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.
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.