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As global famine aid comes up short, Somalis abroad step up

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Long before major international pleas for anti-drought funding in Somalia began, or images of the gaunt and hungry started to circulate in the world’s newspapers, Amir Sheikh knew exactly what was happening. For months, the news had been coming to him by Facebook and WhatsApp, by email and over scratchy phone lines from Mogadishu: the country was parched, people were dying. And if money didn’t arrive – lots of it, and soon – things were going to get worse very quickly.

So Mr. Sheikh, who heads up the Somali Community Board of South Africa, did what he always does when he receives news like this from home. He sounded the alarm.

He sent volunteers to talk to business owners in “Little Mogadishu,” a street in Johannesburg’s Mayfair neighborhood crowded with Somali coffee shops and internet cafes, and gathered money collected by small groups of concerned Somali women. He began asking restaurants about hosting fundraisers and reached out to other migrant communities in the city for help.

“It is not hard for us to reach people in Somalia because it is where we come from,” he says. “We are locals, we are not afraid.”

In February, the United Nations declared a famine in parts of South Sudan, and warned that three more nearby countries in the midst of their own severe droughts – Somalia, Nigeria, and Yemen – were precariously close. To stop them from tipping over into catastrophe, the agency’s humanitarian chief said, it needed to raise $4.4 billion by July. Meanwhile, the US, which supports almost one-fourth of the UN’s funding, is reportedly seeking deep program cuts.

“There are people [in need] who we are not assisting because of funding in every country we work in,” says Challiss McDonough, the senior regional communications officer for the United Nations World Food Programme in East Africa. In Somalia alone, she estimates, the agency needs $209 million more than it currently has in its coffers in order to reach the 6.2 million people at risk of famine.

But in a world worn down by what UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien recently called “the largest humanitarian crisis” since the second World War, there is one group that has never stopped giving – Somalia’s diaspora.

A country of 10.8 million people, cut apart by nearly three decades of civil war, Somalia has one of the world’s most scattered populations: at least 2 million people born in the country now living beyond its borders, to say nothing of their children and grandchildren. But beyond its size, the vast constellation of Somali communities spread from Minneapolis to London to Johannesburg stands out for another characteristic: generosity.

Every year, Somalis abroad send about $1.4 billion home – or a quarter of the country’s GDP – making them Somalia’s largest provider of aid. Somali-Americans send an average of $3,800 per year, for example, while Somalis in Germany send more than $4,000 and those in Saudi Arabia send about $1,500.

And that money travels through highly intimate channels, almost always moving directly from donor to recipient with few or no people in between.

“People know exactly what happens to the money they send because they can just call up their relatives in the village and ask what’s happening and where it’s gone,” says Ayan Ashur, the ambassador to Britain for Somaliland, a self-governing breakaway state that is recognized internationally as an autonomous region in Somalia’s north. “It’s a more accountable way to donate because it’s so personal.”

That also means that in times of crisis like the current drought, Somalis are among the country’s most efficient and effective sources of relief, able to identify need, move money, and analyze impact faster than almost anyone else.

During Somalia’s 2011 famine, for instance, personal social networks – including diaspora connections and remittances – became a crucial factor in how well people and communities coped with the disaster, as international aid groups struggled to respond, according to a report from Tufts University’s Feinstein International Center. The better connected you were to people who weren’t experiencing the same crisis, in short, the more likely you were to survive it.

But that also meant that the diaspora, like other aid groups, was at times unable to reach those who need help the most – the marginalized and poorly connected, as well those living in areas controlled by the Islamist militant group Al Shabaab. More than 250,000 Somalis died during the 2011 famine, the worst of the 21st century; half of them were children. And Somalis’ ability to send money home has become increasingly uneven over the past few years, with several banks across the US, Europe, and Australia refusing to make the transfers into the country for fears of being penalized for inadvertently supporting terrorism or money laundering.

Still, for many in the region, waiting for other forms of aid is hardly an option. The United Nations has blamed slow international response, in part, for the 2011 tragedy, and is anxious not to see history repeat itself. Today, 20 million people are living in drought-hit areas of Somalia, Yemen, South Sudan, and Nigeria, according to the UN, which warned last month that it had raised just one-tenth of the funds required to prevent famine.

“Internationally, it took so long and there is still so little” in the way of aid in Somaliland, Ms. Ashur says. “The diaspora has been reacting since November, where we only saw the international community begin to come in around March. I think it’s fair to say this situation would be so much worse if this diaspora had not been active.”

For Brooklyn-based fashion designers Idyl and Ayaan Mohallim and a group of their Somali-American friends, seeing the news from home was like hearing the echoes of history.

“This cycle of famines and droughts has been going on for our entire lives,” Idyl Mohallim says. “We already know too well what the consequences are if help doesn’t get to Somalia sooner rather than later.”

So in early March, she and her friends cobbled together a short video explaining the need for aid in the country, and threw it onto a hastily-assembled GoFundMe fundraising page. They circulated it among friends and family, and by early April, they had raised more than $25,000.

Part of the reason for the fundraiser’s brisk success, Ms. Mohallim speculates, was the fact that the organizers could vouch personally for the charities they had decided to donate their funds to – groups they had worked and traveled with in the past, and whose work they knew well.

“I think people want to be involved but just have no idea how, or feel there’s no way they can change a crisis like that,” she says. “We are giving people both a way to take part and that accountability that the money is going where it needs to be.”

But like Sheikh in Johannesburg and Ashur in London, the organizers don’t feel the work they’ve done is anything newsworthy.

For Somalis, after all, this kind of charity is the norm. In their community, they say, not giving what you can, whenever you can, would be the glaring exception.

“Culturally, this is all very ordinary to us,” Mohallim says.

CS Monitor

Briefing Room

Pentagon Foresees at Least Two More Years of Combat in Somalia

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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.


Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, left, and the head of the United States Africa Command, Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, in April. Although the Trump administration gave him flexibility to depart from a rule designed to protect civilians during military operations in much of Somalia, General Waldhauser has avoided using the looser standards. Credit Jonathan Ernst/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“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.

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How drones could be game-changer in Somalia’s fight against al-Shabab

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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.

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Uganda begins Somalia troop withdrawal

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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.

20,000 SOLDIERS

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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