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Briefing Room

Somalia: Elders negotiate with al-Shabab over soldiers

[Hamza Mohamed/Al Jazeera]

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AL JAZEERA Gal’ad, Somalia “Line up in a straight line. We will do the talking on your behalf,” an elderly man with a henna-dyed beard tells the group of young men. They are standing in front of an iron-gated compound in the centre of the town of Gal’ad in Somalia’s central region of Galguduud, holding AK-47 rifles.

Until a few days ago, the young men, who are all from the town, were government soldiers fighting against al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda-linked group trying to overthrow Somalia’s internationally recognised government. The men are now calling time on frontline service; hoping to put down their guns and return to civilian life in their hometown. But Gal’ad is now firmly in the grip of the rebel group.

Somali troops, backed by Ethiopian forces, had been in control of Gal’ad, but pulled out in July. Ethiopian troops vacated the town first; the poorly equipped Somali soldiers followed shortly after.

Al-Shabab fighters stationed just outside the town soon came in and took control. Anyone who worked with the Ethiopian and Somali troops was now at the mercy of the group. Al-Shabab often publicly beheads government troops it captures, and anyone else working with the government can expect a similar fate.

For the young men, the group of elders is all that stands between them and death by beheading.

Sixty-six-year-old Daud Ali Gaafow is a lead negotiator between al-Shabab leaders and those who have been fighting the group but now want to return to civilian life in areas under its control. He has been doing this for more than seven years.

“There has been a crisis in our country. Lots of bloodshed; neighbours and brothers fighting against each other. Unnecessary violence. And as elders, it is our responsibility to do our part and help our people,” Gaafow explains after witnessing another truce between al-Shabab and former government troops.

“In this town alone, we have facilitated the safe return of hundreds of people, both men and women,” he adds.

Brokering a truce

As Ethiopian troops continue to withdraw from towns and villages in south and central Somalia, the elders have never been busier.

Addis Ababa has withdrawn its troops from at least 10 towns since the start of this year, and four towns in this month alone. Al-Shabab has taken over all of those towns and villages.

Those who have worked with the Ethiopian forces are left with two choices: to seek refuge in areas not under the armed group’s control or to reach out to the elders to broker a truce.

The elders say they have worked on the safe return of more than 500 young Somali men this year alone. Since the Ethiopian troops withdrew from Gal’ad district, 200 young men have put down their weapons, according to the elders and the town’s al-Shabab administration.

To Gaafow’s right, sitting crossed-legged with speckles of grey in his beard, is Abdullahi Ibrahim, another town elder who has been inundated with requests to broker a deal with the town’s al-Shabab leaders.

“All we are doing is to serve our people. We first speak to the young men before we approach al-Shabab leaders,” he explains.

Convincing the young men that they will not be harmed by their former enemy is a hard task, he says.

“They want assurances that they won’t be harmed. They also want guarantees that their belongings will not be confiscated by al-Shabab. We give them assurance that that will not happen to them.”

But it is not only the former soldiers that need assurances before any deal is struck.

Convincing al-Shabab to allow the men, men whom al-Shabab fought for control of areas that they have just retaken after many years, is not an easy or straightforward task.

The group has lost several senior leaders to US air strikes that it says were facilitated by spies in the area it controls.

Anyone that has worked with the government, the Ethiopian forces or the African Union troops in Somalia is a suspect until proven otherwise.

“We guarantee they will not go back and fight al-Shabab again. We also give al-Shabab assurance that these young men are not spies, that they are now civilians,” Ibrahim says.

Meanwhile, sitting in front of the two groups – the elders and the former government soldiers – is al-Shabab’s highest ranking leader in the region: Hassan Yakub, a plump-faced man with a towering figure that fills his camouflage uniform.

“These young men are from this region. They were living here peacefully before the Ethiopian colonisers captured the area. They were then deceived into working for them,” Yakub says, as the former soldiers place their weapons on a table beside him.

