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US-targeted ISIS in Somalia could be a ‘significant threat’

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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.

Briefing Room

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

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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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Briefing Room

Shabaab touts deadly raid on Somali military base

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Shabaab, al Qaeda’s branch in Somalia, recently detailed a deadly raid on a Somali military base near the southern port town of Kismayo that took place two months ago.
The assault, which took place on Sept. 2, left over 20 Somali military personnel dead, far more than Somali officials admitted to after the attack.

Shabaab detailed the attack in a video entitled “And Be Harsh Against Them.” The video, which was released today, includes dramatic footage of the nighttime assault which included a massive suicide car bombing, and Shabaab fighters entering the base, clashing with Somali soldiers, and executing survivors (note: elements of the video appear doctored; such as the muzzle flashes and some sound effects, however the video is authentic).

Shabaab’s strike on the Bala Gadud base began with its signature pattern, a large suicide car bombing to soften the perimeter before an assault team enters the fray.

The video shows the pre-dawn suicide bombing before turning to the actual raid on the base. At the time, Somali officials reported that at least 10 soldiers were killed in the attack. However, Shabaab claimed to have killed 26 soldiers. The video appears to confirm the larger number; as dozens of dead Somali soldiers are shown sprawled throughout the base. Shabaab fighters shoot any who appear to be alive.

The Somali army base seems to be relatively new. The HESCO barriers used to form the base’s perimeter are in good shape, and new US-supplied tents and orange tarps used to single the presence of friendly forces to Coalition air power are seen in the video.

Shabaab seized a large amount of weapons and equipment from the base, including mortars, machine guns, and AK-47s assault rifles. Toward the end of the video, Shabaab claimed that 16 members of the “apostate militias of Bala Gadud” defected to the jihadist group. Eleven captured Somali soldiers are then shown in front of Shabaab’s flag.

Archived speeches from Ayman al Zawahiri, Mukhtar Abu Zubayr, Adil al Abab, and Hamid al Hamidi are used throughout the video. The US killed Zubayr, Shabaab’s first emir, in an airstrike in 2014.
The latter two were senior leaders and ideologues of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula who were killed in a US drone strike in 2012 and executed by Saudi Arabia last year, respectively.

Shabaab has been resurgent in Somalia since losing ground to a combined African Union (AU) and Somali offensive in 2011. The jihadist group has slowly but methodically retaken several towns and villages that it lost in both central and southern Somalia – often after AU or Somali forces withdraw. In addition, it remains a potent threat against both African Union and Somali military bases in central and southern Somalia.

The al Qaeda branch also remains a serious danger inside northern Kenya, where it has undertaken several assaults and improvised explosive device attacks and even upping its operational tempo there this year.

At the same time, it retains the capabilities to strike in heavily-secured areas of Mogadishu and conduct attacks like the October 14 suicide bombing that killed over 300 people. According to data compiled by FDD’s Long War Journal, Shabaab has also conducted at least 40 car bombings in Mogadishu so far this year.

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