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Trump’s offensive to ‘wipe out’ al-Shabaab threatens more pain for Somalis

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The Guardian — A new US-backed military offensive against Islamist militants in Somalia could undermine the massive international effort to help millions of people threatened by the worst drought there in more than 40 years, aid officials in the unstable east African state fear.

More than £50m has been raised by individual donors in the UK and the British government has contributed another £110m to help avert hundreds of thousands of deaths in Somalia. More than six million people there are in need of immediate assistance, with half of them facing famine.

British officials in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, said that the effort was “unprecedented”. The UN target of raising $835m (£654m) has largely been met, raising hopes that a repeat of the tragedy of the 2011 famine, which killed 250,000 people in the country, will be averted. However, aid workers in Somalia warn that any significant offensive, especially if accompanied by the use of air power, could have a devastating effect on relief operations.

“Increased belligerence from some international and national actors is not going to help us … if things deteriorate as a result of military effort, that will be man-made,” said Peter de Clercq, the United Nations’ deputy special representative of the secretary-general in Somalia. “We have argued very strongly that this is not the time for military action.”

Other senior aid officials spoke of a “nightmare scenario” of widespread fighting in the middle of a humanitarian crisis. “It would be a catastrophe … and could totally undermine everything that is being done to save lives,” said one official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of his organisation’s operations in the country.

But Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, the newly elected president of Somalia, and President Donald Trump have both signalled an imminent offensive against al-Shabaab, an Islamist extremist group allied to al-Qaida that controls much of the region worst hit by the drought.

Mohamed, a dual US-Somali national, pledged earlier this month to deliver on his campaign promise to rid his country of the group. At a press conference last month, he offered an amnesty to al-Shabaab militants who surrendered within 60 days, but warned the rest would “face the consequences … a new war”. Trump recently designated the country a “zone of active hostilities”, allowing commanders greater authority when launching airstrikes, broadening the range of possible targets and relaxing restrictions on the use of air power designed to prevent civilian casualties.

Ministers said that Mohamed’s decision to launch renewed action against al-Shabaab had been taken after talks with Washington.

“There has been close consultation with the two countries and our president has called a state of war,” said Abdirahman Yarisow, the Somali information minister. “We are very serious about trying to carry out military operations to wipe out al-Shabaab from the country. It is do-able, but needs lots of resources, commitment from our friends and allies, and discipline.”

Trump has also authorised the deployment of regular US forces to Somalia for the first time since 1994. The US in effect pulled out of Somalia after 1993, when two helicopters were shot down in Mogadishu and the bodies of American soldiers were dragged through the streets.

The US president has said that defeating radical Islamist terror groups is the “highest priority” of his administration, and that the US “will pursue aggressive joint and coalition military operations when necessary”.

Al-Shabaab has not been implicated in any plots to strike the US or Europe, but has carried out several high-profile terror attacks in the region and has attracted recruits from the US as well as Europe. Even before he took power, Trump’s advisers asked State Department officials dealing with east Africa why, after years of effort, the war against al-Shabaab had not been “won”.

Mohamed has promised voters he would wipe out the movement within two years. Yarisow said: “All this … will give us an opportunity with our allies and friends to really target al-Shabaab from the air, and for our federal forces and [the regional military forces in Somalia] to take advantage.”

Millions of those needing emergency assistance to avoid starvation live in areas controlled by al-Shabaab. These zones are likely to bear the brunt of any new fighting. The timing of military action is likely to concern some US allies, too. Senior officials in Britain’s Department for International Development and the Foreign Office favour low-level negotiations with al-Shabaab to allow access to drought-hit areas, minutes of recent meetings seen by the Observer show. This would almost certainly be jeopardised by any serious fighting.

Violence is already a major obstacle to humanitarian relief in Somalia, with more than 100 killed in terrorist attacks in Mogadishu this year, and daily ambushes of government or international forces by al-Shabaab. Last week aid workers from the World Food Programme and the United Arab Emirates were targeted in two separate attacks on the outskirts of the capital.

More than 50 al-Shabaab fighters were reported killed last month by Kenyan troops deployed in Somalia as part of Amisom, a regional stabilisation force of about 22,000 men.

