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How American Special Operators Gradually Returned to Somalia

American UN soldiers patrol in southern Mogadishu, Somalia, in October of 1993.

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A U.S. soldier was killed in the country this month for the first time in more than two decades. What was he doing there?

The death of Navy SEAL Kyle Milliken and the wounding of two more U.S. troops in Somalia this month marked the first deadly engagement for American forces in the country since the Battle of Mogadishu of October 1993. The two events differ in notable respects, not least in their magnitude—the battle of October 3-4, 1993, resulted in 18 Americans killed and 79 wounded. But both operations reflect the adverse conditions that U.S. special-operations forces, and the United States more broadly, face in the world’s most dysfunctional states.

Back in the summer of 1993, warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid bedeviled an international coalition that was trying to restore order and build democracy in the midst of a vicious civil war in Somalia. A ruthless clan leader known for firing artillery into civilian neighborhoods and starving opposing clans into submission, Aidid had made himself the chief obstacle to the nation-building project. The Clinton administration had removed a large U.S. Marine force months earlier and transferred authority over the remaining international troops to the United Nations. Madeleine Albright, Clinton’s UN ambassador, declared at the time, “[W]e will embark on an unprecedented enterprise aimed at nothing less than the restoration of an entire country as a proud, functioning and viable member of the community of nations.”

When the marines had occupied Mogadishu, their relentless patrolling of city streets had kept Aidid and other warlords in check. Once they left, the Asian, European, and African peacekeepers under UN command did not maintain such a visible presence. Sensing weakness, the clan militias began resisting foreign efforts to monitor their weapons caches and limit their activities.

In August 1993, the killing of four U.S. soldiers by a bomb traced to Aidid convinced Clinton that the status quo had become untenable. Clinton was unwilling to send additional conventional forces to Somalia, owing to reservations among congressmen in his own party, some of whom were already calling for the removal of all U.S. forces from a situation they were certain would devolve into another Vietnam. But Clinton was open to sending special-operations forces, since their units were smaller and designed to maintain a low profile. Some in the special-operations community argued that their units could oust Aidid, demonstrating their ability to achieve strategic results without the participation of conventional forces. Clinton decided to send the Army’s most elite unit, Delta Force, to Somalia, along with a Ranger company and a detachment from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.

The operation of October 3, 1993, began auspiciously enough. Storming a three-story house in Mogadishu, the Delta operators rounded up several high-value targets without firing a shot. But then a rocket-propelled grenade felled one of the American Black Hawk helicopters flying nearby, forcing some of the U.S. ground troops to move toward its crash site. Caught in the middle of the city with no Somali security forces to assist, the Delta operators and Rangers came under attack on all sides from Aidid’s militiamen. By intermingling with women and children, the militiamen reduced their vulnerability to American fire, wary as the latter were of harming civilians. Most of the American units were able to hold out until the arrival of reinforcements early the next day, but only at heavy loss of life and limb.

The high-casualty toll and the images of dead Americans dragged through Mogadishu’s streets drove Clinton to call off the hunt for Aidid. On October 13, 1993, he announced that U.S. forces would leave Somalia no later than March 31, 1994. In the announcement, he avoided mention of the botched raid, and instead attributed the decision to plans for transition of the mission to the United Nations. U.S. troops would not leave immediately, he stated, because “were American forces to leave now we would send a message to terrorists and other potential adversaries around the world that they can change our policies by killing our people.” Yet ending the hunt for Aidid and setting a withdrawal date for U.S. forces were changes to America’s policies, ones that future terrorists like Osama bin Laden would cite as evidence of the value of killing Americans.

Somalia returned to the attention of the U.S. national-security community after 9/11, as the result of a decision by bin Laden to dispatch lieutenants to the country. On the run in Pakistan, bin Laden was sprinkling his faithful across Muslim lands to reduce his movement’s vulnerability and diversify its recruiting base. The lack of a viable central government and the presence of Sunni Muslims made Somalia an ideal place to recruit followers, plan terrorist strikes, and hide from the Americans.

In 2006, a Somali-Islamic extremist group known as the Council of Islamic Courts took control of Mogadishu, driving out the feeble provisional government. The Council’s fighters swept into central and southern Somalia and seemed on the verge of consolidating control of the whole country. Neighboring Ethiopia, however, became so alarmed at the prospect of an extremist state on its borders that it unleashed its army. The Ethiopians handily defeated the Council, seizing Mogadishu in just a few days.

For U.S. special-operations forces, Ethiopia’s occupation of Somalia was a windfall. Arriving in Mogadishu together with the Ethiopian forces, American special operators set up shop alongside them. While the Ethiopians secured roads and swatted down lowly insurgents, the Americans nabbed al-Qaeda leaders.

But after the Ethiopians reinstated the provisional government, it remained incapable of governing effectively or organizing large security forces. Al-Shabab, an ascendant offshoot of the Islamic Courts Union, waged a vigorous, effective guerrilla war on the Ethiopian occupation forces, inflicting heavy casualties. To ease the burden on the Ethiopians, the UN Security Council decided in 2007 to deploy 8,000 African Union troops to Somalia for what would come to be known as African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

Somali News

US-backed Somalia commandos kill 4 al-Shabab extremists

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MOGADISHU, Somalia — Somali and U.S. commandos stormed a camp for al-Shabab extremist fighters in an overnight raid, killing at least four of the fighters and rescuing child conscripts, a Somali intelligence official said Friday.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said special forces raided the camp in Jame’o village in Middle Shabelle region. A local commander was among those killed, he said.

A second official confirmed the raid, which was carried out with the support of helicopters that later evacuated the young recruits.

