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Mogadishu bombing: al-Shabaab behind deadly blast, officials say

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Jason Burke Africa correspondent

Security officials in Somalia say a key member of the cell that launched a devastating attack on Mogadishu has told them that al-Shabaab, a violent Islamist group in Somalia, was responsible for the blast.

The death toll from the bombing, which involved a truck packed with explosives, reached 320 late on Monday morning. Hundreds more were injured in one of the most lethal terrorist acts anywhere in the world for many years.

Al-Shabaab, which is an al-Qaida affiliate, vowed earlier this year to increase its attacks after both the Trump administration and Somalia’s recently elected president announced fresh military efforts against the group.

There has been no official claim of responsibility for the blast but the man, who was detained by Somali security forces as he tried to drive a second vehicle packed with explosives into the city on Saturday, has given details of the plot to interrogators.

“This is the Somali 9/11. The man we arrested has confessed. He is proud of what he has done. He says it was for jihad,” one official said.

Analysts said the Somali security services had been under “very great pressure” in recent months, and had been seriously weakened by internal factional fighting.

“We are on the track of those responsible and will bring them to justice,” the official said.

A second security official said explosives had been hidden under rice, sugar and other goods on the truck, which passed though a government-controlled checkpoint at Sinka Dheer, about four miles (7km) outside Mogadishu.

Suspicious officers stopped the vehicle and briefly detained its driver. It is understood a local businessman and tribal leader vouched for the truck.

One focus of the ongoing investigation is whether the extremists had help from within the security forces, the official said.

The bombing provoked international condemnation. Lights on the Eiffel Tower would be turned off in memory of the victims, Paris town hall announced.

The US mission to Somalia said: “Such cowardly attacks reinvigorate the commitment of the United States to assist our Somali and African Union partners to combat the scourge of terrorism.”

The scale of the attack is still becoming clear, as more victims continue to be dug from the rubble spread over an area hundreds of metres wide in the centre of the city.

Witnesses described an area the size of “two or three football fields” where buildings had been razed.

Though details are still emerging, it is thought the truck bomb was aimed at one of the ministries in the area but was detonated prematurely by its driver when it was stopped by security officials while stuck in a traffic jam. The explosion then ignited a fuel tanker parked nearby.

Abdikadir Abdirahman, the director of Amin ambulances, said 320 people died in the blast and appealed for overseas assistance.

“Families whose family members are missing are calling me every single minute,” Abdirahman said. “At such a time we need international organisations … they are good at [dealing with] crises like this.”

Sirens were heard throughout Monday morning as ambulances ferried injured people from hospitals to an airlift organised by the Turkish government, which has established a major diplomatic and humanitarian presence in Somalia in recent years.

Rescue workers said it was difficult to count casualties because the intense heat generated by the blast meant the remains of many people would not be found. Others may have been buried quickly by relatives following Islamic custom.

“One hundred and sixty of the bodies could not be recognised and so they were buried by the government [on Sunday],” Aden Nur, a doctor at the city’s Madina hospital, said. “The others were buried by their relatives. Over a hundred injured were also brought here.”

Ambulances carrying wounded victims as they head to the airport to be airlifted to Turkey. Photograph: Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP
The president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, declared three days of national mourning and joined thousands of people who responded to a plea by hospitals to donate blood for the wounded.

Mohamed, who took power in February, had vowed to rid the country of al-Shabaab. He has faced huge challenges, with the insurgency proving resilient to the ramped-up offensive aided by the US, and a famine.

Al-Shabaab, which has been affiliated to al-Qaida since 2011, has a history of launching bomb attacks against civilian targets.

“Al-Shabaab do not care about civilian deaths,” said Rasheed Abdi, an expert in Somalia with the International Crisis Group in Nairobi. “They see a population that is close to the government and think the more of them they can kill the better.”

Investigators will seek to establish the source of the military-grade explosives that are thought to have been used in the attack. One source suggested they had been stolen from Amisom, the much-criticised African Union peacekeeping mission, which has about 20,000 troops in the country.

Though largely confined to the countryside since withdrawing from Mogadishu six years ago, al-Shabaab has repeatedly taken over small towns, as well as inflicting significant losses on Amisom and Somali troops.

Abdi said al-Shabaab’s recent capture of Bariire, a town about 30 miles from Mogadishu, was important as its loss exposed the southern flank of the city.

