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Terrorism Watch

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.

Humanitarian Watch

Funding al-Shabaab: How aid money ends up in terror group’s hands

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Baidoa, Somalia (CNN)The murderous al Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab is making millions of dollars each year by exploiting foreign aid money sent to Somalia by the very western nations who are trying to eliminate the terror group.

A CNN investigation has revealed how money given directly by the United Nations to people displaced by conflict and famine is ending up in the hands of Africa’s oldest terrorist organization.

Former members of al-Shabaab and Somali intelligence agents said the terror group is extorting thousands of dollars per day through road blocks and taxes on merchants attempting to transport food and supplies to sell to internally displaced people in towns where they are concentrated.

People who have fled their homes and are living in a sprawling camp in the central Somali city of Baidoa are screened by the UN and issued cash cards that the UN tops up with around $80 to $90 each month, enabling them to buy essentials from local merchants.

UN officials say this direct payment system will avoid distorting local markets by flooding them with free food, and relieve the UN of the burden of running food convoys that are vulnerable to attacks and theft.

Businessmen now truck food bought on the open market to places like Baidoa, where internally displaced people (IDPs) arrive every day. But they must pay al-Shabaab, which controls the main road into the town, to move their goods.

Former members of the terror group and Somali intelligence agents said that tolls taken from trucks and other vehicles at just two al-Shabaab roadblocks on Somalia’s busiest road raked in thousands every day. The UN has estimated that a single roadblock generated about $5,000 per day on the road to Baidoa.

‘Tax’ collectors

Speaking at a secret location on the outskirts of Baidoa, a former zaqat (tax) collector for al-Shabaab, who was captured in a recent raid by agents from Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency, confirmed that the extraction of tolls at roadblocks was one of the biggest sources of money for al-Shabaab.

The two biggest sources were the road to Baidoa and the main artery which connects the capital Mogadishu with the agriculturally-rich Lower Shabelle region.

The gouging is more subtle today than it was in the early 1990s, when local warlords deliberately starved hundreds of thousands of Somalis in order to profit from international aid money. Scenes of mass death on the streets of Baidoa in 1992 provoked the United States to lead a multinational UN-backed military intervention in the same year.

In Baidoa back then, a truck known as the Death Bus collected around 100 bodies a day, all of them skeletal from starvation, from the dusty streets of the town every morning.

Aid organizations were so desperate to help that they paid warlords to permit access to starving victims. Until Western nations intervened, the warlords worked to sustain the famine in order to keep the aid money flowing into their coffers — effectively exploiting desperate people to turn a profit.

Back then, organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross had to pay for armed guards — the ICRC spent $100,000 a week on protection in Mogadishu.

The money went into the hands of mere gangsters — not international terrorist organizations, who are less forgiving when their debts go unpaid.
In 2018, if local merchants don’t pay up, “they’re captured and killed,” said a former al-Shabaab fighter who collected tax for eight years and now works with Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency.

Speaking in a secret location in Baidoa, he explained how for every sack of rice delivered to the city by private merchants, al-Shabaab would cream off about $3 in tolls, taking nearly half the difference in the price of a sack that sells for $18 in Mogadishu and $26 in Baidoa.

On top of that the merchants are then forced to pay an annual tax to al-Shabaab — even in towns and cities that are not under the group’s control, like Baidoa and Mogadishu.

These allegations have been confirmed by the regional government and the president of the South West State of Somalia, Hssan Sheikh Ada.

Michael Keating, the UN’s head of country, acknowledged the scam but said that most of the foreign aid still reached its intended destination.

“Unfortunately those in need, and those who are going to be targeted by humanitarian organizations to receive assistance, do become attractive for those trying to make money, and there will be all sorts of scams going on,” said Keating, a veteran UN official with years of experience in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

“To deny it is happening would be wrong, but I think to take examples of it happening, and to say the whole response is like this, would be a gross misrepresentation of what is going on.”

Forced to flee

The paying of “zaqat” isn’t confined to road tolls and taxes on businessmen. Ordinary Somalis have to pay an annual tax to the al Qaeda group which was behind terror attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the massacre at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall four years ago.

Fatima Ali Hassan used to own dozens of goats and cows. Driven out of her home by drought and demands for money by al-Shabaab, the mother of seven now lives in a tent made out of rags in Baidoa. She’s one of tens of thousands who have made their way to this hungry city.

