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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.

Briefing Room

US orders new probe on alleged massacre in Somalia

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DAILY NATION — The head of the US Africa Command on Thursday ordered a new investigation of claims that US troops massacred 10 civilians in an August raid on a farm in central Somalia.

The move by Africom Commander Gen Thomas Waldhauser follows media reports that children were among those killed in an attack based on faulty intelligence.

“Gen Waldhauser referred the matter to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service to ensure a full exploration of the facts given the gravity of the allegations,” Africom said in a statement.

It added that “Africom takes all allegations of misconduct seriously and will leverage the expertise of appropriate organisations to ensure such allegations are fully and impartially investigated.”

Africom had said soon after the August 25 raid that all the dead were “armed enemy combatants.”

A pair of recent reports in the Daily Beast, a New York-based online news site, cited accounts by eyewitnesses and Somali officials of unprovoked killings of farmers in the US raid carried out in conjunction with Somali soldiers.

“These local farmers were attacked by foreign troops while looking after their crops,” Ali Nur Mohamed, deputy governor of the Lower Shabelle region where the attack occurred, had earlier told reporters in Mogadishu.

“The troops could have arrested them because they were unarmed but instead shot them one by one mercilessly,” Mr Mohamed added as 10 corpses were displayed in the Somali capital soon after the raid.

Africom’s acknowledgment that further investigation is warranted comes at a time of growing and shifting US involvement in the war against Al-Shabaab.

STRIKES

Defence Department officials have presented President Trump with a plan for less restrictive US military operations in Somalia during the next two years, the New York Times reported on December 10.

The proposed initiative would give greater discretion to US field commanders in launching strikes and rescind the State Department’s ability to pause offensive military operations in response to perceived problems, the Times said.

US forces have carried out about 30 airstrikes so far this year in Somalia — twice as many as in 2016. More than 500 US soldiers have also been dispatched to Somalia to assist in the fight against Shabaab.

Conversely, Washington is simultaneously suspending food and fuel payments to most units of the Somalia National Army (SNA) due to concerns over rampant corruption, Reuters reported on Thursday.

Only those SNA units mentored by US instructors will continue to receive the stipends, the report said.

“Documents sent from the US Mission to Somalia to the Somali government show US officials are increasingly frustrated that the military is unable to account for its aid,” Reuters said.

“The documents paint a stark picture of a military hollowed out by corruption, unable to feed, pay or arm its soldiers — despite hundreds of millions of dollars of support.”

SOLDIERS

A team of US and Somali officials who visited nine SNA bases earlier this year reported that expected consignments of food aid could not be found, Reuters revealed. The best-staffed base visited by the team had 160 SNA soldiers present out of a total officially listed at 550. Only 60 of the soldiers had weapons, Reuters said.

“The SNA is a fragile force with extremely weak command and control,” said an earlier leaked assessment by the African Union, United Nations and Somali government. “They are incapable of conducting effective operations or sustaining themselves.”

Kenyan forces have also been cited for allegedly failing to carry out assigned duties in Somalia.

A report last month by UN monitors charged that Kenyan troops operating under African Union command have failed to assist authorities in blocking illicit charcoal exports that are said to earn al-Shabaab at least $10 million a year.

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Terrorism Watch

Somalia’s Defense Minister Calls For More US Drone Strikes

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Somalia’s defense minister is calling for more U.S. support and drone strikes in the fight against al-Shabab because without more backing, the counter-terror effort is doomed.

Local al-Qaida affiliate al-Shabab controls about 30 percent of Somalia’s territory, and international military efforts in recent years to rid the country of Islamic extremism haven’t produced any real results.

For Mohamed Ali Haga, Somalia’s defense minister, U.S. support will make or break anti-al-Shabab operations, and drone strikes are a particularly effective mode of support.

“If we don’t have the support of the Americans, we cannot stand on our own feet,” Somali Defense Minister Mohamed Ali Haga told The Wall Street Journal. “The Somali security sector is still disorganized. And we need more drone strikes because a drone can strike the snake in the head.”

Current military aid for the United Nations-backed Somali government from local sources amounts to about 22,000 African Union (AU) troops from nearby African countries, but that force has shrunk after taking serious hits from al-Shabab militants. About 1,000 troops will leave by the end of 2017, and the entire AU force is set to leave by 2020.

The U.S. has in the meantime dramatically scaled up its efforts in Somalia as part of a renewed focus from the Trump administration. According to recent Pentagon releases, there are more than 500 U.S. troops now operating in Somalia, and the U.S. has also intensified the number of drone strikes against militants.
A recent drone strike in late November obliterated more than 100 al-Shabab militants northwest of Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, although the group mostly operates in the central and southern parts of the country.

The U.S. has also elected to fund a new Somali National Army, which is about 27,000-men strong.

But as in Afghanistan, U.S.-funded efforts to run a local army have run into near insurmountable problems. U.S. officials have admitted that many Somalis part of the Somali National Army simply don’t show up when called for duty. These troops aren’t as well trained as al-Shabab and often have to make do with inferior military equipment.

“Al-Shabaab are better trained and got whatever they need while the SNA is neither armed nor trained nor paid properly,” Jawahir Abdi, a lawmaker from Somalia’s South West state, told The Wall Street Journal. “At the moment, the government is not winning at all.”

Moreover, corruption in the Somali National Army has become so bad that the U.S. has now decided to suspend food and fuel aid to the force, according to a State Department official who spoke with Reuters last week. The U.S. is also suspending a program providing $100 a month to local soldiers, as the payroll is full of ghost soldiers who don’t exist or are dead but still receive payments through their families. While the U.S. is still willing to provide assistance, that assistance will mostly focus on training and advising small Somali special forces units.

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Somali News

Al-Shabaab claims responsibility for attack on police academy

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Al Shabaab, SuicA suicide bomber has struck a police training centre in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. Conflicting reports indicate nearly 20 people have been killed. Al-Shabaab militants have claimed responsibility for the attack. It claims to have killed at least 27 people. The suicide bomber struck during a police parade. Authorities in Somalia have in recent weeks stepped up efforts against the militant group, but frequent attacks still take place.

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