A reminder of the permanent wars: Dozens of U.S. airstrikes in six countries

The Washington Post reports: While Americans savored the last moments of summer this Labor Day weekend, the U.S. military was busy overseas as warplanes conducted strikes in six countries in a flurry of attacks. The bombing runs across Asia, Africa and the Middle East spotlighted the diffuse terrorist threats that have persisted into the final days of the Obama presidency — conflicts that the next president is now certain to inherit.

In Iraq and Syria, between Saturday and Monday, the United States conducted about 45 strikes against Islamic State targets. On the other side of the Mediterranean, in the Libyan city of Sirte, U.S. forces also hit fighters with the militant group. On Sunday in Yemen, a U.S. drone strike killed six suspected members of ­al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The following day, just across the Gulf of Aden in Somalia, the Pentagon targeted al-Shabab, another group aligned with ­al-Qaeda. The military also conducted several counterterrorism strikes over the weekend in Afghanistan, where the Taliban and the Islamic State are on the offensive.

Militants in each of those countries have been attacked before, but the convergence of so many strikes on so many fronts in such a short period served as a reminder of the endurance and geographic spread of al-Qaeda and its mutations.

“This administration really wanted to end these wars,” said Paul Scharre, a former Army Ranger and Pentagon official now at the Center for a New American Security. “Now, we’ve got U.S. combat operations on multiple fronts and we’re dropping bombs in six countries. That’s just the unfortunate reality of the terrorism threat today.”

In meeting those threats, Obama has sought to limit the large-scale deployments of the past, instead relying on air power, including drones; isolated Special Operations raids; and support for foreign forces.

But militant groups have defied eight years of these sustained counterterrorism efforts.

Nowhere are the unexpected turns of Obama’s foreign-policy record more visible than in Iraq, where thousands of U.S. troops returned after the 2011 withdrawal to support local forces’ battle against the Islamic State. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

U.S.-funded Somali intelligence agency has been using kids as spies

The Washington Post reports: For years they were children at war, boys given rifles and training by al-Qaeda-backed militants and sent to the front lines of this country’s bloody conflict. Many had been kidnapped from schools and soccer fields and forced to fight.

The United Nations pleaded for them to be removed from the battlefield. The United States denounced the Islamist militants for using children to plant bombs and carry out assassinations.

But when the boys were finally disarmed — some defecting and others apprehended — what awaited them was yet another dangerous role in the war. This time, the children say, they were forced to work for the Somali government.

The boys were used for years as informants by the country’s National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA), according to interviews with the children and Somali and U.N. officials. They were marched through neighborhoods where al-Shabab insurgents were hiding and told to point out their former comrades. The faces of intelligence agents were covered, but the boys — some as young as 10 — were rarely concealed, according to the children. Several of them were killed. One tried to hang himself while in custody.

The Somali agency’s widespread use of child informants, which has not been previously documented, appears to be a flagrant violation of international law. It raises difficult questions for the U.S. government, which for years has provided substantial funding and training to the Somali agency through the CIA, according to current and former U.S. officials.

A CIA spokesman declined to comment on the issue. But in the past the U.S. government has supported Somali security institutions — despite well-known human rights violations — citing the urgent need to combat terrorist groups such as al-Shabab. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Refugee crisis focus shifts to North Africa

Der Spiegel reports: Abdul Kadir Mohamed Moalim has seen hell. Originally from Somalia, a country ravaged by civil war, he traveled via a refugee camp in Yemen and then to Libya. From there, he crossed the Mediterranean to Europe.

On April 16, an overloaded wooden vessel capsized on the high seas and only a few people on board managed to survive. Moalim was one of them. Now, he is in Kalamata, the Greek city that rescuers brought him to. In an interview conducted there by the BBC, he was asked if he had a message for those still in Africa who are waiting for their opportunity to flee to Europe. His answer: “It’s so dangerous,” he said. “You have to believe in your country and … stay where you are.”

Moalim bore witness to a tragedy in which up to 500 Somalis, Sudanese and Ethiopians drowned, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). That would make it the worst such accident of the last 12 months. In April 2015, a fishing boat sank while on its way from Libya toward Italy and up to 800 men, women and children died. Then, too, most of the victims were from sub-Saharan Africa.

Europe continues to focus primarily on the war refugees coming from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. But it is often forgotten that increasing numbers of people from countries south of the Sahara are trying to head north as well. In 2015 alone, according to the European Union border control agency Frontex, 108,000 Africans made their way illegally to Europe. That represents an increase of 42 percent over 2014 — and experts believe the total is but a harbinger of what Europe may soon be facing. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

U.S. strikes in Somalia kill 150 Shabab fighters

The New York Times reports: The fighters had just completed “training for a large-scale attack” against American and African Union forces, said Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.

