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Terrorism Watch

Man in Australia Hostage-taking, Shootout Had Militant Connections

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Harun Maruf

An Australian man of Somali origin who killed one person and took another hostage had connections with two prominent militant groups, VOA has learned.

Yacqub Khayre was killed in a shootout with police Monday after killing an employee of a Melbourne apartment building and holding a woman captive inside one of the apartments. Three police officers were injured in the exchange.

The Islamic State militant group has claimed responsibility for the incident. Police say they are treating this as a “terrorism incident,” but add that they have not seen messages showing that Khayre was guided by an outside force.

A relative told VOA’s Somali Service that Khayre, 29, had past connections to both Islamic State and the Somali militant group al-Shabab.

Yacqub Khayre: Melbourne siege gunman’s history of violent crime and drugs

Violent history

Khayre was born in the Somali city of Baidoa; his birth name is Yacqub Ahmed Mohamed. He moved to a Kenyan refugee camp with his family in 1992, after the outbreak of civil war in Somalia, before moving to Australia with his grandparents in 1994.

He returned to Somalia in mid-2006 when the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) took over most of southern and central Somalia, according to the relative. At the time al-Shabab fighters were part of the ICU.

The relative, speaking on condition of anonymity, says he is “certain” that Khayre trained with members of al-Shabab near Baidoa for three months. “He travelled there against the wishes of his family,” says the relative.

After the intervention of Ethiopian troops and the collapse of the ICU, Khayre fled the country and travelled to Kenya. He was arrested at Jomo Kenyatta airport in Nairobi in 2006 by Kenyan authorities.

“After being arrested by Kenya security forces he was handed over to Interpol and the FBI,” says the relative who was familiar with the arrest. “He was later handed over to the Australian authorities.”

Lack of evidence

After returning to Australia, Khayre was involved in other crimes, including robbery.

He was among a group of men charged with plotting to attack an Australia army base in Sydney in August 2009. He was later released for lack of evidence, while three other members of the group were convicted and given jail sentences.

Khayre then spent 16 months in a high security facility for terrorism offenses, but was acquitted and later released in 2010, according to the Australia Broadcasting Corporation.

In 2012, he was arrested after committing robbery while armed with a knife. He was reportedly under the influence of drugs and was sentenced to five years. He was released in November last year on parole, according to the relative.

‘No doubt’

The relative says he has “no doubt” that Khayre was radicalized. He says Khayre knew at least one Australian of Somali origin who travelled to Syria to fight for ISIS.

“He was a close buddy to Sharmarke, an ISIS militant from Australia who was killed three years ago,” the relative said.

Sharmarke Jama was an Australian model and DJ who joined ISIS. His death in 2014 in Syria attracted media attention. Jama was from Melbourne, as was Khayre.

According to sources, police have seized all the family members’ electronic gadgets for review. “The whole family is now treated as a scene for crime,” said the relative.

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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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