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Somalia Launches Digital Counter-extremism Center

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Somalia’s government has launched a digital counter-extremism center that aims to dissuade young Somalis from supporting militant groups such as al-Shabab and Islamic State.

The Somali Ministry of Information says the center will carry out campaigns on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and state-run media designed to promote stability in the Horn of Africa nation, which has seen little peace during the past 30 years.

“The center plans to raise public awareness campaign on countering violent extremism, security and peace building, good governance, civic education, and implementing programs that can provide confidence to the people by discrediting terrorists’ narratives of violence and destruction,” said Information Minister Abdirahman Omar Osman.

During the opening ceremony Wednesday, Osman said the center will specifically target al-Shabab “by exposing their brutality, and hence weakening its following and public support.”

The al-Qaida-linked militant group has carried out dozens of suicide attacks in Somalia during the past decade, including one in October that killed more than 500 people.

“This will be an opportunity to contribute to the overall peace and stability in Somalia,” Abdurahman Yusuf al-Adala, the director general of Somalia’s Ministry of Information told VOA. “We will provide accurate and useful information to young people, which in turn helps them to understand the benefits of democratic institutions in Somalia.”

The new center was created in response to criticism from moderate Somali clerics who said the government has not done enough fight extremism and violent ideologies on the internet and social media platforms.

Al-Adala said clerics and elders will be given an opportunity to produce video messages for social media. He said young Somalis will have an “open forum” to talk about terrorism and factors that drive youth to join the militants.

Briefing Room

UGANDA: Inside Somalia’s wars

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Kampala, Uganda | IAN KATUSIIME | When I flew to Mogadishu, Somalia’s sandy capital, on December 16, 2017; I was filled with a heady mix of anxiety and excitement because of the image we all have of Somalia; bomb wreckages, lone wolf assassins, and Al Shabaab Muslim militants lurking in the shadows everywhere.

Mogadishu is still reeling from the shock and awe of a truck bomb that killed over 500 people last October. Even though the attack, for which Al Shabaab claimed responsibility, was the deadliest Somalia has seen in decades, the country has long witnessed such acts of terror since Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted from power in 1991. He had been president since he captured power in a coup in 1969.

His ouster led to the birth of Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a ragtag Islamist group which alongside other armed factions in the country battled for the control of the Horn of Africa nation- perpetrating mayhem and anarchy until relative stability was established in the late 2000s, first by the Ugandan army forces -Uganda Peoples Defence Forces (UPDF) and later by joint forces of the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) that include UPDF.

On my trip, and after interviews with the President of Somalia, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, some AMISOM commanders, and officials of the African Union (AU) based in Mogadishu, I witnessed not only a sense of accomplishment but a puzzle over the next move. The question of whether UPDF stays is no longer debated. Instead, the question is what happens when it leaves. Part of the reason is that nothing inside Somalia is what it appears to be to those outside the country.

The UPDF, under AMISOM, has accomplished a lot; from pushing Al Shabaab out of Mogadishu, securing the country’s airport and State House, and providing some social services to ordinary Somalis in a country that has barely had a working government for years. Yet commanders on the ground, including Brig. Kayanja Muhanga, who until recently has been the UPDF contingent commander in Somalia, remain apprehensive about the future.

When we sat down with Muhanga in his office at Base Camp, the expansive AMISOM base controlled by UPDF, he was preparing to hand over in three days to Brig. Paul Lokech. So he was in reflective mode and spoke expansively about what has made UPDF so successful in Somalia. He also revealed a few things that most external players do not know about, downplay, or totally miss about Somalia; including that the Muslim fighting group; al Shabaab, might not, in fact, be the enemy of the people one imagines.

The tall, broad shouldered, and thick mustached Muhanga had just completed a year as UPDF contingent commander in December and it was his second tour of duty in Somalia. Having served as commander of Battle Group Eight and deputy contingent commander in 2011/2012, he has garnered a rare understanding of Somalia and Somali clan members now call him ‘Ugasi’ which is Somali for elder. He is sometimes called upon to mediate in conflicts among the clans, even when he is back in Uganda. “Counter insurgency in Somalia is about winning the hearts and minds of the people.

“Any force that comes here needs to first understand the clan dynamics in Somalia,” he says, “You have to be a friend to all clans because there is heavy rivalry between them.”

