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Terrorism Watch

Trump launched a record number of airstrikes in 2017 in a more muscular version of Obama’s counterterrorism strategy

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The United States launched a record number of airstrikes in Yemen and Somalia in 2017, and more importantly has reinitiated the targeting of terrorists in Pakistan and Libya.

The pattern of operations in 2017 in what the Obama administration used to call areas “outside of active hostilities” (or active war zones such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria) indicated that the US will continue the reinvigorated air campaign in these theaters in the coming years.

The increased targeting of jihadists in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya provides proof that the Obama administration strategy to defeat terrorist groups in these countries with airpower and limited support to local governments has failed.

The US has targeted Shabaab in Yemen since 2007 and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula since 2009, yet both of these al Qaeda branches maintain a robust insurgency and continue to control territory to this day.

FDD’s Long War Journal tracked airstrikes in Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and Pakistan from publicly available press releases and inquiries with the relevant combatant commands as well as from press reports.

Strikes in areas of active hostilities, in which the United States is directly engaged, such as Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, are not included.

Based 2017 data, the Trump administration appears to be conducting a more muscular version of President Obama’s targeted counterterrorism strategy. The Trump administration has loosened rules of engagement and has restored many decision making authorities to the military.

Nearly one year after Trump ramped up the targeting of al Qaeda and the Islamic State, both group maintain potent insurgencies.

Increased activity in Somalia and Yemen

The Trump administration’s beefed up counterterrorism operations is most apparent in Yemen and Somalia. In 2017, the United States launched 35 airstrikes in Somalia and more than 120 strikes in Yemen. The total number of strikes conducted in Yemen were more than the previous four years combined.

Strikes in Somalia in 2017 outnumber the combined strikes of the entire previous air campaign, which began in 2007.

The sharp increase in strikes in Somalia can be partly explained by a new green light to attack. In late March, the Trump administration loosened the restrictions on the US military to use force against Shabaab, following Department of State and Defense assessments of the enhanced Shabaab threat.

In 2016, Shabaab leveraged its safe haven to expand areas under its control and threaten African Union and Somali forces, overrunning bases in southern Somalia.

Initial targeting of the Islamic State group in Somalia and Yemen

While the targeting of al Qaeda’s branches in Somalia and Yemen has greatly expanded, a new threat has emerged over the past year: the rival Islamic State. The United States has began targeting the Islamic State’s forces in Somalia and Yemen for the first time this year.

In Nov. 2017, the United States launchedits first strikes against the Islamic State in Somalia. So far, every strike against the Islamic State in Somalia occurred in Somalia’s semi-autonomous region of Puntland, where the jihadist group has a foothold.

The Islamic State briefly controlled Qandala, a Puntland port, late last year.

In Oct. 2017, the United States conducted its first strikes against Islamic State in Yemen, killing “dozens” of members at a training camp. Likewise, every strike has taken place in Yemen’s Bayda governorate.

The Pentagon claims there is no link between the initial targeting of Islamic State in Somalia and Yemen and the group’s loss of its “capital” in Raqqa, Syria.

US renews counterterrorism activities in Pakistan and Libya

While increased US activity in Yemen and Somalia is readily apparent, the renewed counterterrorism efforts in Pakistan and Libya has largely gone under the radar.

At first glance, comparing strike totals in Pakistan and Libya from 2017 to previous years may appear to indicate a reduction in counterterrorism activity in these theaters. However, the opposite is true.

In Pakistan, where the drone campaign began in 2004 under the Bush administration, the US conducted eight strikes in 2017, a sharp difference from previous highs, including a peak of 117 in 2010. The Obama administration decreased strikes in Pakistan as it sought to wind down the war in Afghanistan and counterterrorism operations in Pakistan.

The Obama administration justified the reduction of strikes in Pakistan by incorrectly claiming al Qaeda’s “core” in South Asia has been decimated.

