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Three tales of Mogadishu: violence, a booming economy … and now famine

A man takes a selfie in Mogadishu’s new Peace Park. Photograph: Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP

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Somalia’s capital is buzzing: estate agents thrive and it recently hosted a TedX conference. But Mogadishu is facing a fresh challenge as drought forces half a million people to seek aid. Jason Burke visits a growing camp on the outskirts

Somalia’s capital is buzzing: estate agents thrive and it recently hosted a TedX conference. But Mogadishu is facing a fresh challenge as drought forces half a million people to seek aid. Jason Burke visits a growing camp on the outskirts

A man takes a selfie in Mogadishu’s new Peace Park. Photograph: Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP

Friday afternoon and the light is low across the waves breaking on the long shore. Behind the pocked and pitted seafront promenade, hundreds of children play football among their shattered homes. This, the ruins of the old port area of Somalia’s Mogadishu, is the war-torn city of the news stories, books and films.

Less than a 10 minute drive away down a newly rebuilt double highway, the scene is very different: hundreds of young men and women stroll along the narrow band of sand left by the high tide; they paddle, swim and drink coffee or soft drinks in cafes. An ancient stretch limousine, hired out for weddings, noses through the traffic. Rickshaw drivers shout for fares.

“There are two sides to Mogadishu. The horrible side … and then there is this,” says Abdirahman Omar Osman Yarisow, Somalia’s newly appointed information minister, who is sitting at a table in the Beachview hotel on the famous Lido watching the relaxed Friday afternoon crowds.

There are few cities with contrasts as stark as those of Mogadishu. It is six years since the Islamic militants of al-Shabaab withdrew from streets battered by 20 years of incessant warfare. But daily violence is a reminder that the group remains a formidable threat if it is restricted to rural zones. Mortar shells kill children. Aid convoys are hit by roadside bombs. Politicians are shot dead in the street. Gunmen raid military camps and hotels while suicide bombers attack seafood restaurants on the Lido.

“The place next door got hit but nobody is bothered. We’re always busy. We don’t worry,” says Abdi Fata Jama, the 29-year-old manager of the Beachview hotel.

Despite the ongoing violence, the economy is growing, hundreds of expatriates are returning from the west or African nations, scores of colleges are opening to cater for the phenomenally young population and there is growing investment from the diaspora. Estate agents thrive. A two-storey house can cost nearly £100,000. Mogadishu just hosted a TedX conference.

In the centre of the city, a new Peace Park equipped with a bouncy castle, swings, a football pitch and benches is thronged at weekends and evenings when temperatures dip.

“Somalis are very brave, very resilient. No one can change when they are to die. So they ignore the problems … and the city is booming and moving on,” says Yarisow.

The aftermath of a blast in a market in Mogadishu in February, which killed more than a dozen people. Photograph: Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP

‘The situation is very fragile’

But Mogadishu, already one of the fastest growing cities in the world, is about to undergo another massive transformation that will bring another huge challenge.

Somalia’s arid countryside is facing famine – a consequence of the worst drought for 40 years and the ongoing insurgency. More than half a million people are already on the move, seeking food, water, shelter and medical care. Around 100,000 have already reached Mogadishu, with more arriving every day. Aid officials fear the numbers will rise if rains do not come next month, with a million people potentially seeking sanctuary in Somalia’s cities by the year’s end.

Such numbers may overwhelm efforts by the government and the international community. Save the Children, the international charity, are scaling up operations in Somalia to provide basic assistance to over 2 million people including 70,000 in Mogadishu. “The situation is very fragile,” says Hassan Noor, the country director. United Nations officials are planning a major distribution.

At one camp on the outskirts of Mogadishu, the scale of the problem is clear. Already home to around 6,000 people, the cramped lot of tents and shelters had received more than 700 new arrivals in two days earlier this month. Food provided by Save the Children is running out.

“We can’t cope. We’re short of shelter, staff for cooking, fuel, everything. These people have borrowed, begged or sold to get the funds to get here. They arrive with nothing. And they are weak. Some of the kids are dying on the road,” says Zara Ali Mahamud, the 29-year-old camp manager.

Barwako Aden Berda, who walked for three days to reach Mogadishu with her five-month-old twins and daughters aged eight and 10. Photograph: Jason Burke for the Guardian

Cholera and similar diseases are killing thousands in rural Somalia, and those fleeing remote villages can spread infection in cities too; 19 cases have been registered in the camp.

“There will be thousands [of people] coming in the next weeks. We need help. If it doesn’t come, it is simple: people will die,” says Mahamud.

The relief effort also suffers from the endemic violence. Al-Shabaab systematically targets international humanitarian workers. A convoy from the World Food Programme was hit by a roadside bomb near the camp’s entrance, a day after the Guardian’s visit.

The influx could upset the fragile process of reconstruction in Mogadishu, placing huge strains on the few basic services available to its 2 million inhabitants, and posing a long-term security threat.

Officials admit the areas around Mogadishu are a “no man’s land”, and say it is impossible for police or government officials to enter at least two neighbourhoods of the city known to be strongholds of support for al-Shabaab. Even the heavily defended international airport – where thousands of diplomats, United Nations staff and regional troops from the African Union stabilisation force are based – is frequently attacked.

Mogadishu is already struggling to absorb a previous influx from the countryside. Hundreds of thousands have moved to the city in recent years, many driven from their villages by the last famine in 2011. Most live in vast settlements, surviving on aid and odd jobs. Conditions are tough, and there are concerns that with huge numbers of young, unemployed, rootless men, such camps are fertile ground for extremism.

However, few contemplate returning home soon.

“There is no livestock, no food, so it’s very difficult. We would need a bulldozer to clear our land of trees and bush now. So we’ll stay here,” says 43-year-old Faduma Yusuf Gadi, from a small village nearly 250 miles from Mogadishu, who has lived with her six children in Shabelle camp for four years.

Experts say the example of other urban centres in Africa suggests the rapid growth of Mogadishu and other Somali cities could spur economic transformation – but only with careful management and a new infusion of international aid.

“The massive shift into urban areas can be an opportunity. It is the way of the future, it is what needs to be done to build a different economy, a different country. But that needs huge investment,” says Michael Keating, the UN special representative in Somalia.

The current appeal for funds to meet immediate humanitarian needs in Somalia aims to raise nearly $1bn (£770m). Keating believes a similar sum will be needed to cope with the consequences of the current crisis.

Yarisow, the information minister, grew up in Mogadishu. He returned in 2008 after many years in London, with much of the embattled city under the authority of al-Shabaab. That, he says, was “a bad time”.

“So much has changed. There is a huge difference. Now is the best time. We know the international community will help us, but basically it is up to Somalis to do this, and to do it on our own,” he says.

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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