Clan system

“Once you are in Somalia, you realise Al Shabaab is not exactly the problem,” Muhanga told our group of journalists, “There are times when a clan can unite with Al Shabaab say when a force is simply intent on capturing local territories without anything it is offering to the local population, they will say ‘we have a common enemy.”

The clan system is Somalia’s model of democracy and, depending on whom you speak to, it either works well for the country or harms it. Members of Parliament are elected to represent their clans. The clans are involved in lobbying for positions in government, hold negotiations for economic power, and are routinely defending their territory from intruders- with guns.

Some of the major clans in Somalia include the Hawiye, Dir, Isaaq and the Darood. But even among these clan groupings, they are further divided into sub-clans. Intervening forces in Somalia have to deal with these intra-clan rivalries, among other complexities. For instance, the Hawiye are sub-divided into the Habar Gedir and Abgal.

“Sometimes when you hear an attack in Mogadishu or anywhere in Somalia, it is an attack to send a message to the government for a grievance they are holding; it could be an appointment that was not honoured or even a dispute the clan wants resolved,” Muhanga says.

The difference between Al Shabaab and the clans is that it has an international image, but is it not exactly an enemy of the people, according to various sources in Somalia. UPDF soldiers in Somalia say sometimes it is hard to tell who is a member of Al Shabaab and who is not.

Al Shabaab has its own tax administration system and levies a tax on some roads. It is those who refuse to pay the tax that run into trouble with Al Shabaab, Muhanga says.

But knowing about the clan system is not the same as knowing how to manage it. There are forces; including the United Nations and African Union, that rather than flow with the system, are determined to change it. In fact the UN does not want UPDF to engage in some activities; such as treating of the sick, saying that is strictly the work of humanitarian organisations. But soldiers in Somalia say, with such moves, the UN is complicating the work of rebuilding the country.

“The AU and the UN have set targets for the government of Som

“The AU and the UN have set targets for the government of Somalia to start holding elections through universal suffrage for all offices by 2020,” she added, “Voting based on clans cannot go on forever,” says Lydia Wanyoto, the Deputy Special Representative of the Chairperson of the African Union Commission. She told The Independent during a meeting at Aden Abdulle Airport that both the AU and UN want Somalia to move away from a clan-based system of electing leaders. But other voices say Somalis are comfortable with the clan model of democracy and that the Western style democracy of voting may instead cause more instability in the country.

Muhanga agrees that the clan rivalry can be a source of instability and that is why UPDF is involved in mediation of clan conflicts.

He gives the example of how clan rivalry plays out using one of the hotly contested territories in Somalia; the Lower Shabelle region, a large swathe of fertile land with flourishing farms and plantations.

Muhanga says it is the most fertile land in the country and exports fruits to the Middle East. Due to its fertile soils, various Somali clans take part in farming in this area and gun fights occasionally break out because of the economic gain lying therein.

“Because you are thin on the ground, you do not know whom to ally with,” Muhanga explains. AMISOM forces are routinely changed including Uganda which sends battle groups in intervals of about two years. The AMISOM force comprises 22,000 troops where Uganda has 6,000.

In AMISOM’s strategic command structure, Somalia is divided into five sectors among the Troop Contributing Countries (TCCs) and Uganda occupies Sector 1- the most volatile area which contains Mogadishu and surrounding areas including the highly productive Lower Shabelle region. Sector 2 is occupied by Kenya, Ethiopia is in Sector 3, Djibouti is in 4 and Burundi in 5.

UPDF has scored some strategic advantages being the only country that can occupy sector 1. Ethiopia cannot because of its bitter history with Somalia basing on past invasions, Kenya is considered inexperienced militarily and Djibouti being neighbours to Somalia complicates the puzzle because of the shared ethnicity since they are all in the Ogaden region.

Weaknesses and complications

Then there are the Americans. According to Muhanga, the attitudes of Americans and their poor understanding of the country’s internal dynamics have complicated the peacekeeping mission. Due to their enormous resources, he says, American forces are able to conduct missions such as training of local Somali forces which may not work well with AMISOM’s set up.

He describes incidents like when the American forces trained a local Somali squad and, possibly to show off their achievement, asked President, Mohamed Abdullahi to allow them, with back-up from the Somali National Army, to take on what they thought was al Shabaab. Muhanga advised against the venture but he was over-ruled. He was, however, vindicated when the government forces were repulsed and hit terribly by one of the clans whose fighters felt the combination of forces was invading their territory.