But even here, she’s an asset to the terror group, like the other 270,000 displaced people living in the city — and more are pouring in every day. The UN fears that the ongoing drought will once again threaten Somalia with famine and provide al-Shabaab with even greater opportunities to make money from foreign aid — particularly if the group maintains control of the main routes through the interior of the country.

Somalia’s national army is a patchwork quilt of rival militias sewn together by thin threads of hope that one day it will be able to prevail against the extremists.

For now, the country’s primary fighting force is a 22,000-strong African Union (AU) contingent that has been protecting the country’s fledgling government in Mogadishu, and working to wrest control of south back from al-Shabaab. But it’s withdrawing slowly and is expected to be out of the country in two year’s time.

The African Union military leadership admits that it can’t push al-Shabaab off the major roads that provide it with so much income.
“Instead of reducing [AU forces], it should have been increased,” said Lt. Colonel Chris Ogwal. “We are now overstretched, we are just conducting minor offensive operations.”

Ogwal commands the Ugandan contingent which controls the road between Mogadishu and the small town of Afgoye — but not, critically, the rest of the way to Baidoa.

That remains al-Shabaab’s financial artery.

Ogwal said that any reduction in AU forces would inevitably leave a vacuum that al-Shabaab would fill.

This leaves a growing number of American troops — more than 500, including Special Operation Forces — shouldering the ever-increasing security burden in Somalia.

But this year is the 25th anniversary of the Battle of Mogadishu, the infamous clash in which 18 Americans and more than 1,000 Somalis were killed when US Special Forces attempted to arrest Somalia’s most powerful warlord at the time, Mohammed Farrah Aidid.
Images of a dead pilot being dragged through the dust of the Somali capital swiftly undermined a mission that had been intended to bring humanitarian relief and resulted in a US withdrawal two years later.

But the systems of corruption and manipulation of aid in Somalia remained, and have now been co-opted to finance a terrorist movement that controls about a third of the country and may become a magnet for ISIS jihadists on the run from their former caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

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Briefing Room

Somali forces foil al-Shabaab attack near capital

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MOGADISHU, Feb. 11 (Xinhua) — Somali forces repelled an attack by the al-Shabaab militant group near the capital city of Mogadishu Saturday night, local authorities said Sunday.

The al-Qaida-linked militants attacked Afgooye town, about 30 km southwest of Mogadishu, Afgooye police chief Abdulkadir Osman said.

“They attacked the town and our forces responded. The fighting lasted a while before our forces defeated them,” Osman told reporters, adding that “we are now in full control of Afgooye.”

The officer said the militants suffered injuries but did not indicate any casualties on his forces. “Three civilians were also injured in the attack,” he added.

Local residents said the fighting caused panic in the town. Bashir Mayow who lived in Afgooye told Xinhua that the clash was deadly.

“Al-Shabaab attacked us last night and the whole town was gripped by fear as Somali forces fought hard to push away the militants,” said Mayow.

The al-Shabaab militant group has claimed responsibility for the attack.

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Briefing Room

Al Shabaab ‘training village elders to fight’

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Al-Shabaab militants have been training clan elders in southern Somalia on how to use guns to shoot accurately, in the latest attempt by the jihadists to win the hearts of residents, media outlets affiliated by the group have reported.

A radio station and a website operated by the al-Qaeda-affiliated militants have broadcast and published pictures of elderly men holding guns in what appears to be a shooting range, as a huge crowd looks on.

Radio Andalus said about 40 elders from different clans took part in the shooting competition which involved men between the ages of 60 and 80 in Jilib, Middle Jubba Region, southern Somalia.

“Each elder was given three bullets to fire to a target placed 60 steps away,” a reporter with Radio Andalus said.

“Every elder was carrying an AK47 rifle… the elders had practised shooting before the contest.”

Somalimemo website posted photos showing several elders holding rifles with masked men – supposedly al-Shabaab fighters – coaching them on how to shoot.

In one of the photographs, three men are seen lying on the ground aiming at targets, while some, standing, appear to be coaching.

“I want to be in the frontline for the mujahidin,” a man told Radio Andalus.

“It is the responsibility of each and every individual to defend their country from the invading foreign troops,” another said.

The Islamic militant group often holds events to seek the support of the residents in the areas that the militants control.

In the past, they have organised various sports activities, including arrow shooting, tug of war and breaking of mud pots.

In other parts of the country, however, they have been behind a campaign of terror which has left thousands dead.

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