However, under the Trump administration, the 2017 total in Pakistan more than doubled from the previous year (three strikes). There was a 10-month hiatus in strikes between the last in 2016, which killed the Taliban’s previous emir, Mullah Mansour, and the next in Pakistan, which took place on March 2, 2017.

Most of the strikes in Pakistan in 2017 targeted prominent jihadists from al Qaeda and the Taliban, including: Abu Bakar Haqqani, Abdul Raheem, and Qari Abdullah Subari.

President Trump has called out Pakistan for continuing to provide safe haven for jihadist groups such as the Taliban, which in turn supports al Qaeda and other global terrorist groups.

The administration has also sought to re-engage Pakistan to end its support for friendly jihadist groups and has limited the number of strikes in Pakistan in order to reduce tensions.

But after Trump called out Pakistan on New Year’s Day for providing “safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan” and saying “33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years” has “given us nothing but lies & deceit,” it can be expected that the US will resume targeting jihadists with increased zeal in 2018.

When comparing strike data in Libya from 2016 to 2017, the numbers appear to show that they have dropped precipitously, from 497 in 2016 to 12.

However, all but two of the strikes in Libya took place under the aegis of Operation Odyssey Lightning, the US air operation which enabled Libyan Government of National Accord forces to recapture Sirte.

The Obama administration declared during Operation Odyssey Lightning that Libya was an area of “active hostilities,” thus those strikes took place in what was essentially an active war zone. The 12 strikes in 2017 were all counterterrorism strikes.

Transparency suffers

Transparency with regards to available information on these strikes, however, suffered in 2017. The US military has released very few details about US strikes against AQAP in Yemen this year.

Of the more than 114 strikes against AQAP in Yemen, CENTCOM has only provided details on four, all of which involved high value targets. Some of the airstrikes may have been close air support to a Yemeni and coalition offensive to clear Shabwah from AQAP during the summer of 2017, which US Special Forces supported.

Even in jurisdictions with more robust reporting, the Trump administration has continued to use Obama-era terms to conceal direct combat operations.

Throughout 2017, AFRICOM reported a number of “self-defense strikes” against Shabaab in Somalia, a euphemism for close air support for offensive operations. American air power often facilitates offensive raids against Shabaab positions and training camps deep within territory controlled by the group.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal. Alexandra Gutowski is a military affairs analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Somali News

Report: Al-Shabab Conscripting Children Young as 8

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A new report says Somalia’s al-Shabab militants are forcing rural communities to hand over children as young as 8 years old for indoctrination and military training.

Human Rights Watch says al-Shabab conscripts the children by subjecting elders and religious school teachers to beatings, abductions and intimidation tactics. The group’s campaign has focused on the Bay region in southwestern Somalia, where communities were already ravaged by droughts and years of conflict, according to the report from the international rights group.

The campaign was first reported by VOA’s Somali service in September.

“These are communities which have already been hit by drought, very poor, struggling to survive,” said Laetitia Bader, a senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch who interviewed families affected by the campaign, which began in late September 2017.

Bader says in some incidents, al-Shabab militants have taken children directly from school classrooms. In others, the group took local elders hostage and refused to release them until a village agreed to hand over a certain number of kids.

In one incident, al-Shabab fighters beat a teacher after he refused to hand over his students. One teacher said that when he was hit by the militants, students started crying and tried to run out of the classroom but the militants were on hand to punish them. “They caned a 7-year-old boy who tried to escape,” the teacher told HRW.

HRW says hundreds of children have been affected. In one village alone, al-Shabab abducted at least 50 boys and girls from two schools near Burhakaba town and took them to Bulo Fulay where the militant group runs schools and a major training facility.

Back in September, Bay region Governor Ali Wardhere Doyow said clans and elders should resist al-Shabab. “Reject, don’t let them take away your children. Fight it off,” he said. But al-Shabab dominates the Bay region, leaving government officials with little means to stop the conscription.

The campaign has prompted hundreds of children to flee areas controlled by Al-Shabab. “A community’s only option to protect their children from recruitment was to send them into government controlled towns, often on their own, just to see if they can get a bit more protection in those towns,” Bader says.

