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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.

Briefing Room

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



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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Somali News

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’



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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