groups, reports CBS News correspondent Debora Patta.
Al-Shabab no longer controls the crumbling city of Mogadishu, but has still been able to wreak havoc with its relentless bombing campaigns. Their weapon of choice has been the vehicle bomb, like the one used with devastating effect on October 14 killing over 500 people in the capital.
CBS News has been told repeatedly that al-Shabab has eyes and ears everywhere. The group’s members blend easily into local communities, and a seemingly quiet road may not look very menacing but can turn nasty in an instant.
Former U.S. military intelligence officer Brett Velicovich wants to change that. He has donated commercial drones to the Somali police force and is training them to use the technology to combat al-Shabab.
“When they go into different areas to clear parts that are under Shabab control, they will actually fly those drones low and in front of them to look out for roadside bombs,” Velicovich said.
Another al-Shabab tactic is to plant one bomb then, as first responders arrive, detonate another, killing everyone who rushed to help.
“The investigators will actually go out and they’ll fly our drones and they’ll make sure that the area is safe for first responders to come into,” Velicovich said.
Somali intelligence has told us that al-Shabaab continues to practice its bomb-making skills over and over until they get it right.
Al-Shabab footage shows how they test one of their bombs on an African peacekeeping convoy. Drone technology could help thwart attacks like these.
“It significantly alters the way they can do counter-terrorism work?” Patta asked.
“Exactly. I mean, imagine walking into a situation where you don’t know if the people in the house or the compound have weapons or if they have explosives, but if you could see from the air what you are about to walk into, that changes the game,” Velicovich said.
Al-Shabab’s bombs are increasingly more complex and more powerful. Simple drone technology could provide a much needed boost for the over-worked, under-resourced Somali counter-terrorism units.
Uganda begins Somalia troop withdrawal
Uganda’s military says it has begun the withdrawal of 281 troops serving in the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia.
The move announced on Wednesday is part of a UN plan that will see African Union (AU) soldiers’ numbers reduced by 1,000 by the end of this year.
At the moment there are more than 20,000 soldiers serving in the AU mission (Amisom).
Uganda, which first sent troops to the country in 2007, is the biggest contributor with more than 6,000 soldiers in the force.
Kenya, Burundi, Djibouti and Ethiopia are also expected to reduce their numbers by 31 December.
Pulling out 1,000 soldiers will not be immediately significant but it shows the international backers of Amisom want to see a handover of security to Somali soldiers and police.
African countries have been praised for bringing increased stability to Somalia but there is frustration about corruption among their forces and the failure to secure an adequate victory.
Efforts to develop Somalia’s national army are gaining ground.
The US has already increased its troop numbers in the country to more than 500 and stepped up airstrikes – boosting its co-operation with the Somali military.
But defeating the militant Islamist Al-Shabaab group will not be easy.
A massive bomb attack blamed on the al-Qaeda-affiliated militants killed more than 500 people in the capital, Mogadishu, two months ago – the deadliest in its campaign against various UN-backed governments.
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