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Terrorism Watch

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

US wary of Islamic extremism growth in Africa

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PENTAGON — With the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate almost completely retaken in Iraq and Syria, many American leaders are concerned the group might try to create a new hub elsewhere.

Islamic extremism creeps up in impoverished, politically disillusioned populations with masses of young, unemployed Muslims, and these conditions can be seen across the African continent.

“Africa is going to be the spot; it’s going to be the hot spot,” Congressman Michael McCaul, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a hearing last month.

In a letter sent to congressional leaders on Monday detailing counter-extremism efforts, President Donald Trump said his administration had placed a “particular focus” on the U.S. Central and Africa Commands’ areas of responsibility.

While tens of thousands of American troops are deployed to the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where U.S. Central Command oversees military operations, the entire African continent has less than half the number of American troops deployed in the single country of Afghanistan.

But increases in terrorist activity are among the reasons why American military presence has grown rapidly on the continent, from 3,200 military personnel in 2009 to some 6,500 military personnel today.

The bulk of U.S. military personnel in Africa, some 4,000 Americans, are based in Djibouti, home to the United States’ only military base on the continent. The second-largest concentration is in the Lake Chad Basin, where some 1,300 U.S. military personnel work in Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad to help strengthen local militaries and counter Boko Haram, al-Qaida, Islamic State and other extremist groups. About 500 U.S. military personnel are based in Somalia, where al-Shabaab terrorists are battling the U.N.-backed Somali government and Islamic State operates in mountainous areas of Puntland.

John Campbell, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007, is critical of the United States’ policy toward Africa.

“There is African concern that the U.S. approach is becoming rather more militarized, or more concerned with military and security issues than had been the case in the past,” he told VOA.

Campbell said he believes that the main thrust of American effort on the continent should be on the “root causes” of extremism — poor governance and lack of economic development. But this effort will likely prove more difficult if the State Department’s budget is slashed, as proposed by the Trump administration.

Ripe for recruitment

Africa’s growing young, male population is ripe for recruitment, Africa Command’s senior enlisted leader, Command Chief Master Sergeant Ramon Colon-Lopez told VOA in an exclusive interview.

“When you have no options and here comes an extremist that is offering you a motorbike and a bride, what do you think you’re going to do? Your family’s starving, you can’t provide for them and somebody’s giving you an option,” he said.

The Trump administration this year changed rules governing U.Smilitary operations in the area, expanding the ability to strike al-Shabab and IS fighters in the war-torn country of Somalia. The change allowed offensive strikes against the terrorists rather than limiting attacks to defending African allies and their American advisers on the ground. This matches a similar expansion of strike authorities this year against the Taliban in Afghanistan, where under President Barack Obama, the Taliban had to be in close proximity to Afghan National Security Forces before they could be targeted.

The new authorities have led to an increase in strikes in Somalia. The latest of the more than 30 U.S. strikes across the west African country this year came on Tuesday, taking out what U.S. military officials said was an al-Shabab car bomb planned for use in an attack in the capital, Mogadishu.

Colon-Lopez said the new authorities have “definitely” helped the counter-terrorism mission in Africa.

The U.S. has also used air strikes this year to target IS militants in Libya. Just last month, the U.S. and Niger reached an agreement permitting armed American military drones for use against jihadist terrorist groups in the African nation, according to a U.S. official. It is still unclear whether the drones in Niger will be used to carry out targeted strikes or solely as a defensive measure.

Special operations forces

In the past decade, Africa has also seen a vast expansion of U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF), elite military units that are specifically trained and use special weapons, and tactics.

In 2006, Special Operations Forces made up just 1 percent of U.S. military personnel. Today, there are about 1,200 Special Operations Forces deployed to Africa, or about 15 percent of the total deployed force, a U.S. military official told VOA on the condition of anonymity.

Their jobs range from short-term training to long-term partnering with African military units that place American troops in potentially dangerous locations.

That’s what happened in Niger in October, when four American soldiers died in an IS ambush, and in May, when a U.S. Navy SEAL died aiding Somali security forces against al-Shabaab.

“I worry about the outposts that have U.S. military members that are getting after this threat,” Colon-Lopez said. “I worry about them because we can see what happened out there when the enemy decides to overpower the United States of America.”

The number of times that U.S. troops are exposed to danger in Africa are rare, a U.S. military official told VOA, adding that Special Operations Forces limit their involvement with local partners because of the strong desire to find “African solutions to African problems.”

“Our role is more like preventative medicine in Africa than emergency surgery,” the military official said.

However, if the security need grows in the coming months, more Americans troops could find themselves in dangerous situations across the continent.

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KENYA

Five al Shabaab abductees on police radar after escaping from Somalia

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Security agencies are hunting for five al Shabaab abductees who escaped from cells in Somalia.

Sources within the security circles said the five were due to be executed by the militants for communicating with al Shabaab fugitive Ahmed Iman Ali.

They suspect the five have sneaked into the country to seek refuge from the terror group.

Ali, who was a vocal Al Shabaab propagandist, fell out with the leadership of the terror group in mid last year.

This was after several Kenyans were executed allegedly for over spying and leaking information to Ali and the Kenyan government.

Ali was against the executions as it targeted mostly Kenyan fighters, most of which he was responsible for their recruitment.

Read: Residents desert border village after al Shabaab attack, put up flag

The five militants, who are originally from Lamu and Malindi, are said to have been taken into custody towards the end of last year.

Reports indicated that Ali is seeking asylum from the government amid several attempts by al Shabaab to kill him.

Animosity and hatred has been rife within al Shabaab with intelligence reports indicating that Kenyans in the group are the most affected.

At stake is that local Somali fighters, who consider Kenyans as moles for the security agents, have isolated the Kenyan foreign fighters.

Al Shabaab has been fighting for years to try to topple Somalia’s central government and rule the Horn of Africa country in line with their interpretation of Islamic Law.

The terror group has in the past publicly executed Kenyans who they accuse of collaborating with the Kenyan troops.

Those killed in the last one year include former Moi University student Jared Mokaya Omambia, Faraj Abdulmajid, Ahmed Yusuf Hassan, Ahmed Nur Abdi Osoble, Abdullah Talal Musa, Hashim Othman Selali among many others.

The mistrust between the native Al Shabaab Somali fighters and other foreign fighters has also seen the eruption of several splinter factions emerging from the group.

The indigenous Somalis are in support of the establishment of ‘Somali only’ Al Shabaab group while foreign fighters have threatened to join a splinter group pledging their allegiance to the Islamic State.

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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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