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Terrorism Watch

HOW AL-SHABAB OVERTOOK BOKO HARAM TO BECOME AFRICA’S DEADLIEST MILITANTS

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CONOR GAFFEY

Somali group Al-Shabab, which has ties to al-Qaeda, has spent at least three years in the shadow of Nigeria’s Boko Haram as Africa’s deadliest militant group.

But new figures suggest that trend is changing. Al-Shabab was responsible for 4,281 casualties in 2016 compared to 3,499 by Boko Haram according to data collected by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project ( ACLED ) and compiled by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, an institution affiliated to the U.S. Department of Defense.

It is the first time since 2012 that Al-Shabab has overtaken Boko Haram in terms of casualties. It has also overtaken the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), which killed 2,350 people in Africa in 2016.

ISIS has a number of affiliated or aligned groups across the continent, including a splinter of Boko Haram in Nigeria and factions in Libya and Egypt.

So what is behind the change in supremacy among Africa’s militant Islamist groups?

Al-Shabab’s rise

Formed as the militant wing of the Islamic Courts Union—which briefly took control of the Somali capital Mogadishu in 2006—Al-Shabab has been battling the Western-backed government in Somalia for more than a decade.

Led by the shadowy Abu Ubaidah, who has a $6 million U.S. bounty on his head, the group has also carried out large-scale attacks in neighboring countries, particularly Kenya.

In 2013, Al-Shabab gunmen killed 67 people in a three-day siege at a shopping mall in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. Two years later, Somali militants besieged a university in Garissa, near Kenya’s border with Somalia, killing 148 people.

Al-Shabab has been on the back foot in recent years as a 22,000-strong African Union force (AMISOM) has pushed the group out of urban areas and into the countryside. U.S. drone strikes have also picked off senior leaders, including the former Al-Shabab chief Ahmed Abdi Godane, who formalized the Somali group’s ties with Al-Qaeda.

But over the past year, Al-Shabab has ramped up its attacks across Somalia, including Mogadishu, as it attempts to destabilize a nascent government and capitalize on a loss of momentum by AMISOM troops.

The group has launched several major raids on AMISOM bases, including a January 2016 attack on the El Adde base when almost 150 Kenyan soldiers were killed. Militants have also regularly detonated suicide bombs in and around government buildings and hotels, and recently launched a gun attack on a popular beach.

Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, who came to power in February, has declared war on Al-Shabab and offered militants an amnesty if they lay down their weapons. But the group has dismissed the offer and continues to wreak havoc. Most recently, Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for a string of roadside bombs on the Kenyan side of the border, which have killed at least 11 police officers.

Boko Haram’s decline

Boko Haram, which means “Western education is forbidden,” has been fighting an armed insurgency against the Nigerian government since 2009. During its eight-year war, the Islamist militant group has killed tens of thousands of people, displaced more than 2 million and created a massive humanitarian crisis in northeast Nigeria.

The group reached its peak in terms of territory in early 2015, when it controlled land equivalent to the size of Belgium. But since the coming to power of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari in May 2015, Boko Haram has suffered from a renewed Nigerian military offensive that has reclaimed almost all of the territory held by the militants.

A multinational force, composed of soldiers from Nigeria and neighboring countries and civilian vigilante groups have also played a role in pinning back the militants into the remote Sambisa Forest, in Nigeria’s Borno State.

While it has come under severe external pressure, Boko Haram has also been hit by internal divisions. Abubakar Shekau, who has led the group since the death of founder Mohammed Yusuf in 2009, pledged allegiance on Boko Haram’s behalf to ISIS in 2015.

But in August 2016, ISIS announced in a publication that a new leader—Abu Musab al-Barnawi—had been chosen to lead its West Africa branch. Shekau rejected the decision, and Boko Haram has since split into two factions—one led by Shekau, the other by Barnawi—which have reportedly clashed.

Both factions of Boko Haram retain the capacity to launch attacks in northeast Nigeria and the Lake Chad area, but the group has turned to increasingly desperate tactics: Child suicide bombers are regularly dispatched to markets and other public spaces by Boko Haram.

But while Al-Shabab has escalated its operations in recent months, Boko Haram historically remains Africa’s biggest militant threat. The Nigerian group has killed more than 29,000 people since 2010, 11,000 more than Al-Shabab in the same period, according to the ACLED data.

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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