Al-Shabaab, which does not allow most western organisations to enter territory it controls, dismissed the amnesty as a “fraud designed to please the west” and has promised to meet any offensive “with redoubled force”. The group currently allows people to leave its area of control to seek medical assistance, food and shelter – but there are fears that this could change.

“At the moment al-Shabaab is allowing freedom of movement, but the declaration of war was very badly timed. It may change the dynamic. The mortality rate could be massive,” said another aid official, who runs operations in Somalia for a major international NGO. “Our original hope and expectation was of a ceasefire. That would have given us a vital two to three months to reach two to three million people living in areas that are inaccessible.”
An offensive would be likely to rely heavily on US air power and possibly special forces. Military and counterterrorism advisers have been present in Somalia for several years, working with local forces. A small unit of special forces has participated in raids on al-Shabaab.

Such troops would play a vital role in any renewed fighting. The Amisom stabilisation force has shown little appetite for major operations against al-Shabaab in recent years and has suffered significant casualties in attacks by the group.

The US has steadily intensified its war in Somalia. According to data compiled by the thinktank New America, there have been 41 strikes by US forces in Somalia since 2003, with al-Shabaab a target since 2008. The number of drone strikes has risen sharply since 2015. A single drone strike last year killed an estimated 150 al-Shabaab fighters.

Briefing Room

U.S. says fresh drone strike in Somalia kills “several” Al-Shabaab militants

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Samuel Chamberlain

The US Africa Command announced the U.S. military conducted another airstrike in Somalia on Tuesday killing ‘several militants’ belonging to the terrorist group, al-Shabaab.

A defense official tells Fox that a drone carried out the strike 60 miles northwest of the capital, Mogadishu. The U.S. military has carried out airstrikes for six consecutive days in Somalia beginning last Thursday, killing over 45 al-Shabaab and ISIS fighters.

A spokeswoman from U.S. Africa Command tells Fox News it is not immediately clear if any more strikes have been launched Wednesday.

Earlier this month the US launched the first airstrikes against ISIS in Somalia. Last month, the U.S. conducted its first strikes against ISIS in Yemen, days after the ISIS so-called capital in Raqqa, Syria crumbled.

There have been roughly 30 airstrikes in Somalia in 2017 after President Trump authorized the military to begin conducting offensive airstrikes against terrorists groups in Somalia.

The rise of airstrikes in Somalia and Yemen coincides with more bombs being dropped in Afghanistan as thousands of American troops arrive to ramp up the fight against the Taliban.

The U.S. has dropped twice as many bombs on the Taliban and an ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan this year than all of last year, according to a new report from the U.S. Air Force.

As the ISIS fight in Iraq and Syria winds down, more jets are being tasked to conduct strikes in Afghanistan. The U.S.-led air wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan are run out of the same operations center on a base in Qatar.

There are roughly 400 US troops on the ground in Somalia. In May, a Navy SEAL was killed fighting al-Shabaab, the first US combat death in Somalia since the “Black Hawk Down” incident in 1993.

“Al-Shabaab has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and is dedicated to providing safe haven for terrorist attacks throughout the world. Al-Shabaab has publicly committed to planning and conducting attacks against the U.S. and our partners in the region,” said US Africa Command in a statement.

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Newly released video footage shows seconds before the Oct. 14th suicide truck explosion happened 

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Terrorism Watch

US-targeted ISIS in Somalia could be a ‘significant threat’

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Mogadishu – The Islamic State group’s growing presence in Somalia could become a “significant threat” if it attracts fighters fleeing collapsing strongholds in Syria and Iraq, experts say, and already it seems to be influencing local al-Shabaab extremists to adopt tactics like beheadings.

The US military this month carried out its first drone strikes against ISIS fighters in Somalia, raising questions about the strength of the group that emerged just two years ago. A second strike targeted the fighters on Sunday, with the US saying “some terrorists” were killed.

The Islamic State group burst into public view in Somalia late last year as dozens of armed men seized the port town of Qandala in the northern Puntland region, calling it the seat of the “Islamic Caliphate in Somalia.” They beheaded a number of civilians, causing more than 20 000 residents to flee, and held the town for weeks until they were forced out by Somali troops, backed by US military advisers.

