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Terrorism Watch

Why Somalia is Al Shabaab playground



On the second day of my visit to Mogadishu, within a couple of days of the October 14, 2017 truck bombing, I visited the site of the explosion in the company of Prof Abdullahi Shirwa, the chairman of the National Emergency Operation Centre.

At some point, the man explaining things to me, glanced nervously around, and bent down and picked up “something.” He said to me, “Here,” offering me whatever it was that he had picked up from under a piece of wood.

I didn’t like his bothered look and so I asked, “What is it?”

“These are pieces of human flesh.”

Shocked, I averted my eyes, not ready to accept the man’s extended hand and was relieved when Prof Shirwa assured me that they were fragments of charred metal strewn by the massive explosion.

Of the numerous assaults and bomb attacks that will haunt every Somali’s mind, none has been more dastardly than this one. A heinous act of incomparable devastation, nearly 400 souls lost and an equal number of people suffered serious injuries, many needing major surgery, with many others either unaccounted for or missing.

The local terrorist group Al Shabaab had just served notice on everyone that it was still capable of striking panic into the nation’s heart, despite its territorial loss. As we mourned the dead, we sought answers to the question we have been asking for the past decade.

Now we ask again if this would be the watershed event that would drive the African Mission in Somalia (Amisom) and the Somali National Army towards a decisive final push to rid the country of Al Shabaab once for all.

‘Lies have short legs’

The terrorist organisation — masters in the dark arts of stonewalling — did not claim ownership of the attack, fearing a popular backlash.

It is worth remembering that the terrorists did not own up to the December 4, 2009, Hotel Shamo blast in which a male suicide bomber disguised as a woman by wearing a hijab, detonated a device killing three government ministers, two professors of medicine and nine students at a medical school graduation ceremony. But even without taking credit for the killings, everyone suspected them of being the perpetrators.

A Somali proverb says; Lies have short legs. And sooner or later, the truth will catch up with them.

And so it was something of a relief when the truth caught up with Al Shabaab’s taciturnity: The Somali Minister for Internal Security released the names of the six men behind the October 14 truck bombing a month after the deadly incident and two weeks following the Hotel Naasa Hablood assault, in which 17 people died and 23 were wounded, which Al Shabaab claimed to have carried out.

Mohamed Abukar Islow, the minister for Internal Security, identified Osman Hajji aka Maadey as the suicide bomber and driver of the truck. He also named five other individuals, who are now in custody, accused of having had a hand in the bombing: Hassan Adan Isack, the driver of the second car; Ali Yussuf Wacays, aka Duaale, thought to be the second suicide bomber; Abdiweli Ahmed Dirie, aka Fanax, the group’s head of explosive experts in Mogadishu; Mukhtar Mohamed known as Gardhuub, a senior leader of the team; and Abdullahi Abdi Warsame.

The minister added, “Apart from those in custody, our forces are hunting down the owner of the truck who is on the run.”

The government also shared the CCTV recording showing the truck at the moment it started colliding with other vehicles near the intersection, with security cars in pursuit.

There is a lot we do not know and maybe we will never know. I questioned both the recently fired National Security chief Abdullahi Mohamed Sanbalolshe and the minister of internal security about how a truck loaded with about a thousand kilogrammes of explosives was allowed to pass through numerous checkpoints, skirt the capital’s security cordons, and enter the city without it being stopped.

Perhaps the officers manning the checkpoints were corrupt, because they had not received their salaries for months, I suggested, but neither man agreed. Still, the versions given are in conflict with one another, but I have reconstructed the stories as told by different sources.
Runaway truck

In one version, the officers at the final police check point stopped the truck and instructed the driver to park it and get out. Questioned about the cargo and its owner, the driver volunteered the name of the businessman who owned the consignment.

With no sniffer dogs in situ that day, the most senior officer makes do: He had the elderly businessman, who vouches for the driver and a younger man arriving at the scene, and a nephew of the businessman stand in front of the truck, and took photographs of them with the licence plate showing. He attaches the photo to a signed affidavit.

While the senior officer and the two men are busy with the paperwork, a well-meaning young officer instructs the driver to move the truck further along on the roadside to allow traffic to flow. The driver, once in the truck, takes off towards the city.

The officers at the check point appraise the authorities of the now runaway truck before giving chase.

Within minutes, the driver, as he approached the busy Zoobe Junction, crossed the median smashing into oncoming traffic. But when he realised that he was trapped, he detonated a bomb at the junction — he was surrounded by other vehicles and by cataclysmic happenstance, a fuel truck was also parked nearby. And just like that, 400 people lost their lives and hundreds suffered life-threatening injuries.

Meanwhile, another driver in a smaller vehicle, a Toyota Noah van, was waiting on a side street, presumably to give or take instructions since neither his rendezvous with the suicide bomber nor the encounter with the truck had occurred. This driver was within the proximity of the Aden Abdulle International Airport, with his engine idling.

