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Drinking Fanta With Islamist Militants

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Nairobi — During my first trip to Mogadishu, Somalia, on my last night in town, as I was packing up my things, someone unexpectedly knocked on my door.

It was the hotel manager, and at first I thought he had come to settle the bill, but he remained silent in the doorway in a way that caught me off guard. I looked up from my mess of computer cords and chargers and sweaty clothes scattered across the floor.

“Abu Mansoor’s looking for you,” he said.

“Abu Mansoor?” I gulped.

“Abu Mansoor.”

“Me?”

“You.”

In this town, you didn’t want Mukhtar Robow, known by his nom de guerre, Abu Mansoor, looking for you.
He was a leader of al-Shabaab; people spoke of him in hushed tones that conveyed reverence and fear. It would be much better if Abu Mansoor didn’t know who you were. Or where you were staying.

I followed the manager downstairs, eyes locked on his back. As soon as we walked into the reception room, the manager turned around and disappeared. Abu Mansoor stood waiting for me, flanked by two boy soldiers.

He had a prayer bruise on his forehead, something you get only by banging your head against a prayer mat thousands of times. He wore a long shirt and short pants that stopped above the ankle — like capri pants, a Salafist interpretation of a cryptic clause from one of the Hadiths that says, “Whoever trails his garment on the ground out of pride, Allah will not look at him on Judgment Day.” With bright eyes, he motioned toward a table where two bottles of orange Fanta sat, one for him and one for me. The boy soldiers watched me closely.

“Please,” Abu Mansoor said.

I sat down and took a quick, nervous sip, the soda tasting sweeter because of the circumstances. I’ll admit it: I derived a slight thrill from sharing a Fanta with a real militant. “I heard you were asking a lot of questions about the Islamists,” Abu Mansoor said.

Before I could answer, he reached down under the table. The spit in my mouth dried up. I was sure he was going to pull out a gun.

THIS WAS THE FALL of 2006, just months before a failed American-backed effort to crush Islamist “aggression,” when there was a rapidly shrinking sliver of an opportunity to bring peace to Somalia. Somalia. I know what Americans see when they hear that word, because I, too, saw it before I ever actually set foot here: pirates and starving people, shot-up buildings and lifeless sand landscapes, AK-47s and battered jeeps, anarchy and ruin. Somalia seems to represent angry Islam and all that is wrong with the world and a threat to us.

But what I saw on that first trip stunned me, and this is one of the unsung thrills of journalism and maybe life itself, developing a hypothesis of how the world works and having that hypothesis shattered. An alliance of Islamist clerics had just seized Mogadishu. With grass-roots support, they had driven out a cadre of clan warlords who had been covertly supported by the C.I.A. It’s hard to keep a secret in Somalia, a country with an intense oral tradition and a mobile phone network that is amazing given Somalia’s history as a failed state. And so the C.I.A. effort was uncovered quickly and failed. Western diplomats started calling the Islamists the “African Taliban.”

Of course, very few of these diplomats had ever been to Somalia, but I was new and impressionable and eagerly jotted down their comments as if they were facts. So I was surprised when I started exploring Mogadishu to find boys — and girls — in school.

One of the first things the Taliban had done when they seized power in Afghanistan was to close girls’ schools, believing that half of humanity deserves to be shuttered in ignorance. But in Mogadishu I saw young couples strolling by the seaside, and men and women working together to lift garbage from the streets. It didn’t seem like window dressing. There were no other foreign journalists in town. This was just normal Somali life, finally resuming.

The peace was secured by young men with struggling beards and green prayer caps. They talked little but carried enormous guns. They succeeded at something no one else had managed to accomplish, including 25,000 American soldiers sent to Somalia in the early 1990s by the first President Bush in a humanitarian operation that ended in ignominy. For the first time in 15 years — and sadly the only time since then — Mogadishu wasn’t an abattoir. The killing had stopped, and the populace seemed indebted to the young men who had stopped it. They simply called them the Youth, but they used the Arabic word, al-Shabaab.

The point of all this isn’t to airbrush the Shabaab and the later horrible things they did. I’ve covered those, too — attacks in Kenya that maimed friends and suicide bombings that smeared children across walls. Even from those earliest days, known Qaeda terrorists were hiding within the Islamist ranks, and I’m not saying it would have been easy sifting out the moderates from the messianic killers. But the American government didn’t even try.

