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Straight Talk On Somalia Insecurity

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Abukar Arman is a writer, a former diplomat and an activist whose work on foreign policy, geopolitics and faith is widely published.

There is a broad-based consensus that security in Somalia has been deteriorating at an alarming rate. In the past few weeks, hundreds of people have been killed by truck bombs at two prominent locations in Mogadishu. The lethal potency of the explosives and the scale of death and devastation resulting from the Oct 14th one was far beyond what Mogadishu has witnessed in over quarter of a century of violence.

These successive deadly terrorist operations combined with allegations that attackers have used intelligence services ID cards have turned the spotlight on Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA). Serious questions regarding the agency’s leadershipcompetence and the scope of its authority are being raised.

But how does one reveal unpleasant realities and tell a traumatized nation what appeared like a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ was in fact a runaway train coming at them? How does one do that without shoving them into state of self-defeating despair? These indeed are the dicey challenges, but truth must be told.

Somalia is in an existential race against time. Much like all other critical issues facing the nation, the Somali government does not control its intelligence or security. Worse, the government does not have the political will to address the real causes and effects.

The Ownership Dilemma

Somalia is the center of gravity of international predatory capitalism. Not only because of its untapped natural resources since many countries would qualify, but because Somalia is the gold standard of these three systematically destructive elements: corruption, ineptitude and disloyalty to the nation. How many nations do you know that host dozens of security and intelligence forces with various (domestic and foreign) commands and control? Here are some examples:

There is the revolving door syndrome of failed security leadership that recycles the same has-beens. Every year or so when a new commander is appointed and another is sacked. The former brings in his own clan comrades and cronies and the latter takes with him the manpower that he brought in.

There are former al-Shabab leaders with long ugly record who, despite never seeking the forgiveness of their victims, been co-opted by the government, and, yes, been giving highly sensitive positions at NISA and other branches of government.

There is the cottage industry of intelligence serves ID cards. These IDs are readily available for anyone willing to pay the going rate. Apparently it is the agency’s failure when individuals in charge of issuing these IDs make little over $200 for monthly salary and the going price for a false ID is twice their monthly salary. While civilians try to possess these IDs for various reasons, the most common is the need to get through roadblocks and checkpoints since there is no logging system to verify authenticity of employment.

There are multiple security and intelligence agencies that emerged within the five clan-based federal states that may share a name with NISA but functionally have nothing to do with that ‘national agency.’ Most of them take their substantive orders from one neighboring state or another.

There are the corrupt leaders in the political upper echelon that readily put Somalia’s national interest behind anyone with a bag full of cash or has the capacity to aid them in attaining or keeping a position.

There are many in the circles of influence, including ministers and parliament members, who own their own private security companies and directly benefit from increased insecurity.

There is the underground business cartel that considers the status quo a heavenly blessing.

There is the Blackwater project to advance what might be called ‘world peace according to Erik Prince’ while UAE and DPI provide the diplomatic and commercial façades.

There is UK –guised as UNSOM—to guard the Soma Oil and Gas interest by any means necessary. It is mandated face that governs the Halane compound where a mishmash of the good, bad and ugly and their mercenaries are hosted. In their possession is the carrot and stick that boost or undermine security, at will.

There is the US. In addition to AFRICOM drone operations, the US runs routine covert operations in cooperation with a Somali counter-terrorism unit that is trained, paid, and commanded by the US. Though this was a thinly veiled secret, it entered into the public discourse on US’ controversial activities in Somalia since the recent killing of a Green Beret, and its role in Africa when four other Green Berets were killed in Niger a few months later.

This needless to say raised both media and congressional interests in the US clandestine operations in Africa. For years, AFRICOM has been effectively managing perception by offering ocean-cruise version of embedded journalism.

Against that backdrop it is extremely difficult to pinpoint who, or which combination, has triggered the latest wave of terroristic atrocities.

Knee-jerking Into the Oblivion

As usual, the government immediately reiterated its counter-terrorism motto: al-Shabab and ISIS have committed this atrocity. They are out to eradicate the Somali people, therefore, we should all join hands to fight them in their bloody swamps. We should wage an all-out war in many fronts and many regions and “I will be the first in the line”, said President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (Farmajo).

Never mind the fact that the terrorists—be they al-Shabab or one of the other clandestine candidates—are executing their deadly operations behind the roadblocks and barricades across Mogadishu. And never mind that the mightiest nation on the face of the earth could not defeat terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan in a conventional warfare involving hundreds of thousands of its best soldiers. President Farmajo declared a war and went off to solicit more military support from Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya and Djibouti to ‘defeat al-Shabab, once and for all.’

