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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.

Crime

Kansas bomb plot trial drawing to a close as testimony ends

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WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — The trial of three men accused of plotting to bomb an apartment complex housing Somali refugees in western Kansas is drawing to a close after weeks of testimony.

All sides have rested in the federal case against Patrick Stein, Gavin Wright and Curtis Allen on charges of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and conspiracy against civil rights. Wright also faces a charge of lying to the FBI. The judge dismissed two weapons-related charges against Stein.

U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren plans a hearing on Monday to hash out the final jury instructions. Closing arguments are scheduled for Tuesday. The jury trial began March 20.

The three men were indicted in October 2016 on charges they planned set off bombs the day after the Presidential election.

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Terrorism Watch

In Somalia, Al Shabab Is Stronger Now Than in Years

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During the morning of April 1, 2018, a car drove up to an Ugandan army base in Bulamarer, Somalia, and blew up — the beginning of an Al Shabaab attack that, in combination with another suicide attack on a convoy of reinforcements, left at least 46 Ugandan soldiers dead.

The radical Islamist group has carried out many such attacks in recent months, which has put increased pressure on the Somali government and the African Union peacekeeping mission, AMISOM, which numbers some 22,000 troops from Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti and Burundi. In February, at least 18 people died in Mogadishu, the capital, in twin car bombings.

A recent analysis by Christopher Anzalone, a Ph.D. candidate of Islamic Studies at McGill University, concludes that the militant and terror group is possibly — now — in one of its strongest positions in years given its increasing willingness to launch bolder attacks while penetrating into Mogadishu with bombings and assassinations. Anzalone’s article is available at CTC Sentinel, the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point’s monthly journal.

Al Shabab also has a cohesive and adaptable organization with dedicated military, governing and intelligence structures capable of rooting out spies, launching company-sized infantry operations and governing its limited territory.

U.S. air strikes — numbering more than 40 since 2016 — and commando raids, while successful in killing Al Shabab militants, may have also increased opposition to the Somali government, the U.S. military and the African Union in a country marked by local divisions characterized by tribal loyalties.

Case in point, in August 2017, a firefight between a joint U.S.-Somali force and Al Shabab reportedly resulted in the deaths of 10 civilians including children during a raid in Bariire. The U.S. military denied it killed any civilians in the raid. The Daily Beast later reported that U.S. commandos fired on unarmed civilians, and placed weapons seized during the raid next to the bodies of slain civilians before photographing them.

“Different parts of the government’s security forces … rely on the control of lucrative checkpoints and the fees and bribes they can charge civilians,” Anzalone writes, “and they have engaged in gun battles over these checkpoints and regular protests decrying the government’s failure to pay them.”

Somalia lacks a true national army, which is more akin to a coalition of local tribal forces. The Somali government’s own pronouncements of Al Shabab’s failings cannot be taken at face value, according to Tricia Bacon writing separately for War on the Rocks. “There are questions about the reported surge in defections, with well-connected sources privately telling me that the Somali security services are hyping this trend to stoke dissension within Al Shabab,” Bacon writes.

U.S. air strikes and ground raids have not, at the least, stopped Al Shabaab.

“While airstrikes have taken a significant toll on al-Shabaab, including the targeted killings of senior leaders and administrators,” Anzalone adds, “and despite claims made in late January by a senior African Union official that drone attacks were ‘wiping out Al Shabab in good numbers’ the insurgents continued throughout 2017 to be able to assemble large forces of fighters and launch major attacks on AMISOM and Somali government bases.”

Fortunately, the Islamic State’s affiliate in Somalia, primarily base in Puntland, is small and appears disorganized compared to Al Shabab — which emerged out of the Islamic Courts Union and which controlled Mogadishu for a brief period in 2006.

To defeat both groups, however, the Somali government will need to substantially improve its own armed forces — marred as they are with corruption — along with the political and economic relationship with the country’s states.

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Briefing Room

Shabab says it killed Ugandan peacekeepers in Somalia

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NYTIMES — NAIROBI, Kenya — Islamist militants in Somalia carried out multiple coordinated attacks against African Union peacekeeping forces on Sunday, and claimed to have killed at least 59 Ugandan soldiers.

Ceaser Olweny, a spokesman for the Ugandan peacekeepers, said four soldiers had been killed, and six wounded.

The Shabab, a Somali terrorist group affiliated with Al Qaeda, made the attacks on three military bases and two Somali government outposts in the Lower Shabelle region, a Shabab stronghold near Mogadishu, the country’s capital.

Mr. Olweny said the attacks were coordinated.

Somali officials confirmed the attacks to the local news media.

“The number of casualties, and whether or not the dead were combatants, is used by all sides for propaganda and political objectives,” Abukar Arman, an analyst and former Somalia special envoy to the United States, said from Columbus, Ohio.

The attacks began on Sunday morning when two car bombs exploded outside the African Union base in the town of Bulo Mareer, 100 miles southwest of Mogadishu, according to Abdifatah Haji Abdulle, the deputy commissioner of Lower Shabelle.

The car bombs destroyed one African Union vehicle and one Somali government vehicle, according to Maj. Farah Osman of the Somali Army, who is stationed near the base.

“Then a large number of Al Shabab fighters began firing from under the trees,” Mr. Osman told Reuters. “It was a hellish battle.”

The Shabab claimed to have killed dozens of peacekeepers in the hourslong firefight, but the group is known to exaggerate such figures.

Mr. Olweny said soldiers in the African Union peacekeeping mission, known as Amisom, had killed 30 Shabab militants during the attacks. The Shabab said only 14 of its members had died.

Amisom has steadily pushed the Shabab out of major towns, but the group controls large sections of rural territory. It frequently targets Amisom bases and Somali government institutions — attacks that have intensified recently, even as American strikes against the group have increased.

The United States Africa Command, which cooperates with Somalia’s national military and security agencies, carried out nearly three dozen drone strikes against the Shabab last year.

The Amisom peacekeeping force was first deployed in Somalia in 2007. More than 20,000 soldiers and police officers from six countries serve in the mission, including more than 6,000 from Uganda.

The African Union plans to gradually withdraw its troops from the country and to hand over security operations to the Somali Army by 2020.

Hussein Mohamed contributed reporting from Mogadishu, Somalia.

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