In December that same year, the Pentagon helped the army of Ethiopia, Somalia’s historic enemy, invade.
That decision set off a chain reaction that continues to plague us: The Islamists were pushed underground; the Shabaab became an insurgency, then a terrorist group; pirates hit the high seas; famines broke out across the land. The American government keeps getting sucked deeper in, and just this month, a Navy SEAL was killed near Mogadishu, the first known American combat casualty in Somalia in more than 20 years. I can’t help wondering whether his death could have been avoided.

I WAS RELIEVED that evening when Abu Mansoor came up not with a pistol but with a black plastic bag.

“I got this for you in the Bakara market.”

I reached in and pulled out something relatively slender but as heavy as a brick.

“It’s in English,” he said. “Will you read it?”

I didn’t know what to say. It was the most beautiful Quran I had ever seen. He leaned toward me and grabbed my hand.

“We don’t have a problem with Americans,” he said. “Look at you, you’re here, we’ve been protecting you all week — maybe you didn’t even know it. We want peace, we crave it more than you could ever understand, to get out of this darkness, to stop killing each other, to stop being the laughingstock of the world.”

He looked me squarely in the eyes, as had many of the other Islamists I’d met that week.

“Ever since I was 15, I’ve been dreaming of Shariah. And now ….” He was so choked up, he couldn’t even finish his sentence.

What we often see as a nightmare, Shariah, traditional Islamic law, is another man’s dream. Abu Mansoor and his colleagues were true believers in their religion’s dogmas, but at the same time, they were turning to Islam for a very logical reason. Somalia’s civil wars and chaos had been caused by clan rivalries; Islam was a way to unite a violently divided people. If we don’t try to at least understand what is driving people to embrace the things most Westerners oppose — like Shariah — then we are doomed.

Abu Mansoor took one last swig of Fanta, killing it, and stood up. His last words to me were, “See you soon, inshallah.”

Somali News

Somalia conflict exacting terrible toll on civilians, Al Shabaab responsible for most casualties

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SHABAAB Armed conflict in Somalia continues to exact a heavy toll on civilians, damaging infrastructure and livelihoods, displacing millions of people, and impeding access to humanitarian relief for communities in need, a UN report published on Sunday said.

Entitled “Protection of Civilians: Building the Foundation for Peace, Security and Human Rights in Somalia,” the report by the UN Human Rights Office and the UN Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) covers the period from 1 January 2016 to 14 October 2017.

During this period, UNSOM documented a total of 2,078 civilian deaths and 2,507 injuries. More than half the casualties (60 per cent) were attributed to Al Shabaab militants, 13 per cent to clan militias, 11 per cent to State actors, including the army and the police, four per cent to the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), and 12 per cent to unidentified or undetermined attackers.

“Ultimately, civilians are paying the price for failure to resolve Somalia’s conflicts through political means,” said the head of UNSOM, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Somalia Michael Keating. “And parties to the conflict are simply not doing enough to shield civilians from the violence. This is shameful.”

Civilians were the victims of unlawful attacks – by being directly targeted and through the use of indiscriminate bomb and suicide attacks – by non-State groups. Such attacks, which are prohibited under international human rights and humanitarian laws, are, in most cases, likely to constitute war crimes, and it is imperative that perpetrators are identified and held accountable, the report says.

The worst incident on a single day was the twin bomb blasts in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, on 14 October, attributed to Al-Shabaab by Somali government officials, in which at least 512 people are officially recorded to have died as of 1 December, along with 357 injured.

“This barbaric act was the deadliest attack with an improved explosive device (IED) in Somalia’s history and surely one of the worst ever on the continent, if not the world,” Special Representative Keating said. “Sadly, its impact will be felt for a long time.”

A significant number of recorded civilian casualties – 251 killed and 343 injured – was attributed to clan militias, in areas where federal or state security forces are largely absent. “The drought has intensified clan conflict due to competition over resources. These conflicts are exploited by anti-government elements to further destabilize areas, diminish prospects for lasting peace and weaken civilian protection,” the report states.

It goes on to note that although the number of casualties attributed to the Somali National Army and Police, as well as AMISOM, was significantly smaller than those attributed to Al Shabaab militants.