“When they witnessed the truth, they contacted their clan elders and asked for forgiveness, and to be let back into the society,” Yakub tells Al Jazeera.

This is an unprecedented step from al-Shabab, but the group is working hard to win the hearts and minds of the local population.

“They have admitted they were in the wrong and have asked [God] for forgiveness,” Yakub, clutching a brand new AK-47 on his lap, says. “We forgive them and trust them as fellow Muslims.”

Coming back home

As the truce is agreed, the former soldiers breathe a sigh of relief. For the first time in many weeks, they can now walk freely in their hometown. Ahmed Mohamed, a former casual labourer before he became a government soldier, says he is looking forward to starting his life again.

“When the government and Ethiopian troops came to the town, they started recruiting the young men to join them. We were promised good money. So, I joined them,” Mohamed says.

“If you did not join them, you would be accused of being al-Shabab, or being a sympathiser. We were never paid even for one single month. When the Ethiopians left, we followed them because we thought al-Shabab would kill us,” he adds.

“I then heard of the elders and what they were doing and I spoke to them. They assured me I won’t be harmed, and that’s how I came back,” Mohamed says with a smile.

Hussein Ali, a former camel herder, sits attentively waiting for his turn to speak and ask for forgiveness.

When government and Ethiopian troops took over the town, he was employed as a local council leader.

“When they left, it was everyone on their own. Every one of us had to find a way to survive, and because we heard al-Shabab would kill us if they found us in town, we escaped,” Hussein explains. “Now, we returned after the elders promised us we won’t be killed.”

The call for the afternoon prayer blares from the speakers on the town’s mosques, signalling the end of the meeting and the start of the young men’s freedom.

Ethiopia says it will likely vacate more towns in southern Somalia, so as the elders walk away, they know they will have more busy days ahead.

“It is better to negotiate and sort our differences without Somali blood spilling,” Gaafow, the oldest of the elders, says. “We will continue doing this job if it means saving the life of our young men.”

Hamza Mohamed Hamza Mohamed is a producer for Doha, Qatar-based Al Jazeera English, covering Sub-Saharan Africa.
Follow Hamza Mohamed on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa

Briefing Room

Pentagon Foresees at Least Two More Years of Combat in Somalia

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WASHINGTON — Amid its escalating campaign of drone strikes in Somalia, the Pentagon has presented the White House with an operational plan that envisions at least two more years of combat against Islamist militants there, according to American officials familiar with internal deliberations.

The proposed plan for Somalia would be the first under new rules quietly signed by President Trump in October for counterterrorism operations outside conventional war zones. The American military has carried out about 30 airstrikes in Somalia this year, twice as many as in 2016. Nearly all have come since June, including a Nov. 21 bombing that killed over 100 suspected militants at a Shabab training camp.

In a sign that the Defense Department does not envision a quick end to the deepening war in Somalia against the Shabab and the Islamic State, the proposed plan is said to include an exemption to a rule in Mr. Trump’s guidelines requiring annual vetting by staff from other agencies — including diplomats and intelligence officials — of operational plans for certain countries.

Instead, the Pentagon wants to wait 24 months before reviewing how the Somalia plan is working, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. Moreover, they said, the Defense Department wants to conduct that review internally, without involvement from other agencies — a request that would further a Trump-era pattern of giving the Pentagon greater latitude and autonomy.

Luke Hartig, a senior director for counterterrorism at the White House National Security Council during the Obama administration, said he supported delegating some greater authority to the Pentagon over such matters, but found it “problematic” that the military wanted to be unleashed for so long without broader oversight.

“A ton can happen in 24 months, particularly in the world of counterterrorism and when we’re talking about a volatile situation on the ground, like we have in Somalia with government formation issues and famine issues,” he said. “That’s an eternity.”

The Defense Department has submitted the plan to the National Security Council for approval by other agencies. Representatives for Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and for the council declined to comment on the details, other than to stress that the military took seriously its need to mitigate or prevent killings of civilian bystanders.

