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Briefing Room

Why the US Cares About Somalia

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Geopolitical Futures — Something is quietly stirring in the Horn of Africa. Over the past month, the United States seems to have shown a renewed interest in Somalia and the security threats that emanate from it. On April 15, U.S. Africa Command confirmed that several dozen troops from the 101st Airborne Division would train and equip Somali forces to more effectively combat militant Islamist group al-Shabab.
Shortly thereafter, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order giving AFRICOM more autonomy in its missions against the group. Then, on May 5, Washington announced the death of a U.S. Navy SEAL outside the capital of Mogadishu – and, in doing so, acknowledged that the United States was participating in local military operations there. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis is even slated to attend a conference in the United Kingdom on May 11 over the future of Somalia.

These events raise an obvious and important question: Why does Somalia warrant such a military commitment from the world’s only superpower?

The answer to that question, as is so often the case, starts with geography. Somalia’s northern coast borders the Gulf of Aden, which leads to Bab el-Mandeb, a narrow chokepoint through which all maritime traffic from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean must pass. Avoiding this strait would take all goods from the Persian Gulf – including oil – around the entire African continent to reach European and American markets. It is also a valuable staging ground for navies to project power on to the Arabian Peninsula.

For this reason, Washington’s interest in Somalia remained steadfast even after the Cold War ended. After civil war erupted in 1991, the United States, in a testament to Somalia’s geostrategic importance, participated heavily in the U.N. peacekeeping mission there. (Washington would later reduce its involvement after sustaining casualties in 1993.) Among the groups fighting for power were Islamist groups, one of which, the Islamic Courts Union, actually controlled southern Somalia in the 2000s.

An extremist wing of the Islamic Courts Union split from its parent group, donned the name al-Shabab, and continues to conduct terrorist attacks in the country. Al-Shabab also boasts ties with both al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. Formally, Somalia now has a central government, but it cannot control formally or informally such an untamed and fractured country, to which al-Shabab is a big contributor.

The United States, meanwhile, has been coming to terms with the costs of global hegemony. It has been trying to extricate itself from faraway military operations such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Horn of Africa is no different. Washington understands that it does not have the resources or political capital to fight every war in the world. But it still needs to be active in places like Somalia to protect its global interests. It has therefore pursued a strategy that involves a limited use of resources necessary to achieve an acceptable result as opposed to decisive, clear-cut victory.

Such is the case in Somalia. Over the past few years, Washington has selectively developed a military presence throughout the Horn of Africa that features drone technology, special operations forces and cooperation with other regional actors.
The East Africa Response Force, an outfit comprising members of the U.S. Air Force, Marines and Navy tasked with crisis response and personnel recovery, returned to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti (the largest U.S. base in Africa) in April 2014.

Plans are also underway to add new facilities to the U.S. special operations compound at Lemonnier. In addition, U.S. 3rd Special Forces Group were sent back to Africa in late 2015 after serving in Afghanistan. The U.S. government was also privy to the negotiations for DP World’s plans to develop Berbera port in Somaliland along the Gulf of Aden, as well as plans by the United Arab Emirates (a strong U.S. ally) to establish a military base near there.

Central to this strategy, however, is the inclusion of local forces to share security responsibilities. To that end, the United States has been delegating to regional leaders who have a more vested interest in stabilizing the internal conflicts and terrorist threats coming out of other countries. Given their shared border with Somalia, not to mention their comparatively mature militaries, Ethiopia and Kenya appear as the two most natural candidates.

Ethiopia, however, is undergoing a period of nationwide unrest and is not in a position to be a viable partner. The country recalled some of its troops from Somalia citing financial restrictions, but the more likely explanation is that more security forces were needed to help quell domestic political unrest.

Kenya appears to be more reliable. The country has a direct incentive to help, considering al-Shabab has conducted attacks on Kenyan soil. Recent U.S. gestures to help Kenya play its regional role include increased military training programs, inclusion in regional military drills, and the sale of 12 new U.S.-made light attack helicopters, 24 heavy machine gun pods and accompanying systems, 24 rocket pods and some 4,000 M151 high-explosive rockets. With so much time spent fighting insurgencies, moreover, the United States has a lot of experience it can impart to Kenya that it cannot get from other countries.

There may also be economic motivation to helping the United States. Kenya is an emerging East African economy, and its main strategy for increasing basic manufactured exports is to take advantage of the United States’ African Growth and Opportunity Act, which gives Kenya preferential trade status with the United States.

For this reason, in late April, the Kenyan government sent Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed to Washington to discuss security cooperation, economic agreements and investment opportunities with U.S. officials.