Since then, ISIS fighters have stormed a hotel popular with government officials in Puntland’s commercial hub of Bossaso and claimed their first suicide attack at a Bossaso security checkpoint.

This long-fractured Horn of Africa nation with its weak central government already struggles to combat al-Shabaab, an ally of al-Qaeda, which is blamed for last month’s truck bombing in the capital, Mogadishu, that killed more than 350 in the country’s deadliest attack.

The Trump administration early this year approved expanded military operations in Somalia as it puts counterterrorism at the top of its Africa agenda.

The US military on Sunday told The Associated Press it had carried out 26 airstrikes this year against al-Shabaab and now the Islamic State group.

For more than a decade, al-Shabaab has sought a Somalia ruled by Islamic Shariah law. Two years ago, some of its fighters began to split away to join the Islamic State group. Some small pro-ISIS cells have been reported in al-Shabaab’s southern Somalia stronghold, but the most prominent one and the target of US airstrikes is in the north in Puntland, a hotbed of arms smuggling and a short sail from Yemen.

The ISIS fighters in Puntland are now thought to number around 200, according to a UN report released this month by experts monitoring sanctions on Somalia. The experts traveled to the region and interviewed several imprisoned ISIS extremists.

The UN experts documented at least one shipment of small arms, including machine guns, delivered to the Islamic State fighters from Yemen. “The majority of arms supplied to the ISIL faction originate in Yemen,” ISIS defectors told them.

A phone number previously used by the ISIS group’s US-sanctioned leader, Abdulqadir Mumin, showed “repeated contact” with a phone number selector used by a Yemen-based man who reportedly serves as an intermediary with senior ISIS group leaders in Iraq and Syria, the experts’ report says.

While the Islamic State group in Somalia has a small number of foreign fighters, the Puntland government’s weak control over the rural Bari region where the ISIS group is based “renders it a potential haven” for foreign ISIS fighters, the report says.

The ISIS group’s growing presence brought an angry response from al-Shabaab, which has several thousand fighters and holds vast rural areas in southern and central Somalia, in some cases within a few dozen miles of Mogadishu.

Al-Shabaab arrested dozens of members accused of sympathising with the Islamic State faction and reportedly executed several, according to an upcoming article for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point by the center’s Jason Warner and Caleb Weiss with the Long War Journal.

Civilians in areas under al-Shabaab control have suffered. “Possibly in response to the growing prominence of ISIL, al-Shabaab imposed more violent punishments, including amputations, beheading and stoning, on those found guilty of spying, desertion or breaches of sharia law,” the new UN report says.

Some Somali officials say al-Shabaab has begun to de-escalate its hostility against the ISIS fighters as its initial concerns about rapid growth have eased. Al-Shabaab has begun to see ISIS in Somalia as a supplementary power that could help its fight against Puntland authorities, said Mohamed Ahmed, a senior counterterrorism official there.

Officials also believe that the Islamic State group has difficulty finding the money to expand. Its fighters are paid from nothing to $50 a month, the UN report says.

“For them, getting arms is a lot easier than funds because of the tight anti-terrorism finance regulations,” said Yusuf Mohamud, a Somali security expert.

For now, no one but al-Shabaab has the ability to carry out the kind of massive bombing that rocked Mogadishu last month. For the Puntland-based ISIS fighters to even reach the capital, they would have to pass numerous checkpoints manned by Somali security forces or al-Shabaab itself.

That said, two Islamic State fighters who defected from al-Shabaab and were later captured told the UN experts they had received airline tickets from Mogadishu to Puntland’s Galkayo as part of the ISIS group’s “increasingly sophisticated recruitment methods,” the UN report says.

Scenarios that could lead to ISIS fighters gaining power include the weakening of al-Shabaab by the new wave of US drone strikes, a new offensive by the 22 000-strong African Union force in Somalia or al-Shabaab infighting, says the upcoming article by Warner and Weiss.

On the other hand, “it is a strong possibility that given the small size of the cells and waning fortunes of Islamic State globally, the cells might collapse entirely if their leadership is decapitated.”

That’s exactly what the US military’s first airstrikes against the Islamic State fighters this month were aiming to do, Somali officials told the AP. The US says it is still assessing the results.

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