The US military has increased drone strikes and other efforts this year against al-Shabaab, and a US special forces operative was killed in a skirmish with the group earlier this year, the first American combat casualty in Africa since the Black Hawk episode in Mogadishu in 1993.

With reporting by Abdullahi Mire in Mogadishu

Briefing Room

US military says drone strike in Somalia kills 4 extremists

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VOA — A U.S. drone strike has killed several al-Shabab militants in southern Somalia, officials tell VOA.

Local sources said missiles fired Wednesday targeted a rickshaw carrying five al-Shabab militants near Jamaame, in the southern Lower Juba region.

“I can tell you that the airstrike hit a rickshaw and that five militants were killed. It was carried out by U.S. drone, helping our intelligence forces on the ground,” a Somali government official told VOA Somali on the condition of anonymity.

The attack was confirmed by witnesses and local residents, who also asked for anonymity because they feared militant reprisals.

Somali officials said they were investigating the identity of those targeted. Some sources said two of those in the rickshaw were civilians traveling with three militants.

A statement Thursday from the U.S. Africa Command said the strike was carried out by the U.S. military “in coordination with the Federal Government of Somalia.” The statement said the strike killed four terrorists and no civilians.

On Tuesday, local residents in the region reported another airstrike that destroyed an al-Shabab training camp in the nearby town of Jilib. That airstrike, also confirmed by U.S. Africa Command, killed three militants.

The U.S. military has carried out dozens of airstrikes against al-Shabab and Islamic State militants in support of Somalia’s federal government.

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U.S. military denies Al-Shabaab killed its soldier in Somalia

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MOGADISHU, Feb. 20 (Xinhua) — The United States military confirmed Tuesday no American soldier was killed or injured in southern Somalia as claimed by the Islamist militant group, Al-Shabaab.

The U.S. Africa Command (Africom), which oversees American troops on the continent, dismissed the report as incorrect that the insurgents killed the American soldier on the outskirts of Kismayo during a gun fight early Tuesday.

“We are aware of the reports, but they are incorrect. No U.S military were killed or injured in Somalia, as alleged in the reports,” Africom spokesperson Samantha Reho told Xinhua.

The militants through their radio station, Andalus had reported that the American soldier was killed in a gun battle that took place outside Kismayo town on Tuesday morning.

The allegations came amid intensified security operation by the African Union peacekeeping mission (AMISOM) backed by Somalia National Army (SNA) on Al-Shabaab controlled areas in the Lower Shabelle region, destroying several militant bases, checkpoints and explosives including an FM station run by Al-Shabaab.

The allied forces have ramped up offensives against the militants as the African Union forces continue with the drawdown which started with 500 troops last December.

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Al-Shabaab plundering starving Somali villages of cash and children

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Jason Burke

Al-Shabaab militants in Somalia are extorting huge sums from starving communities and forcibly recruiting hundreds of children as soldiers and suicide bombers as the terror group endures financial pressures and an apparent crisis of morale.

Intelligence documents, transcripts of interrogations with recent defectors and interviews conducted by the Guardian with inhabitants of areas in the swath of central and southern Somalia controlled by al-Shabaab have shone a light on the severity of its harsh rule – but also revealed significant support in some areas.

Systematic human rights abuses on a par with those committed by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria are being conducted by the al-Qaida-affiliated Islamist militants as the west largely looks away because most analysts do not see the group as posing a threat to Europe, the UK or the US.

The group has put to death dozens of “criminals”, inflicted brutal punishments on gay people, conducted forced marriages, and used civilian populations as human shields.

In one 2017 incident investigated by the Guardian, a man was stoned to death for adultery. In another, four men and a 16-year-old boy were shot dead by a firing squad after being accused of spying for the Somali authorities. In a third, a 20-year-old man and a 15-year-old boy were killed in a public square after being found guilty by a religious court of homosexuality.

Last year at least five people were lashed publicly after being accused of “immoral or improper behaviour”. They included a 15-year-old and a 17-year-old who were given 100 lashes each for “fornication”.

UN officials said they had received reports of stonings for adultery. The former al-Shabaab leader, Hassan Dahir Aweys, who defected in 2013, described the group’s aim as “Islamic government without the interference of the western powers in Somalia”.

Al-Shabaab, which once controlled much of south and central Somalia, including the capital Mogadishu, was forced to retreat to rural areas by a military force drawn from regional armies seven years ago. Since then it has proved resilient, and remains one of the most lethal terrorist organisations in the world, but appears to be suffering a crisis of morale and financial pressure, prompting the drive to squeeze revenue out of poor rural communities.

