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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.

Somali News

At least 14 dead, several hurt in car bomb in Somali capital



ABC — At least 14 people were killed and 10 others wounded in a car bomb blast near a hotel in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, Somali officials said Thursday.

Capt. Mohamed Hussein said the explosion occurred near the Weheliye hotel on the busy Makka Almukarramah road. The road has been a target of attacks in the past by the Somalia-based extremist group al-Shabab, the deadliest Islamic extremist group in Africa.

Most of the casualties were passers-by and traders, Hussein told The Associated Press. The toll of dead and wounded was announced by security ministry spokesman Abdulaziz Hildhiban.

Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the blast. The group frequently attacks Mogadishu’s high-profile areas such as hotels and military checkpoints. A truck bombing in October killed 512 people in the country’s deadliest-ever attack. Only a few attacks since 9/11 have killed more people. Al-Shabab was blamed.

Thursday’s blast comes almost exactly a month after two car bomb explosions in Mogadishu shattered a months-long period of calm in the city, killing at least 21 people.

The Horn of Africa nation continues to struggle to counter the Islamic extremist group. Concerns have been high over plans to hand over the country’s security to Somalia’s own forces as a 21,000-strong African Union force begins a withdrawal that is expected to be complete in 2020.

The U.S. military, which has stepped up efforts against al-Shabab in the past year with dozens of drone strikes, has said Somali forces are not yet ready.

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Terrorism Watch

Somali forces kill 32 Al-Shabaab fighters in central Somalia



MOGADISHU, March 17 (Xinhua) — Thirty-two Al-Shabaab militants were killed in a fierce fighting with the Somali National Army (SNA) in the past 24 hours, Somali officials said on Saturday.

Ahmed Mohamed Teredisho, Somali Army Commander in Hiiraan region, told reporters that the fighting took place in Hiiraan region after armed Al-Shabaab members tried to impose taxes on villagers around Mahas town.

“We have killed 32 Al-Shabaab militants at an area about 28 km to Mahas town in Hiiraan region after heavy fighting with Al-Shabaab fighters. SNA soldiers were reinforced by locals to help fight the enemy in the region in the past 24 hours,” Teredisho said.

He did not disclose the number of soldiers or civilians injured in the latest fighting in central Somalia.

The locals said the government soldiers backed with villagers engaged in more than six hours of battle with the insurgents.

Al-Shabaab militants have not commented on the military victory claimed by the Somali government officials in the region.

A resident told Xinhua by phone that confrontation was first staged between locals and Al-Shabaab fighters and then Somali Army later joined to defeat the militants.

Meanwhile, Somali security officials said a roadside bomb has targeted a pickup vehicle carrying members of the security forces in the outskirts of Mogadishu.

The officials said on Saturday that a remote-controlled landmine struck the vehicle along the road between Mogadishu and Afgoye, injuring two security forces and a civilian.

The Saturday attacks by Al-Shabaab militants was the latest in series of improvised explosive device blasts targeting Somali and Africa Union mission troops on the key road linking Mogadishu to Afgoye district in the recent past.

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Briefing Room

US lists Shabaab’s leader in Kenya, wanted commander as global terrorists



The US State Department added Ahmad Iman Ali, the leader of Shabaab’s network in Kenya, and Abdifatah Abubakar Abdi, a dangerous Kenyan commander, to its list of Specially Designated Global terrorists on March 8. The two Shabaab leaders have fueled the group’s insurgency in Kenya and southern Somalia for the past decade and are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of civilians.

Ahmad Iman Ali

Ali was appointed by Shabaab to lead its group in Jan. 2012, just three days after the Muslim Youth Center (MYC) merged with Shabaab and announced that it was “part of al Qaeda East Africa.”

“Allah favours our beloved al Shabaab, and al Shabaab in return has placed the responsibility of waging jihad in Kenya in the capable Kenyan hands of our Amiir Sheikh Ahmad Iman Ali,” the MYC said when it announced that it joined Shabaab.

Additionally, the MYC said that Ali is following in the footsteps of “brother Fazul,” or Fazul Mohammed, the former leader of al Qaeda’s operations in East Africa who also served as a senior leader in Shabaab. Fazul was indicted along with Osama bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri, and other top al Qaeda leaders by the US government for his involvement in the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Somali troops killed Fazul at a checkpoint south of Mogadishu in June 2011.

Ali was a cleric for the Muslim Youth Center, and he has advocated for Muslims to wage jihad across the world.

“[If you] are unable to reach the land of jihad, the land of ribat, like the land of Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Algeria, or Iraq, if you are unable to reach these lands which have established the banner of tawheed and the Shariah of Allah, then raise your sword against the enemy that is closest to you,” Ali said when he was named to lead Shabaab’s operations in Kenya.

According to the MYC, Ali has fought in southern Somalia, where he led other Kenyans against Somali troops and African Union forces. State’s designation said that Ali is the “director of the group’s Kenyan operations, which has targeted Kenyan African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) troops in Somalia,”

According to State, Ali was responsible for the Jan. 2016 assault on a Kenyan base in El Adde, Somalia. The United Nations later found that “150 Kenyan soldiers were killed during the attack, making it the largest military defeat in Kenyan history.” Additionally, 11 kenyan soldiers were captured. [See LWJ reports, Shabaab overruns African Union base in southern Somalia and Kenyan soldier held hostage since Jan. 2016 appears in Shabaab video.]

In addition to serving as Shabaab’s leader in Kenya and its operational commander against Kenyan forces in southern Somalia, Ali is a propagandist, a recruiter who targets “poor youth in Nairobi slums,” and a fundraiser.

Abdifatah Abubakar Abdi

Abdi, who is also known as Musa Muhajir, leads a group of Kenyan jihadists who have been described by the Kenyan government as “bloodthirsty, armed and dangerous,” according to The Nation. In 2015, the government put him at the top of a list of wanted jihadists.

“He is believed to be planning further attacks at the Coast. He is currently in Boni Forest with his associates,” a Kenyan government report that detailed the activities of Abdi and other jihadists noted.

State noted that Abdi is “wanted in connection with the June 2014 attack in Mpeketoni, Kenya that claimed more than 50 lives.” Shabaab claimed the brutal attack and claimed it was carried out to punish Kenya for deploying troops to Somalia.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.

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