So How Does One Get Out Of This Mess?

In order to stabilize Somalia all pieces of the insecurity puzzle must be accounted for. In addition to al-Shabab’s suicidal vision, the ever-worsening security condition is driven by the interplay of the aforementioned domestic and foreign elements.

Somalia continues being a lucrative project of international appeal, a regional cash cow, and geopolitical pretext for exploitation and military expansion. Except the government which, in theory, is the guardian of the Somali national interest, all others are entrenched in advancing their zero-sum strategies and interests. Out of that condition emerged a deadly system of ‘a favor for a favor’ that keeps insecurity ever-present, but manageable.

The Somali people need and deserve more than a cosmetic accountability fix that is intended to cover the wrinkles of incompetence and corruption.

Somalia needs competent leadership that puts its national interest in its appropriate place; leadership that is mindful of the fact that security does not exist in vacuum; leadership with strategic vision who are mindful that genuine national reconciliation is essential to harmonizing hearts and minds; leadership with the political will to demand immediate overhaul of the current dysfunctional security system; leadership willing to demand streamlining the command & control of the intelligence sector; leadership that demands a front-door entry into Somalia and thoroughly vets to select the right strategic partnerships.

Unless and until these fundamental issues are addressed, neither Somalia nor its (official and unofficial) guests could be safe. Security would be nothing more than an extended respite between one terrorist attack and another.

Briefing Room

UPDATE: Somali authorities say troops rescue 32 children from “terrorist school”

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MOGADISHU, Jan 19 (Reuters) – Somali authorities said troops stormed a school run by al Shabaab on Thursday night and rescued 32 children who had been taken as recruits by the Islamist militant group.

“The 32 children are safe and the government is looking after them. It is unfortunate that terrorists are recruiting children to their twisted ideology,” Abdirahman Omar Osman, information minister for the Somali federal government, told Reuters on Friday.

“It showed how desperate the terrorists are, as they are losing the war and people are rejecting terror.”

Al Shabaab said government forces, accompanied by drones, had attacked the school in Middle Shabelle region. It said four children and a teacher were killed.

The Somali government said no children were killed in the rescue.

“They kidnapped the rest of the students,” said Abdiasis Abu Musab, al Shabaab’s military spokesman.

“Human Rights Watch is responsible for the deaths of the students and their teacher because it pointed fingers at them,” he added.

In a report this week, the New York-based rights group said that since September 2017, al Shabaab had ordered village elders, teachers in Islamic religious schools, and rural communities to hand over hundreds of children as young as eight.

The U.S. Africa Command said it had carried out an air strike on Thursday against al Shabaab targets 50 km (30 miles) northwest of Somalia’s port city of Kismayo, killing four militants. U.S. forces regularly launch such aerial assaults.

The al Shabaab militia, linked to al Qaeda, is fighting to topple the U.N.-backed Somali government and establish its own rule based on a strict interpretation of Islam’s sharia law.

Somalia has been plagued by conflict since the early 1990s, when clan-based warlords overthrew authoritarian ruler Mohamed Siad Barre then turned on each other.

In recent years, regional administrations headed by the Mogadishu-based federal government have emerged, and African Union peacekeepers supporting Somali troops have gradually clawed back territory from the Islamist insurgents.

(Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh; Writing by Clement Uwiringiyimana; Editing by Andrew Roche)

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Briefing Room

Somalia welcomes 41 nationals released from Indian jails, more to follow

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The Federal Government of Somalia on Friday welcomed home forty-one nationals who had been in Indian jails for piracy related offences.

The returnees were welcomed at the Mogadishu International Airport by Prime Minister Ali Hassan Khayre and other government officials.

A Voice of America journalist, Harun Maruf said the former detainees were released after negotiations between the two countries.

He added that: “They were part of 120 Somalis arrested by India navy after being suspected of involvement in piracy acts, some have served their jail terms.” Two of them are said to have died in prison.

The Prime Minister later wrote on Twitter that the government will continue to do all it takes to return Somalis languishing in jails outside the country. Reports indicate that 77 others will be freed in the coming months.

The Somali government in 2017 secured the release of over twenty of its nationals held in neighbouring Ethiopia’s jails.

The government was also instrumental in the release of a top Somali journalist who was jailed in Ethiopia.

The Mohammed Abdullahi Farmaajo government, however, attracted public outrage by handing over a Somali national to the Ethiopian government.

A move that was slammed by Somalis and by human rights groups who claimed Mogadishu had virtually handed him over to be tortured.

