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Shabaab militants weakened in Somalia, UN official says

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Al-Shabaab has been weakened financially, militarily and politically in the past year, the top United Nations official for Somalia said in an interview with the Nation.

The country’s devastating drought is draining Shabaab’s treasury because many local communities now lack the resources to meet the militant group’s demands for payments, observed UN special representative Michael Keating.

AIRSTRIKES

“A lot of financing for Al-Shabaab comes from taxing economic activity in areas it controls,” Mr Keating said. “When that goes down, the tax base goes down.”

The Islamist insurgents have been “put on the back foot” as a result of the stepped-up tempo of US airstrikes and ground operations conducted in conjunction with Somali government troops, Mr Keating added.

More than 200 Shabaab fighters are estimated to have been killed in 2017, with many of those deaths occurring in the months after the Trump administration streamlined procedures for launching missile and drone attacks.

Shabaab has lost some political support as well, mainly as a result of its October bombing in Mogadishu that killed more than 500 civilians. “That did more damage to their reputation than anything else,” Mr Keating commented.

But the 12-year-old guerrilla organisation simultaneously retains political strengths, the special envoy acknowledged.

He said Al-Shabaab is able to exploit conflicts among Somali clans by making deals for reciprocal support. The country’s feeble justice system gives Shabaab militants additional “entry points,” Mr Keating said, noting that “in many parts of the country they can out-perform state and local authority in terms of delivering justice and preventing corruption.”

NO NEW RECRUITS

Shabaab, which is thought to include about 5,000 fighters, also has little difficulty drawing new recruits from the country’s mainly youthful population, he added.

“A lot of kids in the 10-18 age group don’t have many options in life. Shabaab has a certain appeal for some of them, not only by offering a minimum income but also providing a sense of purpose.” Mr Keating said.

In addition, the group may be replenishing its ranks by abducting children from communities unable to make protection payments, he suggested. “If you can’t give us resources, give us your kids,” he imagines Shabaab leaders telling locals.

The collapse of the country’s agricultural sector is simultaneously reducing the government’s resources.

“The drought has hurt the economy and temporarily impacted the Federal Government of Somalia’s tax collection efforts,” the International Monetary Fund said in a recent report. It projects a “subdued” annual growth rate of less than two percent, while inflation is expected to climb to close to four percent.

CORRUPTION IN SOMALIA

Official corruption remains rampant in Somalia, Mr Keating said. Little outside assistance has specifically targeted graft, with most donor funding going to the security sector, he noted.

Despite these long-running and large-scale investments, the country’s military and police remain incapable of fighting Shabaab on their own.

“There hasn’t been sufficient focus on institution building and political co-ownership of security forces,” Mr Keating said. The national army is “still seen as associated with particular parts of the country or particular clans.”

With no prospect of Somali forces’ taking effective charge of national security anytime soon, the African Union Mission (Amisom) must continue to act as the main element in the war against Shabaab, Mr Keating said.

But Amisom is experiencing morale problems 11 years after its first detachments were deployed and in the wake of an unreported number of deaths likely to total several hundred. There is increasing talk of a substantial forthcoming reduction in Amisom’s uniformed troop strength of about 22,000.

The large difference in pay between the African Union’s peacekeepers in Somalia and United Nations peacekeepers in other countries constitutes “a source of great unhappiness,” Mr Keating said.

The European Union, which pays Amisom troops’ salaries, reduced its allotments by 20 per cent two years ago—from Sh 100, 000 ($1,028) to Sh 80, 000 ($822) per month, per soldier. A UN peacekeeper is now paid Sh 140, 000 ($1,410) a month.

Despite the discontent and frustration within Amisom and the political pressures for withdrawal in some troop-contributing countries, a powerful countervailing factor makes a large-scale drawdown unlikely. The governments of the six countries that assign troops to Amisom — Kenya, Djibouti, Burundi, Uganda, Sierra Leone and Ethiopia — each get a cut of the funding provided by the EU, along with training of their soldiers.

DEFEATING SHABABAB

A major short-term cut in Amisom’s troop strength would amount to “a gift to Al-Shabaab,” Mr Keating told the UN Security Council last week. He warned that for all its difficulties Al-Shabaab retains the ability to carry out devastating attacks.

In his interview with the Nation, Mr Keating emphasised that Shabaab cannot be defeated solely by military means. A political element is highly important, he said. “You have to offer both carrots and sticks.”

Asked whether an effective strategy should involve negotiations with Shabaab, Mr Keating pointed out that “it’s very rare for armed insurgencies to end primarily on the basis of a military victory. Typically,” he continued, “they end through a combination of military pressure and some form of negotiations.”

Any decision on whether to hold talks between the government and Al-Shabaab “must be a Somali decision,” he said. President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo” has repeatedly said he is willing to accommodate defectors from Shabaab, Mr Keating noted. “He clearly believes there needs to be a political as well as a military approach.”

Negotiations are unlikely to occur anytime soon, Mr Keating added. “There’s a long way to go before that could happen,” he said.

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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