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Inside America’s shadow war against al-Shabab

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In May, Navy SEAL Kyle Milliken was killed in a raid on a terrorist compound in Somalia. He was the first US service member to die in combat in the Horn of Africa nation since the infamous Black Hawk Down incident in 1993, when 18 Americans were killed.

That disaster played a significant role in minimizing US involvement in Africa in the years that followed, affecting then-President Bill Clinton’s decision not to intervene in the Rwandan genocide. But the rise of Somalia-based terror group al-Shabab in the late 2000s has made the Horn of Africa an important front in the war on terror, and US forces are very much a presence in Somalia once again. This time, though, to look around, you wouldn’t really know it.

Decades of war have pummelled the once-stunning capital city of Mogadishu, where despite a new government and relative stability, periodic hit-and-run attacks by al-Shabab keep residents on edge.

But all that is “outside the wire,” as they say at Mogadishu International Airport, a fortified, sprawling base that is home to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), various United Nations agencies, and assorted military forces from around the world. With its scorching, sandy backdrop and rough and tumble cast of characters — a mix of grizzled British military guys, UN personnel and journalists — it feels a bit like the cantina scene in the original Star Wars.

But conspicuously missing are Americans.

In May, VICE News published a US Africa Command memo that described involvement in as many as 98 operations a day in Africa, calling it America’s “shadow war.” It’s a good description of US clandestine activities in the region — according to AFRICOM media relations officer Capt. Jennifer Dyrcz, the US mission in the region mainly consists of training and advising partners in AMISOM and the Somali National Army, and she clarified that the “98 operations a day” includes things like routine meetings and assessments.

“Due to the location of some of our advisory and training activities, SOCAFRICA’s personnel are occasionally exposed to some of the same risks as our partners and defend themselves appropriately,” she added.

Maj. Ali Dhuuh Santur Guled of the Somali National Army is responsible for training, and in this capacity, he has worked a great deal with US special forces. He says it’s largely due to US assistance that his army has dealt some major blows to al-Shabab in the last few years.

“They used to live around the presidential palace, just firing bullets,” he said. “But now they are all retreated from the city, and they live in some districts in remote areas. So they are totally weak. And nowadays they sometimes try to make guerrilla attacks, but they are really weak, compared to the past years.”

In March of this year, US President Donald Trump gave the Pentagon more authority to carry out airstrikes and raids in Somalia and in April he deployed a few dozen troops from the 101st Airborne Division on a train-and-equip mission. US special forces are now helping to train Somali soldiers at a new base called Baledogle, some 50 miles from Mogadishu, deep in al-Shabab country.

But as appreciative as the Somali army is of US assistance, Santur says they need more.

“We were expecting that when Trump came to power that he would fight against terrorist activities very powerfully,” he said. “We are still waiting.”

He calls Americans and Somalis brothers and sisters, noting that the new president of Somalia, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, elected earlier this year, is an American citizen from Buffalo, New York. He is hopeful that President Trump will give them what they need. What they need, he says, is tanks and other heavy weaponry to bring a speedy end to the drawn-out conflict.

For that to happen, the arms embargo that has been in place since 1992 would need to be lifted. Somali President Mohamed Abdullah Mohamed, pleaded with the international community at a summit held in London in May to do just that.

“Al-Shabab has AK-47s and the Somali National Army has the same equipment, the same weapons. And that’s why this war has been lingering for 10 years,” he said. “If we don’t have more sophisticated and better weaponry, this war will definitely continue for another 10 years.”

The stakes for ending the conflict are high, and not only due to the ongoing attacks. The continued presence of Al Shabaab militants in remote areas of Somalia is complicating relief efforts amid a drought that is causing the worst food insecurity to hit the country since a quarter of a million people died in the famine of 2011-2012.

Diaspora

Somali Man charged the deaths of 4 in fatal I-55 accident

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STAUTON, IL – A Colorado truck driver has been charged following an investigation into a multi-vehicle accident that killed 4 people and injured 11 others. Mohamed Jama, 54, of Greeley, Colorado, turned himself in to the Madison County Jail Monday.

The accident happened on southbound I-55 in Madison County on November 21, 2017.

The fatal accident killed 2 sisters, Madisen and Hailey Bertels and a friend, Tori Carroll, and an out of state woman, Vivian Vu in another vehicle.

Authorities say the accident occurred when a tractor-trailer driven by Mohamed Jama failed to slow down and stop for cars in front of him in a construction zone.

By the time it was all over, 7 vehicles were damaged and the people inside them injured or killed.

The sisters attended high school in Staunton.