“Nevertheless, such casualties are of utmost concern as they undermine the Somali population’s trust in the Government and the international community, which in turn expands the space in which anti-government elements continue to operate,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.

“While achieving the balance between human rights and security is challenging, the respect of human rights and the protection of civilians are essential as the foundation of a strong, legitimate State that works for the benefit of all its people,” he said.

Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency routinely disregards international human rights law when carrying out arrests and detentions, according to the report, which adds that journalists and people suspected of belonging to Al Shabaab are often detained without charge.

The report flags that information on the conditions of people living under Al Shabaab control is scant. Verifying human rights violations and abuses in those areas remains problematic due to the lack of access and fear of reprisals.

The conflict has disproportionately affected children, exposing them to “grave violations during military operations, including killing, maiming and arrest and detention by Somali security forces,” the report says. In addition, reports of recruitment of children increased sharply. In the first 10 months of 2017, some 3.335 cases of child recruitment were reported – 71.5 per cent attributed to Al Shabaab, 14.6 per cent to clan militia, and 7.4 per cent to the Somali National Army.

In line with international humanitarian law, the primary responsibility for protecting civilians lies with the parties involved in the conflict and the Somali authorities. According to UNSOM, while there have been some positive developments, much remains to be done to achieve an adequate level of protection for civilians.

The UN Mission considers the implementation of an agreement on Somalia’s National Security Architecture – reached by the Federal Government and the Federal Member States in April this year – as central to achieving sustainable security sector reform.
The agreement provides an opportunity to ensure that Somali-led security institutions are accountable and can protect citizens in accordance with international human rights law and international humanitarian law, with the continued support of the United Nations and the international community.

Among its recommendations, the report urges parties to the conflict to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians and civilian installations by ceasing the use of all IEDs and the firing of mortars, rockets and grenades from and into populated areas. The report also calls for all unlawful armed groups and militia to be disbanded.

In addition, the report encourages AMISOM to strengthen its accountability measures regarding incidents involving civilians, by conducting effective investigations and judicial proceedings concerning serious allegations attributed to AMISOM and other international troops, holding perpetrators accountable and providing adequate assistance and effective remedies for victims.

The report also urges the Federal Government and Federal Member States to adopt the legislative and policy measures, including with respect to law enforcement, to ensure the effective investigation and prosecution of serious violations and abuses of international human rights law and humanitarian laws, and an effective remedy.

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Health

Somalia, UN seek to vaccinate over 700,000 children against polio

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XINHUA — Somalia’s health ministry and two United Nations agencies on Sunday launched a three-day oral polio vaccination campaign, targeting 726,699 children under five years of age in two districts.

A joint statement issued in Mogadishu said the campaign backed by the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF is taking place in Banadir and Lower and Middle Shabelle regions.

Ghulam Popal, WHO Representative for Somalia said the campaign will be conducted in two rounds through house-to-house visits by vaccination teams, noting that no cases of polio have been detected in Somalia since August 2014.

“However, as a preventative measure; it is imperative that all children under five years of age in targeted locations, whether previously immunized or not, receive two drops of oral polio vaccine,” Popal said.

Banadir region reported the highest number of wild poliovirus cases in Somalia (72 out of 199) during the Horn of Africa outbreak in 2013-2014.

“We urge all families to get their children vaccinated to protect them against this dangerous disease,” he added.

The UN health agencies said the first and second round will involve the use of oral polio vaccine for children under five years of age.

Inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) will be used in the third round to boost immunity among children between 2 and 23 months of age.

According to the UN, conflict and insecurity in South and Central Somalia especially has continued to hinder access to children during polio immunization campaigns in 2017, with about 240,000 children under five years of age reported as not accessible for more than a year.

“This campaign has been carefully planned to make sure that all children in the chosen areas, particularly those who have been missed in previous vaccination campaigns, are reached this time,” said UNICEF Somalia Representative Steven Lauwerier.

The UN agencies said over 4,400 vaccinators and monitors, and around 800,000 doses of vaccine have been mobilized to conduct the activity.

The Horn of Africa nation has been polio free since August 2014, when the last case of polio was reported from Hobyo district of Mudug region.

The declaration by WHO two years ago keeps Somalia outside the last group of countries which still record cased of polio in the world.

WHO has however warned Somalia remains at risk of importation of the virus from these countries.

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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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