“We are not going to broadcast our targeting policies to the terrorists that threaten us, but we will say in general that our counterterrorism policies continue to reflect our values as a nation,” said Marc Raimondi, a National Security Council spokesman. “The United States will continue to take extraordinary care to mitigate civilian casualties, while addressing military necessity in defeating our enemy.”

Approving the plan would also end the special authority that Mr. Trump bestowed on the top State Department official for Somalia to pause the military’s offensive operations in that country if he saw problems emerging, the officials said. The Pentagon has objected to that arrangement as an infringement on the chain of command, the officials said, and the new plan would drop it — further eroding State Department influence in the Trump administration.

Still, eliminating the State Department authority might make little difference in practice, said Joshua A. Geltzer, who was senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council during the Obama administration. Either way, he said, if the State Department wanted to stop airstrikes in Somalia and the Pentagon wanted to keep going, the dispute would be resolved in a meeting of top leaders convened by Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster.


Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, left, and the head of the United States Africa Command, Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, in April. Although the Trump administration gave him flexibility to depart from a rule designed to protect civilians during military operations in much of Somalia, General Waldhauser has avoided using the looser standards. Credit Jonathan Ernst/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“The question of whether to allow a veto has been a source of tension before,” Mr. Geltzer said of the State Department authority. “But it’s not clear to me how much it’s worth fighting over — so long as those channels for communicating and working out concerns are functioning.”

According to the officials familiar with it, the Pentagon plan would also exempt operations in Somalia from another default rule in Mr. Trump’s guidelines: that airstrikes be allowed only when officials have determined there is a near certainty that no civilians will be killed. Instead, the officials said, the plan calls for imposing a lower standard: reasonable certainty that no bystanders will die.

However, it is also not clear whether altering that standard would result in any changes on the ground in Somalia. Mr. Trump has already approved declaring much of Somalia an “area of active hostilities,” a designation for places where war zone targeting rules apply, under an Obama-era system for such operations that Mr. Trump has since replaced. That designation exempted targeting decisions in that region from a similar “near-certainty” rule aimed at protecting civilians and instead substituted the looser battlefield standards.

Nevertheless, the head of the United States Africa Command, Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, decided not to use that added flexibility and instead kept the near-certainty standard in place. His decision stemmed from the challenges of distinguishing fighters from civilians from the air in Somalia, a failed state with complex clan dynamics and where a famine has uprooted people, many of them armed, in search of food and water.

Robyn Mack, a spokeswoman for General Waldhauser, declined to say whether he would again decide to keep the near-certainty standard in place if the Pentagon’s new plan were approved, writing in an email that it would be “inappropriate for Africom to speculate on future policy decisions.”

However, asked whether General Waldhauser is still imposing the near-certainty standard for strikes in Somalia, she invoked his comments at a Pentagon news conference in March, while the White House was still weighing whether to designate Somalia as an active-hostilities zone, saying what he said then “still stands.” General Waldhauser said then that he did not want to turn Somalia into a “free-fire zone,” adding, “We have to make sure that the levels of certainty that have been there previously, those are not changed.”

Ms. Mack wrote that “it is very important for Africom to have a level of certainty that mitigates or eliminates civilian casualties with our strike operations.”

Mr. Trump’s rules, which have been described by officials familiar with them even though the administration has not made them public, are called the “P.S.P.,” for principles, standards and procedures. They removed several limits that President Barack Obama imposed in 2013 on drone strikes and commando raids in places away from the more conventional war zones that the government labels “areas of active hostilities.”

Among other things, Mr. Trump dropped requirements in Mr. Obama’s rules — called the “P.P.G.,” for presidential policy guidance — for interagency vetting before each offensive strike and determinations that each person targeted pose a specific threat to Americans.