“The Somali National Army cannot hold defensive ground,” Muhanga says.

Conversations with other UPDF soldiers in Mogadishu shed light on an army that if left to its own devices would be overrun by the Al Shabaab within no time. The Somali National Army weakness is, arguably, the biggest impediment to the withdrawal of the AMISOM force.

Yet UPDF will not stay in Somalia forever. That is the point Brig. Richard Karemire, the UPDF Spokesperson, made to The Independent after the truck bomb blast in Mogadishu in October last year. He said, however, the UPDF pull-out from Somalia would be gradual.

“This is a calculated handover of different proportions to the Somali military forces,” he said, “It is not a reckless handover.”

Around the same time, a highly placed military source told The Independent in an interview that they had in various meetings advised the AU and UN against the looming exit of UPDF in view of the strategic weaknesses of the Somali Army. “`Whom are you handing over to?’ we asked them,” the source said, “We instead requested for more troops not an exit.”

He said the local force is not up to the task and AMISOM is doing everything.

“If the exit happens, they will just be handing over to Al Shabaab,” he said adding that the Somali forces need more years of training before they can take over.

The various forces engaged in Somalia have all put up efforts to train the Somali army but since the Americans started their own training, the process has been tricky.

International community

The role of the international community in Somalia is a big issue. As a state under reconstruction both politically and economically, it has become like a piece of pie with various international players trying to either support or control. Away from the Americans, the Middle-East powers are vying for supremacy.

The oil rich House of Saudi is said to be ready to pour investment in Somalia. But there is a problem. Turkey and Qatar; who are on the same side in the Qatar-blockade in the Gulf region, already have massive investments in the country. Turkey has put up an airport terminal, hotels and some educational institutions. The Saudis are now demanding that Somalia kicks out Qatar and Turkey and joins the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar imposed last year. The Saudis are backed by Egypt.

When The Independent asked President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed during an interview at State House Somalia on how he manages to keep at bay the various forces trying to dictate the future of his country, he sought to reassert the sovereignty of Somalia.

“As a country that is trying to get back on track, we know various forces may want to intervene but we are always firm and remind them that Somalia is a sovereign country which can manage its own affairs,” he said.

Meanwhile, the UPDF mission in Somalia remains critical to President Yoweri Museveni and the high level deployment there signals his intent. Former AMISOM Force commander, Maj. Gen. Nathan Mugisha, is Deputy Ambassador of Uganda to Somalia; a position he has served in for five years now. Muhanga’s next deployment is at the Second Division of the UPDF which is headquartered in Mbarara, western Uganda. And his successor in Somalia, Brig. Lokech is also serving his second tour of duty. He was the commander, way back when Muhanga was deputy. Clearly, experience is critical in this delicate mission.

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Briefing Room

“America is home”: How Trump’s immigration policies are upending Somali lives in the US

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Maruf Sharif was shackled in the plane, which was flying him over the Atlantic Ocean to a country he hadn’t seen for almost three decades.

But before the flight’s final destination at the Somali capital Mogadishu, it stopped for a layover in Dakar, Senegal. There, a disturbing narrative was revealed about the ordeal endured by Sharif and the 91 other Somali deportees who were being returned to Somalia.

During the flight, a lawsuit filed by some of the detainees notes that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents forced them to stay seated, denied them access to a bathroom, and “kicked, struck, choked, and dragged” them. This “inhumane” treatment lasted for 48 hours—23 of which the plane sat on the runway in Senegal.

Citing logistical problems, immigration officials eventually decided to turn the plane and head back to the United States. It’s not completely clear why this happened. ICE told the New York Times that a relief flight crew had been unable to get sufficient rest.

The aircraft and its detainees spent their time in Dakar parked at the airport. Observers say the episode gives insight into the poorly planned and hasty nature of the deportation agenda under the Trump’s immigration policy.

However, the return to the US was a relief for Sharif and his family, who were fighting his deportation and who had tried everything to keep him in the US. The trip back also saved Sharif from taking the reverse journey back to Somalia where he left when he was just eight years old.