The deaths deeply touched Staunton where people knew the young women or knew people who were their friends. Many in town were still grieving the loss. Matthew Batson said, “I’ll hear stories about them all the time, even though it’s been five months? Yes, it’s a lasting effect.”

The Madison County State`s Attorney Tom Gibbon said if convicted of all the crimes Mohamed Jama could spend the rest of his life in prison. With summer coming on and more construction zone Gibbons says there`s a warning for all of us.

“Each of us out there in our cars we really need to pay attention, watch out, slow down you never want to see something like this to happen again it so terrible for all the victim I’m sure that no person would want to be the cause of something like this.”

Jama is charged with 4 counts of reckless homicide and 8 counts of reckless driving. He`s being held in the Madison County Jail without bond.

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Books

CANADA: Edmonton author aims to boost diversity in children’s book publishing

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EDMONTON—Two years ago Rahma Mohamed’s then four-year-old daughter saw an Elsa costume, complete with blond braids, and pleaded with her mother to buy it so she would look “beautiful.”

That’s when Mohamed decided her kids needed more cultural inspiration than the blond princess from Frozen.

After a year of work, the first-time author published Muhima’s Quest, a children’s book that tells the story of a young African-America Muslim girl who wakes up on her 10th birthday and goes on a journey.

Now, Mohamed’s at work on her second book, which is due out at the end of the month. She’s on a journey of her own, she said, to boost diversity in children’s publishing.

“I wanted to create a character who had African descent and is a Muslim in a children’s book because I just found out that there were none that were available in the mainstream,” she said.

Her books show kids it’s OK to be different, she said. Take her first book: some Muslims don’t celebrate birthdays, she explains, and the little girl in the book struggles with her faith and questions why she doesn’t celebrate like her classmates do.

“The overall message is that we do things differently, but that part is what makes us beautiful,” Mohamed said.

She said she felt it necessary for her kids to see themselves represented in the books they read in order to “enhance their self-confidence, as well as bolster their sense of pride.”

Mohamed, who writes under the pen name Rahma Rodaah, self-published her first book and since last summer, has sold 200 copies locally.

“It does take a lot of resources and you have to self-finance, but I believe in the end it’s worth it,” she said.

She hopes to go bigger with her second book, which focuses on the universal concept of sibling rivalry, and features a young girl who plans on selling her little brother because she believes he is getting all the attention.

“My overall goal is to portray Muslim Africans who are basically a normal family.”

Mohamed says her previous book was well-received by parents at readings she had done at public libraries and schools.

“Most of them who are Muslims really loved that the kids could identify with the characters,” she said.

The books also acted as a conversation starter for non-Muslim families, she said.

She said, for her, the most exciting part of the journey is knowing that she is making a difference in shaping the minds of young Black Muslims.

“We are underrepresented, misunderstood and mostly mischaracterized. It is time we paint a different picture.”

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Minnesota

When radicalization lured two Somali teenagers … from Norway

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Mukhtar Ibrahim

In October 2013, two Somali teenage girls named Ayan and Leila shocked their parents by running away to join ISIS in Syria. Their radicalization story is unusual in that it happened in Norway.

Acclaimed Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad spent years researching what happened. Now her book, “Two Sisters: Into the Syrian Jihad” is available in the United States.

Seierstad, who discusses her book Monday night at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, said she didn’t go looking for the story.

“The story actually came to me,” she said. “It was the father of the girls who actually wanted the story to be written.”

His name is Sadiq, a Somali man who worked for years to bring his family to Norway. He hoped for a better life. He thought things were going well, then everything collapsed when Ayan and Leila disappeared.

When the girls left home, their parents were in shock, Seierstad said. “They hadn’t understood what was this about. Why? And then as months went by and they got to learn more about radicalization, they realized that all the signs had been there. That the girls were like a textbook case of radicalization. And he [Sadiq] wanted the book to be written to warn others, to tell this story to warn other parents.”

It is a perplexing story. Ayan and Leila were bright, and opinionated. They didn’t put up with being pushed around.

“And that is somehow part of why they left, in their logic,” said Seierstad, adding that the girls were convinced Syria and ISIS offered a chance of eternal life.

“They believed that life here and now is not real life. Real life happens after death. And this life is only important as a test. So the better your score, the better you behave in this life, the better position you will have in heaven for eternity. So isn’t that better?”

Seierstad is known for her in-depth reporting. Her book “One of Us,” about Anders Breivik, the gunman who killed 77 people in Norway’s worst terror attack, is an international best-seller.

When published in Norway Seierstad said, “Two Sisters” became the top-selling book for two years running. What pleases her most is the breadth of her readership. She gets email from young Somali girls, and also from government officials who want to prevent future radicalization.

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