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US wary of Islamic extremism growth in Africa

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PENTAGON — With the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate almost completely retaken in Iraq and Syria, many American leaders are concerned the group might try to create a new hub elsewhere.

Islamic extremism creeps up in impoverished, politically disillusioned populations with masses of young, unemployed Muslims, and these conditions can be seen across the African continent.

“Africa is going to be the spot; it’s going to be the hot spot,” Congressman Michael McCaul, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a hearing last month.

In a letter sent to congressional leaders on Monday detailing counter-extremism efforts, President Donald Trump said his administration had placed a “particular focus” on the U.S. Central and Africa Commands’ areas of responsibility.

While tens of thousands of American troops are deployed to the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where U.S. Central Command oversees military operations, the entire African continent has less than half the number of American troops deployed in the single country of Afghanistan.

But increases in terrorist activity are among the reasons why American military presence has grown rapidly on the continent, from 3,200 military personnel in 2009 to some 6,500 military personnel today.

The bulk of U.S. military personnel in Africa, some 4,000 Americans, are based in Djibouti, home to the United States’ only military base on the continent. The second-largest concentration is in the Lake Chad Basin, where some 1,300 U.S. military personnel work in Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad to help strengthen local militaries and counter Boko Haram, al-Qaida, Islamic State and other extremist groups. About 500 U.S. military personnel are based in Somalia, where al-Shabaab terrorists are battling the U.N.-backed Somali government and Islamic State operates in mountainous areas of Puntland.

John Campbell, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007, is critical of the United States’ policy toward Africa.

“There is African concern that the U.S. approach is becoming rather more militarized, or more concerned with military and security issues than had been the case in the past,” he told VOA.

Campbell said he believes that the main thrust of American effort on the continent should be on the “root causes” of extremism — poor governance and lack of economic development. But this effort will likely prove more difficult if the State Department’s budget is slashed, as proposed by the Trump administration.

Ripe for recruitment

Africa’s growing young, male population is ripe for recruitment, Africa Command’s senior enlisted leader, Command Chief Master Sergeant Ramon Colon-Lopez told VOA in an exclusive interview.

“When you have no options and here comes an extremist that is offering you a motorbike and a bride, what do you think you’re going to do? Your family’s starving, you can’t provide for them and somebody’s giving you an option,” he said.

The Trump administration this year changed rules governing U.Smilitary operations in the area, expanding the ability to strike al-Shabab and IS fighters in the war-torn country of Somalia. The change allowed offensive strikes against the terrorists rather than limiting attacks to defending African allies and their American advisers on the ground. This matches a similar expansion of strike authorities this year against the Taliban in Afghanistan, where under President Barack Obama, the Taliban had to be in close proximity to Afghan National Security Forces before they could be targeted.

The new authorities have led to an increase in strikes in Somalia. The latest of the more than 30 U.S. strikes across the west African country this year came on Tuesday, taking out what U.S. military officials said was an al-Shabab car bomb planned for use in an attack in the capital, Mogadishu.

Colon-Lopez said the new authorities have “definitely” helped the counter-terrorism mission in Africa.

The U.S. has also used air strikes this year to target IS militants in Libya. Just last month, the U.S. and Niger reached an agreement permitting armed American military drones for use against jihadist terrorist groups in the African nation, according to a U.S. official. It is still unclear whether the drones in Niger will be used to carry out targeted strikes or solely as a defensive measure.

Special operations forces

In the past decade, Africa has also seen a vast expansion of U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF), elite military units that are specifically trained and use special weapons, and tactics.

In 2006, Special Operations Forces made up just 1 percent of U.S. military personnel. Today, there are about 1,200 Special Operations Forces deployed to Africa, or about 15 percent of the total deployed force, a U.S. military official told VOA on the condition of anonymity.

Their jobs range from short-term training to long-term partnering with African military units that place American troops in potentially dangerous locations.

That’s what happened in Niger in October, when four American soldiers died in an IS ambush, and in May, when a U.S. Navy SEAL died aiding Somali security forces against al-Shabaab.

“I worry about the outposts that have U.S. military members that are getting after this threat,” Colon-Lopez said. “I worry about them because we can see what happened out there when the enemy decides to overpower the United States of America.”

The number of times that U.S. troops are exposed to danger in Africa are rare, a U.S. military official told VOA, adding that Special Operations Forces limit their involvement with local partners because of the strong desire to find “African solutions to African problems.”

“Our role is more like preventative medicine in Africa than emergency surgery,” the military official said.

However, if the security need grows in the coming months, more Americans troops could find themselves in dangerous situations across the continent.

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