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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



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

At least 14 dead, several hurt in car bomb in Somali capital



ABC — At least 14 people were killed and 10 others wounded in a car bomb blast near a hotel in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, Somali officials said Thursday.

Capt. Mohamed Hussein said the explosion occurred near the Weheliye hotel on the busy Makka Almukarramah road. The road has been a target of attacks in the past by the Somalia-based extremist group al-Shabab, the deadliest Islamic extremist group in Africa.

Most of the casualties were passers-by and traders, Hussein told The Associated Press. The toll of dead and wounded was announced by security ministry spokesman Abdulaziz Hildhiban.

Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the blast. The group frequently attacks Mogadishu’s high-profile areas such as hotels and military checkpoints. A truck bombing in October killed 512 people in the country’s deadliest-ever attack. Only a few attacks since 9/11 have killed more people. Al-Shabab was blamed.

Thursday’s blast comes almost exactly a month after two car bomb explosions in Mogadishu shattered a months-long period of calm in the city, killing at least 21 people.

The Horn of Africa nation continues to struggle to counter the Islamic extremist group. Concerns have been high over plans to hand over the country’s security to Somalia’s own forces as a 21,000-strong African Union force begins a withdrawal that is expected to be complete in 2020.

The U.S. military, which has stepped up efforts against al-Shabab in the past year with dozens of drone strikes, has said Somali forces are not yet ready.

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Terrorism Watch

Somali forces kill 32 Al-Shabaab fighters in central Somalia



MOGADISHU, March 17 (Xinhua) — Thirty-two Al-Shabaab militants were killed in a fierce fighting with the Somali National Army (SNA) in the past 24 hours, Somali officials said on Saturday.

Ahmed Mohamed Teredisho, Somali Army Commander in Hiiraan region, told reporters that the fighting took place in Hiiraan region after armed Al-Shabaab members tried to impose taxes on villagers around Mahas town.

“We have killed 32 Al-Shabaab militants at an area about 28 km to Mahas town in Hiiraan region after heavy fighting with Al-Shabaab fighters. SNA soldiers were reinforced by locals to help fight the enemy in the region in the past 24 hours,” Teredisho said.

He did not disclose the number of soldiers or civilians injured in the latest fighting in central Somalia.

The locals said the government soldiers backed with villagers engaged in more than six hours of battle with the insurgents.

Al-Shabaab militants have not commented on the military victory claimed by the Somali government officials in the region.

A resident told Xinhua by phone that confrontation was first staged between locals and Al-Shabaab fighters and then Somali Army later joined to defeat the militants.

Meanwhile, Somali security officials said a roadside bomb has targeted a pickup vehicle carrying members of the security forces in the outskirts of Mogadishu.

The officials said on Saturday that a remote-controlled landmine struck the vehicle along the road between Mogadishu and Afgoye, injuring two security forces and a civilian.

The Saturday attacks by Al-Shabaab militants was the latest in series of improvised explosive device blasts targeting Somali and Africa Union mission troops on the key road linking Mogadishu to Afgoye district in the recent past.

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Briefing Room

US lists Shabaab’s leader in Kenya, wanted commander as global terrorists



The US State Department added Ahmad Iman Ali, the leader of Shabaab’s network in Kenya, and Abdifatah Abubakar Abdi, a dangerous Kenyan commander, to its list of Specially Designated Global terrorists on March 8. The two Shabaab leaders have fueled the group’s insurgency in Kenya and southern Somalia for the past decade and are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of civilians.

Ahmad Iman Ali

Ali was appointed by Shabaab to lead its group in Jan. 2012, just three days after the Muslim Youth Center (MYC) merged with Shabaab and announced that it was “part of al Qaeda East Africa.”

“Allah favours our beloved al Shabaab, and al Shabaab in return has placed the responsibility of waging jihad in Kenya in the capable Kenyan hands of our Amiir Sheikh Ahmad Iman Ali,” the MYC said when it announced that it joined Shabaab.

Additionally, the MYC said that Ali is following in the footsteps of “brother Fazul,” or Fazul Mohammed, the former leader of al Qaeda’s operations in East Africa who also served as a senior leader in Shabaab. Fazul was indicted along with Osama bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri, and other top al Qaeda leaders by the US government for his involvement in the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Somali troops killed Fazul at a checkpoint south of Mogadishu in June 2011.

Ali was a cleric for the Muslim Youth Center, and he has advocated for Muslims to wage jihad across the world.

“[If you] are unable to reach the land of jihad, the land of ribat, like the land of Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Algeria, or Iraq, if you are unable to reach these lands which have established the banner of tawheed and the Shariah of Allah, then raise your sword against the enemy that is closest to you,” Ali said when he was named to lead Shabaab’s operations in Kenya.

According to the MYC, Ali has fought in southern Somalia, where he led other Kenyans against Somali troops and African Union forces. State’s designation said that Ali is the “director of the group’s Kenyan operations, which has targeted Kenyan African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) troops in Somalia,”

According to State, Ali was responsible for the Jan. 2016 assault on a Kenyan base in El Adde, Somalia. The United Nations later found that “150 Kenyan soldiers were killed during the attack, making it the largest military defeat in Kenyan history.” Additionally, 11 kenyan soldiers were captured. [See LWJ reports, Shabaab overruns African Union base in southern Somalia and Kenyan soldier held hostage since Jan. 2016 appears in Shabaab video.]

In addition to serving as Shabaab’s leader in Kenya and its operational commander against Kenyan forces in southern Somalia, Ali is a propagandist, a recruiter who targets “poor youth in Nairobi slums,” and a fundraiser.

Abdifatah Abubakar Abdi

Abdi, who is also known as Musa Muhajir, leads a group of Kenyan jihadists who have been described by the Kenyan government as “bloodthirsty, armed and dangerous,” according to The Nation. In 2015, the government put him at the top of a list of wanted jihadists.

“He is believed to be planning further attacks at the Coast. He is currently in Boni Forest with his associates,” a Kenyan government report that detailed the activities of Abdi and other jihadists noted.

State noted that Abdi is “wanted in connection with the June 2014 attack in Mpeketoni, Kenya that claimed more than 50 lives.” Shabaab claimed the brutal attack and claimed it was carried out to punish Kenya for deploying troops to Somalia.

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

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