This is hardly the first time al-Shabab has been accused of recruiting children. “We have seen in the past very young children sent to the front line, some children as young as 9 years old, very much being used as a cannon fodder …right at front lines during the fighting in Mogadishu 2010 and 2011 and more recently the large scale offensive in Puntland in 2016,” Bader said.

Al-Shabab’s longer term plan, Bader says, is to train at least some of them as fighters.

“What appears to be part of this campaign is to get these children to go to al-Shabab-managed, controlled madrassas, to put them through their educational system,” she said, adding, “In some cases there is a link children growing in these schools and then being sent to military training. Research also showed children received a mixture of indoctrination and basic military training.”

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Terrorism Watch

Somali Jihadist Killed in Syria

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VOA — A leading Somaliland politician says his son, who joined the Islamic State militant group five years ago, was killed in Syria.

Faysal Ali Warabe, leader of the UCID party who ran for president of the self-declared republic during the November 13 election, says his son — Hussein Faysal Ali Warabe — was killed in an airstrike.

Hussein, also known as Abu Shuaib As-Somali, joined the militant group in 2013, along with his wife.

“We learned the news of his death yesterday [Saturday],” Warabe told VOA Somali. “His wife sent a recorded message via WhatsApp saying he was killed on Dec. 29.”

Warabe did not say where son was killed but says his family assumed he had left Raqqa safely. IS was pushed out of its former capital of Raqqa last year.
“There was no fighting in the area he was staying, so it will have been an airstrike that killed him,” he said.

Asked how his son arrived in Syria, Warabe said he had traveled there from Finland where he was a citizen. But it was in Somaliland where he first tried to travel to Syria in 2013. Warabe said Hussein also tried to travel to Yemen the same year but was stopped by Somaliland authorities because his passport was nearing expiration.

“He tried to travel to Garowe [Puntland] to obtain a Somali passport, which he could use to get a visa from Ethiopia. But he was intercepted in Las Anod,” Warabe said. “We deported him to Finland. We told them [Finnish authorities] not to renew his passport. We told them he was a travel risk. But they said he didn’t commit any crime, so he got a passport. And three months later, he traveled to Syria via Turkey.”

Warabe said his son was planning to leave Syria with his wife and two children after realizing that joining IS was a “mistake.”

“We were expecting him to come our way. He spoke to his mum and siblings on Dec. 24. We were expecting him to contact us from Turkey,” he said.
Warabe said the family contacted the Finnish embassy in Turkey about their son’s intentions to leave Syria. Finnish authorities could not be reached for comment.

Over the years, a number of Somali jihadists have joined IS, but nearly all of them traveled from western countries, including the United States, Canada and Europe.

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KENYA

Somali militants “lecture” frightened Kenyan villagers before escaping

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LAMU, Kenya, Jan. 14 (Xinhua) — About 100 Somali Al-Shabaab militants on Sunday stormed a village in Kenya’s coastal Lamu region where they “lectured” frightened villagers.

The militants flushed out Ishakani villagers from their houses and preached to them radical teachings at the border village between Kenya and Somalia.

According to witnesses living in Ishakani, the militants joined other Muslim faithful for prayers in the mosque in which they lectured them before escaping into Somalia.

Lamu County Commissioner Gilbert Kitiyo confirmed the incident on Sunday evening, saying that they got information and sent officers to pursue the militants.
Kitiyo confirmed that a group of between 60 to 100 suspected Al-Shabaab militants invaded Ishakani village on Sunday.

“However, within 30 minutes, we had already sent out a special team of KDF (Kenya Defence Forces) to pursue the terrorists. Our officers are pursuing the criminals who suspected that our security team must be following them,” Kitiyo said.

The government official reiterated that the national government is aware of the militants’ threats and are working towards weeding out the Al-Shabaab group from Boni forest which he said continues to be their base of operations.

He further said that KDF from the local camp together with the special squad are hunting down the militants in Boni forest.

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