One recent defector from central Somalia told government interrogators that the group forces “Muslims to pay for pretty much everything except entering the mosque”. Another said that al-Shabaab’s “finance ministry” – part of the extensive parallel government it has set up – is “hated”.

Al-Shabaab used to demand money or children from clans: now they demand both

The former mid-ranking commander, who defected four months ago, described how wells were taxed at $20,000 (£14,000) per month and a fee of $3.50 levied at water holes for every camel drinking there. One small town in Bai province was forced to pay an annual collective tax of a thousand camels, each worth $500, and several thousand goats, he said.

In addition, trucks using roads in territory controlled by al-Shabaab have to pay $1,800 each trip. Five percent of all land sales is taken as tax, and arbitrary levies of up to $100,000 imposed on communities for “educational purposes”, the defector said. There is also evidence that the movement is suffering from manpower shortages.

A third defector said al-Shabaab now insisted that all male children attend its boarding schools from the age of about eight. The children train as fighters and join fighting units in their mid-teens.

“By that age they are fully indoctrinated. They are no longer under the influence of their parents,” said Mohamed Mubarak, research director of the Horn Institute for Security and Strategic Policy thinktank.

According to Somali authorities, troops stormed a school run by al-Shabaab in January and rescued 32 children who had been taken as recruits to be “brainwashed” to be suicide bombers. “Al-Shabaab used to demand money or children from clans: now they demand both,” the defector said.

Al-Shabaab has also told people they will be punished – possibly put to death as spies – if they have any contact with humanitarian agencies.

Somalia has been hit by a series of droughts, and only a massive aid effort averted the deaths of hundreds of thousands last year.

A new military campaign launched by President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed and supported by the US has seen intensive drone strikes on al-Shabaab targets, putting the militants under significant pressure. Fears of spies have led to a series of internal purges. Suspected agents are jailed and brutally tortured.

Al-Shabaab cuts thieves’ hands and kills looters . Everyone is scared of them

“Distrust is so high that when they go into battle, everyone is afraid of being shot in the back by his comrade,” one of the defectors said. “When soldiers get leave, half come back. Al-Shabaab now send patrols to collect people who have fled home. They stay in jail until they agree to rejoin.”

Abdirahman Mohamed Hussein, a government official overseeing humanitarian aid in southern central Somalia, told the Guardian that extremists used local populations as human shields. “They do not want people to move out because they are worried that there could be an airstrike if the civilians leave,” Hussein said.

Al-Shabaab also imposes tight restrictions on media, the defectors said. “Most people only listen to al-Shabaab radio stations or get news from al-Shabaab lectures which go on for hours and which cover religion and which all must attend,” one said. Another said some people risked harsh punishments to listen in secret toVoice of America and the BBC.

“Life is really tough in al-Shabaab-controlled areas. There is no food, no aid and children are being taken,” said Mubarak, the thinktank director. “Al-Shabaab are still trying to portray themselves as defenders of Somali identity. The message has a lot of sympathy but is not translating into active support.”

The draconian punishment, seizures, taxes and abductions run counter to the strategic guidance issued by al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who has called for affiliates of the veteran group to build consensus and support among local communities. Their practices do, however, recall those of Isis.

Al-Shabaab also manipulates rivalries between clans and tribes, and benefits from the failures of local authorities to provide basic services. Several interviewees said they preferred using al-Shabaab’s justice system, and that the group had brought security.

In once case in May last year, two clan elders in Beledweyne in Hiran region agreed to seek al-Shabaab justice to settle a case of rape. The attacker was found guilty and stoned to death.

“We decided to go to the al-Shabaab court because the judge rules under the Islamic law and there is no nepotism and corruption,” said Abdurahman Guled Nur, a relative of the rape victim, in a telephone interview. “If we went to a government court, there would be no justice because the rapist could have paid some cash to the court and he would be freed.”

Mohamed Hussein, a farmer in Barire, a town 40 miles south of Mogadishu that has seen fierce fighting, returned home when al-Shabaab took control of the area in early October. “When the government soldiers were here, there was looting, illegal roadblocks and killing,” he said. “But al-Shabaab cuts thieves’ hands and kills looters. The Islamic court gives harsh sentences for the criminals, so everyone is scared of them. That way we are in peace under al-Shabaab. If you do not have any issue with al-Shabaab, they leave you alone.”

Additional reporting by Abdalle Mumin

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