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US wary of Islamic extremism growth in Africa

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PENTAGON — With the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate almost completely retaken in Iraq and Syria, many American leaders are concerned the group might try to create a new hub elsewhere.

Islamic extremism creeps up in impoverished, politically disillusioned populations with masses of young, unemployed Muslims, and these conditions can be seen across the African continent.

“Africa is going to be the spot; it’s going to be the hot spot,” Congressman Michael McCaul, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a hearing last month.

In a letter sent to congressional leaders on Monday detailing counter-extremism efforts, President Donald Trump said his administration had placed a “particular focus” on the U.S. Central and Africa Commands’ areas of responsibility.

While tens of thousands of American troops are deployed to the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where U.S. Central Command oversees military operations, the entire African continent has less than half the number of American troops deployed in the single country of Afghanistan.

But increases in terrorist activity are among the reasons why American military presence has grown rapidly on the continent, from 3,200 military personnel in 2009 to some 6,500 military personnel today.

The bulk of U.S. military personnel in Africa, some 4,000 Americans, are based in Djibouti, home to the United States’ only military base on the continent. The second-largest concentration is in the Lake Chad Basin, where some 1,300 U.S. military personnel work in Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad to help strengthen local militaries and counter Boko Haram, al-Qaida, Islamic State and other extremist groups. About 500 U.S. military personnel are based in Somalia, where al-Shabaab terrorists are battling the U.N.-backed Somali government and Islamic State operates in mountainous areas of Puntland.

John Campbell, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007, is critical of the United States’ policy toward Africa.

“There is African concern that the U.S. approach is becoming rather more militarized, or more concerned with military and security issues than had been the case in the past,” he told VOA.

Campbell said he believes that the main thrust of American effort on the continent should be on the “root causes” of extremism — poor governance and lack of economic development. But this effort will likely prove more difficult if the State Department’s budget is slashed, as proposed by the Trump administration.

Ripe for recruitment

Africa’s growing young, male population is ripe for recruitment, Africa Command’s senior enlisted leader, Command Chief Master Sergeant Ramon Colon-Lopez told VOA in an exclusive interview.

“When you have no options and here comes an extremist that is offering you a motorbike and a bride, what do you think you’re going to do? Your family’s starving, you can’t provide for them and somebody’s giving you an option,” he said.

The Trump administration this year changed rules governing U.Smilitary operations in the area, expanding the ability to strike al-Shabab and IS fighters in the war-torn country of Somalia. The change allowed offensive strikes against the terrorists rather than limiting attacks to defending African allies and their American advisers on the ground. This matches a similar expansion of strike authorities this year against the Taliban in Afghanistan, where under President Barack Obama, the Taliban had to be in close proximity to Afghan National Security Forces before they could be targeted.

The new authorities have led to an increase in strikes in Somalia. The latest of the more than 30 U.S. strikes across the west African country this year came on Tuesday, taking out what U.S. military officials said was an al-Shabab car bomb planned for use in an attack in the capital, Mogadishu.

Colon-Lopez said the new authorities have “definitely” helped the counter-terrorism mission in Africa.

The U.S. has also used air strikes this year to target IS militants in Libya. Just last month, the U.S. and Niger reached an agreement permitting armed American military drones for use against jihadist terrorist groups in the African nation, according to a U.S. official. It is still unclear whether the drones in Niger will be used to carry out targeted strikes or solely as a defensive measure.

Special operations forces

In the past decade, Africa has also seen a vast expansion of U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF), elite military units that are specifically trained and use special weapons, and tactics.

In 2006, Special Operations Forces made up just 1 percent of U.S. military personnel. Today, there are about 1,200 Special Operations Forces deployed to Africa, or about 15 percent of the total deployed force, a U.S. military official told VOA on the condition of anonymity.

Their jobs range from short-term training to long-term partnering with African military units that place American troops in potentially dangerous locations.

That’s what happened in Niger in October, when four American soldiers died in an IS ambush, and in May, when a U.S. Navy SEAL died aiding Somali security forces against al-Shabaab.

“I worry about the outposts that have U.S. military members that are getting after this threat,” Colon-Lopez said. “I worry about them because we can see what happened out there when the enemy decides to overpower the United States of America.”

The number of times that U.S. troops are exposed to danger in Africa are rare, a U.S. military official told VOA, adding that Special Operations Forces limit their involvement with local partners because of the strong desire to find “African solutions to African problems.”

“Our role is more like preventative medicine in Africa than emergency surgery,” the military official said.

However, if the security need grows in the coming months, more Americans troops could find themselves in dangerous situations across the continent.

Briefing Room

Somali government introduces 5% sales tax to boost revenues

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The Somali government has launched an aggressive tax collection campaign. The administration has imposed a five percent sales tax as part of efforts to win billions of dollars in international debt relief. However there are concerns on whether the country’s powerful businessmen pay up.