A police officer approached him to ask him to move along, and since the driver was talking on the phone and did not react to the instructions, the policeman moved closer to inspect the vehicle and that was when he noticed a web of wires. The officer, now joined by his partner, yanked the driver’s door open, grabbed the man by the scruff of his shirt and dragged him away from the car. The bomb exploded. But the two officers and the terrorist escaped unhurt. The terrorist was taken into custody.
Truck from Italy

According to Panorama, an Italian magazine, the truck used in the bombing is one of Italy’s army military vehicles that was dismantled piece by piece and bolt by bolt, boxed and shipped to Somalia via Antwerp port in Belgium.

A criminal group of Italians and Somalis working for an auto body shop in the Province of Pisa had shipped the separate parts to Mogadishu, where it was reassembled. In Italy, 16 people, four of them Somalis, have been accused of involvement and arrested.

A man called Abdullahi Ibrahim Hassan bought the military truck on August 18, 2017. Nearly a month later, the truck driver made a number of dry runs from Afgoi into the city. The intention was for the driver to familiarise himself with officers at the various check points by ferrying quintals of maize.

The first recorded trip was made on September 13, 2017. The Federal Minister of Internal Security claims a different man called Abdullahi Abdi Warsame, currently in detention, paid for the vehicle’s licence on behalf of the registered owner, who to date is still on the run.

How the country got here

Alone in my hotel room late that evening following my meeting with the minister of Internal Security, his bodyguards hovering nearby, I recalled a conversation I had in London with a leading British scholar on Jihadi insurgency in Somalia.

My English friend said, “Do you know why the majority Muslim countries like Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan serve as religious battlefields, when no majority Arab country has ever been torn apart by similar religion-based conflicts until Isis appeared on the scene?”

“It is because Qatar, United Arab Emirate and Saudi Arabia pay the wages of the Jihadis on the proviso that all the religious battles are fought elsewhere, away from their countries. Osama bin Laden operated from his Afghan base until his stay in that country became untenable. Then he moved his base to Pakistan,” he explained simply.

“Where does Somalia fit in?” I asked.
The analyst claimed that it all began when Gen Mohamed Farah Aideed met Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda, at the latter’s retreat in Soba, an ancient Nubian city about 20 kilometres away from Khartoum. In 1997, bin Laden would later tell two CNN journalists that his men had trained the Somalis in downing the US military helicopters Black Hawks by aiming at the tail rotors.

Bin Laden dispatched Abu Hafs Al Masri, the Egyptian, to provide on-the-ground training to Aideed’s militiamen on downing a helicopter. When the two met, bin Laden was living openly in Khartoum and putting together a plan to launch the twin attacks on the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. A few years later his men carried out the game-changing 9/11 assaults on the Twin Towers in New York.

Foreign interests

A lot has happened in Somalia since the Black Hawk Down days caused the US to withdraw its army. It seemed as if Somalis were left to their own devices to deal with the nefarious interference in the country’s affairs by Ethiopia, Kenya, Eritrea, Uganda, the US, the EU and a handful of Arab states, each having its own self-serving design, some in an underhand way, others with worrying blatancy.

A rap sheet of crimes was committed against Somalia: The country’s wealth looted, its seas emptied of fish, its shores polluted with nuclear and chemical waste and the chance of it putting a government together continuously sabotaged by one foreign party or another.

When I visited Mogadishu in 1996 after a 22-year exile, I found a divided city run by two warlords, each claiming a half as his fiefdom. And with no government to provide civic amenities and no functioning state-run schools, the Qataris, the Saudis and the Emiratis entered Somalia especially in the education sector, as if to bring bin Laden’s plans finally into fruition.

Under Siad Barre, Somalia had been a secular state, quite unlike any other Muslim nation. Now the Arabs had a free rein to impose their language, harden the Somalis’ moderate way of worship and change the traditional manner in which our people dressed.

Unchallenged, the Saudis, the Qataris and the Emiratis introduced their own school curricula, which was adopted by the teachers whose salaries they paid. In 10 years, the Islamic Courts Union exerted control over much of southern Somalia. The US awoke to the “dangers” the Courts could present and gave its tacit approval to Ethiopia to invade. And Al Shabaab, as the Court’s offshoot, emerged.

Thus while the Arab states’ threat to Somali sovereignty has its origin in bin Laden’s secret pact with Aideed through a series of permutations, the snake ended up biting its tail — morphing into Al Shabaab. Now with the appearance of Turkey on the scene, the Arab subversion of Somalia as a self-governing state has become more sinister and may lead to civil war.

The country today

Without a federal government statement on the truck bombing and with Al Shabaab also keeping mum, Somalis can only speculate about the perpetrators. The Guardian ascribed a clan motive to the bombing and in reaction to this, the elders from the fingered community condemned the newspaper, stating that this made no sense, since this clan claimed to have lost 180 of their kith and kin in the explosion.