Instead, under Mr. Trump’s guidelines, permissible targets include any member of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Islamic State or any other terrorist group deemed to fall under the 2001 congressional authorization to use military force against the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks, even if they are mere foot soldiers who pose no specific threat on their own.

Moreover, instead of interagency vetting before each strike, Mr. Trump’s guidelines call for agencies to approve an operational plan for particular countries, after which the military (or the C.I.A., which also operates armed drones in several countries) may carry out strikes without first getting approval from higher-ranking officials.

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Briefing Room

How drones could be game-changer in Somalia’s fight against al-Shabab

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A former member of U.S. military intelligence is helping fight one of the deadliest terror groups in Africa. He is also a pioneer in the U.S. military’s use of drones and is now using that expertise to help Somalia in its fight against the Al-Qaeda-linked terror group al-Shabab.

The threat of unpredictable violence is ever-present in Somalia. Al-Shabab’s reach is vast and it is one of the most organized and dangerous of Africa’s militant groups, reports CBS News correspondent Debora Patta.

Al-Shabab no longer controls the crumbling city of Mogadishu, but has still been able to wreak havoc with its relentless bombing campaigns. Their weapon of choice has been the vehicle bomb, like the one used with devastating effect on October 14 killing over 500 people in the capital.

CBS News has been told repeatedly that al-Shabab has eyes and ears everywhere. The group’s members blend easily into local communities, and a seemingly quiet road may not look very menacing but can turn nasty in an instant.

Former U.S. military intelligence officer Brett Velicovich wants to change that. He has donated commercial drones to the Somali police force and is training them to use the technology to combat al-Shabab.

“When they go into different areas to clear parts that are under Shabab control, they will actually fly those drones low and in front of them to look out for roadside bombs,” Velicovich said.

Another al-Shabab tactic is to plant one bomb then, as first responders arrive, detonate another, killing everyone who rushed to help.

“The investigators will actually go out and they’ll fly our drones and they’ll make sure that the area is safe for first responders to come into,” Velicovich said.

Somali intelligence has told us that al-Shabaab continues to practice its bomb-making skills over and over until they get it right.

Al-Shabab footage shows how they test one of their bombs on an African peacekeeping convoy. Drone technology could help thwart attacks like these.

“It significantly alters the way they can do counter-terrorism work?” Patta asked.

“Exactly. I mean, imagine walking into a situation where you don’t know if the people in the house or the compound have weapons or if they have explosives, but if you could see from the air what you are about to walk into, that changes the game,” Velicovich said.

Al-Shabab’s bombs are increasingly more complex and more powerful. Simple drone technology could provide a much needed boost for the over-worked, under-resourced Somali counter-terrorism units.

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Briefing Room

Uganda begins Somalia troop withdrawal

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Uganda’s military says it has begun the withdrawal of 281 troops serving in the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia.

The move announced on Wednesday is part of a UN plan that will see African Union (AU) soldiers’ numbers reduced by 1,000 by the end of this year.

20,000 SOLDIERS

At the moment there are more than 20,000 soldiers serving in the AU mission (Amisom).

Uganda, which first sent troops to the country in 2007, is the biggest contributor with more than 6,000 soldiers in the force.

Kenya, Burundi, Djibouti and Ethiopia are also expected to reduce their numbers by 31 December.

Pulling out 1,000 soldiers will not be immediately significant but it shows the international backers of Amisom want to see a handover of security to Somali soldiers and police.

African countries have been praised for bringing increased stability to Somalia but there is frustration about corruption among their forces and the failure to secure an adequate victory.

Efforts to develop Somalia’s national army are gaining ground.

The US has already increased its troop numbers in the country to more than 500 and stepped up airstrikes – boosting its co-operation with the Somali military.

But defeating the militant Islamist Al-Shabaab group will not be easy.

A massive bomb attack blamed on the al-Qaeda-affiliated militants killed more than 500 people in the capital, Mogadishu, two months ago – the deadliest in its campaign against various UN-backed governments.

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