American troops will not take a frontline role against Al-Shabab militants in Somalia despite a recent loosening of the rules of engagement by President Donald Trump, the State Department’s acting deputy tells Newsweek.
Trump signed a directive in March designating part of Somalia as an “area of active hostilities,” making it easier for U.S. security advisers in the country to call in drone strikes against Al-Shabab, an Al-Qaeda affiliate that has recruited Americans and called for attacks in the West.
The Trump administration also recently sent several dozen regular U.S. troops to Somalia for the first time since the early 1990s. The United States suffered its first military casualty in more than 20 years on May 5, when a U.S. Navy SEAL, Kyle Milliken, was killed in a joint U.S.-Somali operation targeting Al-Shabab.
Thomas Shannon, Under Secretary of State and Acting Deputy to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, tells Newsweek that Milliken’s sacrifice is proof of how much importance Washington gives to peace in Somalia.
“Losing an American serviceman is a terrible thing under any circumstances, but our presence there and the fact that we’re prepared to make that sacrifice underscores how serious this is for us,” says Shannon, speaking exclusively to Newsweek on the sidelines of a global summit on Somalia in London.
Following Milliken’s death, a senior U.S. general in the military’s Africa command (AFRICOM) told The New York Times that the U.S. forces deployed were on an “advise, assist and accompany” mission and were operating alongside Somali troops, rather than behind them as suggested by the Pentagon. The mission was aborted after the troops came under fire from Al-Shabab; Milliken was killed, while two other U.S. personnel were injured. No Somali forces were injured.
But Shannon says that despite the broadening of military powers under Trump’s directive, U.S. forces remain in the background in Somalia. “I’m not going to go into the details of the mission, but advise and assist is sometimes from a distance and sometimes not,” he says.
Delegates from more than 40 countries gathered at the U.K.-hosted conference on Somalia Thursday to consolidate support for the Horn of Africa state. Civil war broke out in Somalia in the early 1990s, and the country has battled insurgency, drought and famine since.
British Prime Minister Theresa May opened the conference, which was also attended by heads of state from Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda; U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis led the American delegation.
Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, a U.S. dual national elected in February, says he held a bilateral meeting with Mattis at the London conference and that the United States has a crucial role to play in fighting Al-Shabab.
“We spoke [about] how the United States can be very helpful to eradicate and fight against Al-Shabab, and he’s very committed,” says Farmajo in response to a question from Newsweek at the conference. “The United States is really committed to help Somalia stand on its own feet.”
Prior to the recent deployment, the last batch of U.S. troops left Somalia in 1994 following the infamous Battle of Mogadishu, in which Somali militiamen shot down two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters and killed 18 U.S. soldiers.
U.S. counter-terrorism and security advisors have been present in Somalia for at least the past decade and have carried out at least 42 drone strikes since 2007, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
The expansion of military powers in Somalia authorized by Trump means that U.S. strikes will not be restricted by the same criteria as under the Obama administration, which required high-level interagency vetting to authorize attacks. Criteria under the previous U.S. administration included that strikes must target suspects that posed a threat to American interests and a near-certainty that civilian bystanders would not be killed. Up to 28 civilians have been killed in U.S. drone strikes in Somalia in the past decade, according to data from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
“We are only there in an advise and assist role; we are not doing the fighting. We will do the occasional drone strike, but on the ground it is the Somalis and AMISOM that are busy doing the fighting,” says Shannon.
He adds that the election of Farmajo signals an “opening” to exploit “fissures” in Al-Shabab. The Somali president announced a 60-day amnesty in April, calling upon Somalis who had been “misled” by Al-Shabab to disarm, and declaring war on those who failed to do so. At the London conference, Farmajo said that he had put a two-year timeframe on defeating the militants, who control much of the countryside in southern Somalia.
“What a two year deadline does is it focuses the president and his government, but it also requires the international community to focus, and that’s a good thing,” says Shannon.
Kansas bomb plot trial drawing to a close as testimony ends
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.
In Somalia, Al Shabab Is Stronger Now Than in Years
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.
Shabab says it killed Ugandan peacekeepers in Somalia
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.