In the mid-1990s, after fleeing Somalia’s civil war and living in Kenya as a refugee, Sharif and his family were granted resettlement and moved to the United States. As a teenager navigating the streets of Columbus, Ohio, he started hanging out with the wrong crowd, and in 2002, was convicted of aggravated assault and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
After a decade, Sharif was released on parole in 2012 and went about rebuilding his life. Despite his criminal record, he started working the system to get his driver’s license, got engaged, and got a stable job working at a restaurant where he worked himself from dishwasher to second chef. Members of his family who spoke to Quartz said that he was really determined to change his life and start a family.

“He was really improving,” Ahmed Aden, a relative of Sharif’s who lives in Nairobi, told Quartz. “He was very passionate and working hard.”

But all that changed in early 2017 after president Donald Trump was elected into office. On Jan. 2017, Trump barred the citizens of seven majority Muslim nations including Somalia from entering the United States. While the ban was challenged in courts and Iraq removed from the list, the Supreme Court allowed it to take full effect in December. As Trump pushed for tougher immigration enforcement, federal immigration officials also stepped up their arrests of undocumented immigrants and refugees.

This was bad news for Sharif, who wasn’t an American citizen yet. After being summoned by his parole officer in early 2017, Sharif was detained by ICE officials and informed that he will be deported back to Somalia. Despite his unfortunate circumstances, the 35-year-old was hardly the only one facing deportation. In the last year, forced removals by ICE officials of Somali citizens have more than doubled, jumping from 198 in 2016 to 521 in 2017.

Kim Hunter, an immigration lawyer in Minnesota, said that up until last year, the civil strife and insecurity in Somalia deterred officials from deporting immigrants. Only those with “the most serious criminal records” were being expelled, while those working and living lawfully were even assured by officials that they weren’t priorities.

“The Trump Administration put a great deal of pressure on Somalia to start accepting deportees,” Hunter, who has two clients who were due for deportation, said. “And as with so many actions by the current government, this has generated a lot of confusion and fear.”

Trump’s reversal of long-standing immigration policies was bound to impact the Somalis, one of the largest African immigrant communities in the US. Over the last few years, Somalis in the US have become the microcosm of the debate surrounding immigration, refugee resettlement, and national security.

In 2016, a federal jury found three men guilty of plotting to join the terror group ISIL overseas. This made the community vulnerable to surveillance; at one point, the Federal Bureau of Investigation directed its agents to use a community outreach program for spying.

During the presidential elections, Trump also singled out Somalis multiple times, accusing them of coming from “dangerous territories,” fraying social nets, and blamed faulty vetting processes for allowing a large number of Somalis to come to states like Minnesota, Maine, and Ohio.

Kali Mohamed, a community activist in Minneapolis, says this is “unfair” given that members of the community own businesses, pay taxes, and annually send more than $200 million in remittances back home. In 2016, voters of the District 60B in southeast Minneapolis also elected Ilhan Omar, who became the first Somali-American Muslim female legislator in the US.

Kali says the increased scrutiny, travel bans, and subsequent deportations now threaten to instill fear and suspicion and break up families. “It’s really hard trying to navigate through all this,” he said.

State of limbo

After almost a year in detention, Sharif was slated for deportation back to Somalia in mid-December. That’s when he landed in Senegal, shackled along with the others. Afterwards, a federal judge in Florida granted them a temporary reprieve and they were taken to various detention centers in Florida.

At the Glades county detention facility where Sharif is, several Somali detainees have since complained of alleged maltreatment and abuse. In a sworn affidavit seen by Quartz by immigration lawyer John Bruning from Kim Hunter’s law firm, detainees complained of being verbally abused and being subjected to excessive physical force.

Sharif’s family, however, confirmed to Quartz that he has suffered no physical injuries while at Glades but was put in solitary confinement for about a week for refusing to remove his kufi cap.

Lawyers like Hunter now hope that this period of stay would allow them to reopen appeal cases for their clients. And families like Sharif’s hope he would be allowed to stay, and not return to a dangerous country that recently experienced its deadliest terror attack ever.

Aden says that before he was arrested, Sharif called to convey how his life was turning positively. “He is very expressive and frank and he would tell you how he was happy,” Aden said. “He would say ‘America is home.’”