Human Rights Watch earlier in the week accused al-Shabab of the forced recruitment of hundreds of children in recent months. The recruitment of children is a long-standing practice of the al-Qaida-linked group which faces growing military pressure across south and central Somalia.

It was not immediately clear how many children were rescued during the overnight raid.

Also on Friday, the U.S. military said it had carried out an airstrike in Somalia that killed four members of the al-Shabab extremist group.

A statement from the U.S. Africa Command said the strike was carried out Thursday about 50 kilometers (31 miles) northwest of the port city of Kismayo. The statement said no civilians were killed.

The U.S. military carried out more than 30 drone strikes last year in the long-chaotic Horn of Africa nation after President Donald Trump approved expanded military efforts against al-Shabab.

The extremist group was blamed for the October truck bombing in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, that killed 512 people. Thursday’s U.S. airstrike was the first since one early this month that killed two al-Shabab extremists and destroyed a vehicle carrying explosives, “preventing it from being used against the people in Mogadishu.”

Last year, Somalia’s Somali-American president vowed that his government would drive the extremist group out of the country.

Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Briefing Room

UPDATE: Somali authorities say troops rescue 32 children from “terrorist school”

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MOGADISHU, Jan 19 (Reuters) – Somali authorities said troops stormed a school run by al Shabaab on Thursday night and rescued 32 children who had been taken as recruits by the Islamist militant group.

“The 32 children are safe and the government is looking after them. It is unfortunate that terrorists are recruiting children to their twisted ideology,” Abdirahman Omar Osman, information minister for the Somali federal government, told Reuters on Friday.

“It showed how desperate the terrorists are, as they are losing the war and people are rejecting terror.”

Al Shabaab said government forces, accompanied by drones, had attacked the school in Middle Shabelle region. It said four children and a teacher were killed.

The Somali government said no children were killed in the rescue.

“They kidnapped the rest of the students,” said Abdiasis Abu Musab, al Shabaab’s military spokesman.

“Human Rights Watch is responsible for the deaths of the students and their teacher because it pointed fingers at them,” he added.

In a report this week, the New York-based rights group said that since September 2017, al Shabaab had ordered village elders, teachers in Islamic religious schools, and rural communities to hand over hundreds of children as young as eight.

The U.S. Africa Command said it had carried out an air strike on Thursday against al Shabaab targets 50 km (30 miles) northwest of Somalia’s port city of Kismayo, killing four militants. U.S. forces regularly launch such aerial assaults.

The al Shabaab militia, linked to al Qaeda, is fighting to topple the U.N.-backed Somali government and establish its own rule based on a strict interpretation of Islam’s sharia law.

Somalia has been plagued by conflict since the early 1990s, when clan-based warlords overthrew authoritarian ruler Mohamed Siad Barre then turned on each other.

In recent years, regional administrations headed by the Mogadishu-based federal government have emerged, and African Union peacekeepers supporting Somali troops have gradually clawed back territory from the Islamist insurgents.

(Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh; Writing by Clement Uwiringiyimana; Editing by Andrew Roche)

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Somali News

Somali Army Reports Killing 7 al-Shabab Militants

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The Somalia national army killed at least seven al-Shabab militants Thursday and destroyed their base during an operation in southern Somalia, officials and residents said.

Somali army General Ismail Sahardid, the 43rd Infantry Division commander, told VOA Somali that the forces took control of Bar-Sanguni town, 45 kilometers (28 miles) south of the coastal city of Kismayo.

“Our army launched a surprise attack on the militants’ hideouts late Wednesday and continued pursing them since the early hours of Thursday,” Sahardid said. “During the operation we killed seven of the militants, including local leaders of al-Shabab’s Amniyat unit, responsible for the group’s intelligence.”

The general said that despite initial resistance, his forces destroyed several of the militants’ bases and vehicles they have been using to transport fighters, and they recovered ammunition.

“We have inflicted heavy military losses on them and captured two of their vehicles mounted with anti-aircraft machine guns,” Sahardid said.

Bar-Sanguni residents who spoke to VOA Somali on condition of anonymity said they heard explosions as government soldiers engaged in a gunbattle with the militants for several hours early Thursday.

“It was around just before dawn Thursday morning when the Somali army entered the town. We first heard a fierce exchange of heavy gunfire and explosions,” one resident said.

“As the day wore on, we saw government soldiers taking strategic positions in the town and searching the al-Shabab military bases, with seven dead bodies of the militants lying in the streets,” another resident said.

Bar-Sanguni, under al-Shabab control for many years, is where the militant group has been organizing guerrilla attacks against government soldiers and Kenyan troops serving under the African Union peacekeeping mission (AMISOM) in Jubaland state.

Tax on residents

Sahardid said the militants in this area have been imposing zakat, or a tax, on the local population.

“We have freed the local civilians who have been suffering under the militants’ harsh control, where they have been extorting their money and their livestock through what they call zakat,” said Sahardid.

The operation came as Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed and Michael Keating, U.N. special representative for Somalia, hailed the completion of a power-sharing agreement signed in December between Galmudug state and the Ahlu Sunna Waljama’a.

Ahlu Sunna is a moderate group that was founded to promote Sufi Islam in Somalia, which decided years ago to take up arms against the radical al-Shabab group, which is believed to be linked al-Qaida.

In an event held Thursday in the central Somali town of Dhuusa Marreeb — attended by Somalia federal and regional leaders and foreign diplomats — Galmudug state President Ahmed Duale Ghelle “Xaaf” and Ahlu Sunna leader Sheikh Shakir vowed to join forces in the fight against al-Shabab.

Under the power-sharing agreement, Sheikh Shakir will be the executive leader of Galmudug state.

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