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Hunted and hated, Somali tax collectors gird for battle

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MOGADISHU, Feb 16 (Reuters) – Ahmed Nur moves through the Somali capital of Mogadishu with a bodyguard of six men, a pistol in the waistband of his baggy trousers. He speaks of his work in whispers; seven of his colleagues have been killed in the last three years. But Nur is no intelligence operative. He’s a tax collector.

Now the central government’s imposition of a five percent sales tax last month, part of its efforts to win billions of dollars in international debt relief, have put him at the heart of a showdown with the country’s most powerful businessmen.

So far, the government’s efforts have been slowly working; domestic revenue was up to $141 million in 2017 from $110 million in 2016, said Finance Minister Abdirahman Duale Beileh.

But much more is needed before the government is self-sufficient, a key step toward accessing about $4.6 billion in international debt relief. The final amount is still being assessed.

Somalia has been wracked by civil war since 1991, and the cash-starved, U.N.-backed government in Mogadishu is desperate to claw in the revenue it needs to pay staff and provide services like security.

The military, which is supposed to fight al-Qaeda linked insurgents, is in tatters and a combination of corruption and cash shortages mean soldiers rarely receive their $100 per month paycheques.

“People ask for security services prior to paying tax. But the government cannot deliver the required services to the public unless tax is collected,” Nur confided to Reuters in a restaurant, glancing over his shoulder. “It is like the egg and chicken puzzle.”

Some progress was made last year: tax agreements have been reached with airlines and telecoms companies, and an income tax exemption for parliamentarians has been reversed.

“These are important measures and show the strong commitment of the authorities to reform,” said Mohamad Elhage, who leads the International Momentary Fund’s Somalia work.

Debt forgiveness would give the government access to credit that could be used to fund services, binding Somalia’s often quarrelling federal states closer together.

It could also wean the government off cash from donors such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which often have diverging agendas that can destabilise Somalia’s fragile politics.

“Increasing our revenue is a very important benchmark for the road map to clear the (debt) arrears,” said Beileh. “Our objective to cover our expenses is very important.”

Achieving that will depend, in part, on men like Nur.
TAX COLLECTION ON THE FRONTLINE

Somalia’s al Shabaab rebels are known for their ruthless efficiency at collecting tax and spy networks that track profits. Businessmen misstating their profits are likely to get a terse reminder to pay the difference or face a bullet; tax collectors who cheat the movement could be executed, a former al Shabaab enforcer told Reuters.

Al Shabaab were not available for comment.

As an agent of the U.N.-backed government, Nur cannot dole out amputations or executions. If a businessman refuses to pay up he can theoretically be arrested, if he has no powerful friends to protect him. But often, they will simply prevaricate, said Nur.

That’s what many businessmen are doing in the face of Somalia’s new tax. Mogadishu port has not unloaded a commercial vessel for nine days, port authorities told Reuters on Wednesday, as businessmen refuse to pay the new levy.

Trader Aden Abdullahi complained that he was already paying for port services and customs, and paying the Islamic tax of zakat to the poor. He can’t afford another five percent, he said.

“We see this idea as intentionally or unintentionally direct economic war on Mogadishu traders,” he said, shaking his head in disapproval in his wholesale grocery shop.

“The other problem is that the rebels tax us and I am sure they will also raise tax if the government raises tax.”

Some Somalis also say they are reluctant to pay up to an administration that many consider corrupt and inefficient. Almost all of Somalia’s budget goes on paying its politicians and civil servants; ordinary citizens see little being spent on improving public health, education or infrastructure in their bullet-scarred city.

“We pay various taxes by force. There is no beneficial return from the government. We do not even have roads and I have been paying these taxes at gunpoint for the last ten years,” 40-year-old minibus driver Hashi Abdulle said, referring to money extorted at government-controlled roadblocks.

But Minister Beileh says that criticism is outdated and citizens are confusing private extortion with public taxes. The government is putting reforms in place, he said, like trying to work out how to issue individual tax numbers and empowering the ministry of finance to take the lead on tax collection.

“People are used to dealing with … individuals, individual offices, individual soldiers, illegal tax collectors who did not belong to government,” he said.

“Changing that culture is also becoming a challenge … We are trying to close all the loopholes.”

(Additional reporting by Katharine Houreld; writing by Katharine Houreld; editing by Giles Elgood)

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Briefing Room

Somalia Foreign Minister Wants IGAD Open Borders After The Government Rejected

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Looks like Somali Foreign Minister didn’t get the memo when he was talking to Africa 24 TV.

Minister Ahmed Awad agrees with IGAD Free Movement Proposal “We’re comfortable (with the open border) in fact we encourage it, we welcome the region’s borders to be open, the economy of the countries in the region to be integrated. Somalis & Somalia will benefit very much from such open border” Foreign Minister Awad said, while last Monday Somalia said it would not sign a deal with IGAD member countries that will allow free movement of citizens.

 

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