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Africa

YAMAMOTO: There is greater stability on the African continent

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The US has been talking tough about South Sudan President Salva Kiir, threatening to cut aid to the country. Does Washington plan any other action beyond sanctions?

That was on the minds of the officials of the African Union and regional leaders, and also the subject of discussions in London with our donor community.

When we were at the UN General Assembly in September, we talked to Taban Deng Gai, the first vice president of South Sudan, and laid down clear markers about what we expect. President Salva Kiir has responded to the US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley in a letter outlining what he is doing to address those issues.

We really want to see concrete examples, not words. We support [Ethiopia] Prime Minister Hailemariam and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development [Igad] as well as the AU to push South Sudan to stop the violence, look at the high rates of refugee flows, now 1.3 million into Uganda, and also the large numbers of internally displaced people.

We would like to see concrete measures, and progress towards ending the violence, which jeopardises the stability and security of the countries around South Sudan.

What is the US position on the Igad revitalisation process on South Sudan, and what was your point of discussion with the Ethiopian Prime Minister?

Ethiopia is a critical partner and is the current chair of Igad, leading high-level discussions on South Sudan. Ethiopia contributes troops to peacekeeping operations in South Sudan as well as Sudan.

We discussed the efforts of Ethiopian troops to stabilise Somalia, prevent terrorism and elements from Al Shabaab and ISIS coming into their country. We also talked about internal domestic challenges that face Ethiopia and Somalia, based on ethnic divides, land tenure problems, government procedures and local practices.

There is concern about Ethiopia’s internal stability. What was your impression on the state of the leadership within the ruling EPRDF?

I deferred to Prime Minister Hailemariam and his government on the details of what our discussions were. We talked about domestic issues like challenges in Somalia.

Ethiopia has a high population growth, with 70 per cent of the population under the age of 30, which means increasing unemployment among the youth. We discussed how we could partner to create jobs, support healthcare, education and investment.

You talked with Rwanda President Paul Kagame about reforms at the Africa Union. What role is the US likely to play?

President Kagame is coming in as chair at a time when big changes are taking places in the African Union. President Kagame is well situated to address those issues, considering his leadership in Rwanda.

Over the past 20 years, the number of democratic or democratic-leaning countries with free open elections in Africa has increased. There is greater stability on the continent, and we want to build on that to strengthen democracies in fragile states.

The US suspended military aid to Somalia. What is the way forward considering that a security threat still remains and Somalia needs to build its army?

It is only a temporary suspension that affects about 10,000 troops, and is meant to enhance better accounting. We continue to provide assistance to specialised groups within Somalia.

This is part of our efforts to review how we can form a coherent and effective Somali national army that integrates all groups, military and militia in the regional states.

We have discussed this issue with the Somali government as we establish how to work with the AU, Amisom, the UN, and countries that provide troops like Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Djibouti and Burundi.

The national army needs to be trained, and fully coherent under a unified command.

At the Somalia conference in London last May, we agreed that transparent, open accounting practices and financial institutions are critical. These are the same issues we face in the Democratic Republic of the Congo under Monusco.

There has been an increase in terrorist activities on the continent since 2001, and it concurred with the rise in US military presence in Africa. Does it suggest a problem with the American strategy?

It is true that terrorist activities have increased. The leaders and the people we spoke with during this trip were concerned about ISIS fighters leaving Iraq and the Middle East. We’re looking at ISIS formations in Somalia and West Africa. We’re looking at Boko Haram. We’re even looking at the militias in eastern Congo, which are transforming.

We’re working with partner countries, so the US State Department has trained about 300,000 troops from 26 African countries this year, with peacekeeping operations as the main focus.

Our use of military, unlike in other areas, does not take the lead in operations but works with partner countries. Currently, 63 per cent of the UN operations are in Africa. That means you’re taking 87 per cent of the UN troops from Africa, that’s over 70,000.

Could you comment on reports that donors have suspended financial aid to the Kenyan security sector due to recent reports of police brutality?

Our investments in Kenya include security sector reform. Kenya is important, not only in fighting and resisting Al Shabaab, but also ISIS and terrorist groups coming into the country.

As far as detracting or cutting or limiting or setting restrictions, I’ll have to get back to you on that because Kenya is one of our most important countries, just as Ethiopia is, and to my knowledge we have not cut or diminished assistance or investment.

–Compiled by Fred Oluoch.

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