The Doha-based network Al Jazeera entered the fray, speculating that the Turkish Military Academy was the bombers’ intended target. But the rumour that the UAE was behind the bombing gained more currency by the day among Mogadishians, with many Somalis describing the Emirates as the agent of destruction, because of connections to the heads of the regional governments. It is no secret that the Saudi and UAE governments view Turkey with suspicion, a threat to their political designs.

The truck bombing of October 14 was followed a fortnight later by another, albeit less disastrous, assault on Hotel Naasa Hablood. This attack bore all Al Shabaab’s signature traits: A small vehicle smashed the gate of the hotel open creating panic and confusion, then a group armed with assault rifles and wearing suicide vests walked in and finished the job.

That Al Shabaab could stage yet another attack so soon after the massacre at Zoobe Junction shocked the nation and further deflated the earlier sense of optimism about the country.

A sense of hopelessness and defeat spread to the government, with politicians rebuking state security for failing to protect the nation, some asking for the president’s and the prime minister’s heads. So the president went on a whistle-stop tour of the troop-contributing countries; Uganda, Ethiopia, Burundi, Kenya and Djibouti, seeking their assistance.

Amisom is anathema

Not for the first time, Amisom came in for some serious blame, because both its top officers and foot soldiers have been accused of blatant corruption as well as indifference to the job at hand.

In an article published in The EastAfrican on November 7, 2017, Charles Onyango-Obbo wrote, “There is a higher level of consensus between the Amisom and Al Shabaab than between the leaders of the contributing countries.” This is because “Amisom does business with A Shabaab,” to whom the troops sell arms.

I can attest to the thick-as-thieves-closeness between the Ugandans at the airport and some of the Somalis they have dealings with. The UN Monitoring Unit has accused the Kismayu-based Kenyan contingent of making money from the sale of charcoal. And there is a feeling that Ethiopia is in Somalia for its strategic reasons. This is why the presence of Amisom is anathema to national self-esteem.
Matt Bryden, the Canadian security expert on matters Somali noted to me that the charitable view, which is not entirely incorrect, is that Amisom has “secured” major Somali towns, especially Mogadishu and regional/state capitals, and therefore established adequate physical space for Somali political processes and institutions to evolve. Without them, it’s hard to imagine the existence of the federal government, state governments, or parliaments, whatever their shortcomings.

He goes on; “On the other hand, Amisom forces have failed to achieve in 10 years what Ethiopian troops achieved in less than a week: domination of Somali territory between Gaalkacyo and Ras Kamboni. Which is not to say that the Ethiopian intervention was either desirable or a success: simply that from the perspective of military effectiveness, Amisom leaves much to be desired.”

I pressed him some more, and he wrote, “We probably still need Amisom to protect major towns until Somali forces are able to relieve them. But it’s unrealistic to expect them to do so, because they are ill equipped in all respects to take the fight to Al Shabaab and to pursue them into rural areas or embark on some kind of counter-insurgency campaign. If they leave now, this would almost certainly make things worse and end in disaster. Apart from taking the remaining Al Shabaab strongholds of Jilib, Jamame and Sakow, Amisom has probably reached the limits of its utility.”

Confusion reigns supreme when it comes to finding the panacea for Somalia’s security frailties. Upward of 500 US Special Forces are in the country, tasked with targeting Al Shabaab training camps and also to help train Amisom and the Somali National Army.

On top of this, thousands of Somali army units are receiving their training in Uganda, the Sudan as well as Djibouti and thrown into the mix are a Mogadishu-based UAE military facility and a Turkish military academy. The worry is that, with Amisom’s withdrawal ongoing, there is no uniformity or cohesion in the national army of the country.

Time and again, the work of the security apparatus in Somalia has been found wanting and the quality and efficacy of detection has been questioned. In an opinion piece in the New York Times, Mr Sanbalolshe, however, points a finger away from his men and women, explaining that the country does not have forensic labs and lacks the necessary expertise to deal with the investigative challenges arising from the explosions.

He laments the dearth of technical skill in the security structures, all the more made worse by the fact that when the intelligence at the crime scene — explosive residues, the detonators, the sim cards, the DNA of the perpetrators and fingerprints — is gathered and removed by Somalia’s US, British and UN partners, the results of the investigation are neither returned nor is the information shared with Somalia intelligence.

Describing the nation’s partners as unscrupulous carpetbaggers with unconscionable meanness, he argues that this lack of information sharing is hampering the decision-making of the security structures.

With the Somali National Army not equipped to take over from Amisom, and Amisom engaged in corruption and selling weapons to Al Shabaab, Kenya accused of exporting charcoal, Ethiopia suspected of having its own designs, the US, Britain and the UN’s information-sharing not forthcoming, is there any wonder why there has been no tangible progress in the fight against the terrorists in Somalia?

Unless the arms embargo is lifted and there is cohesion in the way Somalia’s partners collaborate with its security apparatus, my fear is that we will witness an attack a lot worse than the one on October 14, at Zoobe junction.

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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