Ideally, the United States would like to see al-Shabab, and indeed all radical Islam, destroyed. But to achieve this requires the United States to use vast resources for results that are far from guaranteed. Instead, the United States will settle for keeping the world’s sea lanes off the Horn of Africa open and safe for passage.

This is the U.S. imperative in the region, and a containment approach to al-Shabab in Somalia achieves that goal, particularly since the group is relegated largely to the south, separated from the strategic north by vast deserts and poor transportation infrastructure. The United States will try to use its allies to help it keep al-Shabab there, a sufficient outcome for a country trying to strike a balance of power in virtually every corner of the world.

Briefing Room

UPDATE: Somali authorities say troops rescue 32 children from “terrorist school”

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MOGADISHU, Jan 19 (Reuters) – Somali authorities said troops stormed a school run by al Shabaab on Thursday night and rescued 32 children who had been taken as recruits by the Islamist militant group.

“The 32 children are safe and the government is looking after them. It is unfortunate that terrorists are recruiting children to their twisted ideology,” Abdirahman Omar Osman, information minister for the Somali federal government, told Reuters on Friday.

“It showed how desperate the terrorists are, as they are losing the war and people are rejecting terror.”

Al Shabaab said government forces, accompanied by drones, had attacked the school in Middle Shabelle region. It said four children and a teacher were killed.

The Somali government said no children were killed in the rescue.

“They kidnapped the rest of the students,” said Abdiasis Abu Musab, al Shabaab’s military spokesman.

“Human Rights Watch is responsible for the deaths of the students and their teacher because it pointed fingers at them,” he added.

In a report this week, the New York-based rights group said that since September 2017, al Shabaab had ordered village elders, teachers in Islamic religious schools, and rural communities to hand over hundreds of children as young as eight.

The U.S. Africa Command said it had carried out an air strike on Thursday against al Shabaab targets 50 km (30 miles) northwest of Somalia’s port city of Kismayo, killing four militants. U.S. forces regularly launch such aerial assaults.

The al Shabaab militia, linked to al Qaeda, is fighting to topple the U.N.-backed Somali government and establish its own rule based on a strict interpretation of Islam’s sharia law.

Somalia has been plagued by conflict since the early 1990s, when clan-based warlords overthrew authoritarian ruler Mohamed Siad Barre then turned on each other.

In recent years, regional administrations headed by the Mogadishu-based federal government have emerged, and African Union peacekeepers supporting Somali troops have gradually clawed back territory from the Islamist insurgents.

(Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh; Writing by Clement Uwiringiyimana; Editing by Andrew Roche)

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Briefing Room

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.

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Briefing Room

Somalia to Probe Evictions of Thousands of Displaced Families

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NAIROBI — The Somali government responded to widespread criticism by aid agencies on Wednesday, promising to investigate reports that thousands of families fleeing drought and conflict were forcefully evicted from more than 20 informal camps.

The United Nations and groups such as the Somalia NGO Consortium say more than 4,000 families, or about 20,000 people, had their homes bulldozed last month inside settlements on the outskirts of the capital of Mogadishu.

The demolitions on private land were unannounced, they said, and pleas by the community — largely women and children — for time to collect their belongings and go safely were not granted.

Some aid workers who witnessed the evictions said uniformed government soldiers were involved in the demolitions.

“Regarding the forced evictions, we are really deeply concerned. We are investigating the number of evictions,” Gamal Hassan, Somalia’s minister for planning, investment and economic development, told participants at a U.N. event.

“We have to make sure we investigate and have to make sure we know exactly what happened. And then we will issue a report and you can take a look at it and see what happened and how it happened,” he said by video conference from Mogadishu.

The impoverished east African nation of more than 12 million people has been witnessing an unprecedented drought, with poor rains for four consecutive seasons.

It has also been mired in conflict since 1991 and its Western-backed government is struggling to assert control over poor, rural areas under the Islamist militant group al Shabab.

The U.N. says drought and violence have forced more than 2 million people to seek refuge elsewhere in the country, often in informal settlements located around small towns and cities.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) on Wednesday condemned the demolitions, and said the fate of those evicted did not fit with the progress Somalia has made.

“Not only did these people lose their homes, but the basic infrastructure that was provided by humanitarian partners and donors, such as latrines, schools, community centers — has been destroyed,” said Peter De Clercq, head of OCHA in Somalia, at the same event.

“I reiterate my condemnation of this very serious protection violation and call on the national and regional authorities to take necessary steps to protect and assist these people who have suffered so much.”

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