Pentagon officials would not say how they knew that the Shabab fighters killed on Saturday were training for an attack on United States and African Union forces, but the militant group is believed to be under heavy American surveillance.

The Shabab fighters were standing in formation at a facility the Pentagon called Camp Raso, 120 miles north of Mogadishu, when the American warplanes struck on Saturday, officials said, acting on information gleaned from intelligence sources in the area and from American spy planes. One intelligence agency assessed that the toll might have been higher had the strike happened earlier in the ceremony. Apparently, some fighters were filtering away from the event when the bombing began.

The strike was another escalation in what has become the latest battleground in the Obama administration’s war against terror: Africa. The United States and its allies are focused on combating the spread of the Islamic State in Libya, and American officials estimate that with an influx of men from Iraq, Syria and Tunisia, the Islamic State’s forces in Libya have swelled to as many as 6,500 fighters, allowing the group to capture a 150-mile stretch of coastline over the past year.

The arrival of the Islamic State in Libya has sparked fears that the group’s reach could spread to other North African countries, and the United States is increasingly trying to prevent that. American forces are now helping to combat Al Qaeda in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso; Boko Haram in Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad; and the Shabab in Somalia and Kenya, in what has become a multifront war against militant Islam in Africa. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Drone strikes: The brand of detached warfare that Obama made his own

The Guardian reports: Faheem Qureshi’s uncles sat with their neighbors, chatting, cracking jokes and sipping tea, in their family’s lounge for male guests. Qureshi, almost 14, stood nearby, bored and restless, thinking about when he could go to the nearby playground where he and the other Ziraki village kids played badminton and cricket.

It had been a long day – Friday prayers, a food shopping errand at his mother’s behest, hosting – but also a happy occasion, as people stopped by to welcome an uncle home to North Waziristan, in tribal Pakistan, from a work excursion to the United Arab Emirates. Then he heard a sound like a plane taking off.

About two seconds later, the missile punched a hole through the lounge. Qureshi remembers feeling like his body was on fire. He ran outside, wanting to throw water on his face, but his priority was escape. The boy could not see.

This was the hidden civilian damage from the first drone strike Barack Obama ever ordered, on 23 January 2009, the inauguration of a counter-terrorism tactic likely to define Obama’s presidency in much of the Muslim world. It was the third day of his presidency. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Who was more prescient: Clinton or Awlaki? And why is YouTube helping promote a Trump conspiracy theory?

After a 52-minute video made by al-Kataib, the media outlet of Somalia’s al-Qaeda-affiliate, al-Shabaab, was posted on YouTube yesterday, it was swiftly removed. YouTube has a long-standing policy of banning videos that incite violence.

As the ABC News report above shows, the element in the video which has grabbed the media’s attention is its use of Donald Trump’s recent call for Muslims to be prohibited from entering the United States.

Here’s the part of the video which features Trump — although, by the time you read this post, YouTube will have removed this clip, which is why I’m also posting a transcript:

First we see the American imam, Anwar al-Awlaki, making a prediction about the fate of Muslims who continue living in the U.S. — Awlaki was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011. Then comes a clip of Trump and then Awalaki again.

Awlaki, date unknown: Muslims of the West, take heed and learn from the lessons of history. There are ominous clouds gathering in your horizon.

Yesterday, America was a land of slavery, segregation, lynching, and Ku Klux Klan. And tomorrow it will be a land of religious discrimination and concentration camps.

Trump speaking at a campaign rally on December 7: Guys remember this and listen: Donald J Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States [cheers] until our country’s representatives can figure out what [expletive bleeped] is going on [cheers and applause].

Awlaki: The West will eventually turn against its Muslim citizens. Hence, my advice to you is this: You have two choices, either hijra or jihad. You either leave or you fight. You leave and live among Muslims, or you stay behind and follow the example of Nidal Hassan [perpetrator of the Fort Hood mass shooting] and others who fulfilled their duty of fighting for Allah’s cause.

In response to pressure from Western governments, YouTube and other social media channels are becoming increasingly aggressive in blocking the distribution of terrorist propaganda. There is understandable frustration at the fact that the internet is being used to threaten the very societies within which this global communications system was created.

Censorship can easily backfire, however, and this is happening with the removal of clips of the new al-Shabaab video.

After the full-length version had been removed, snippets which just showed the al-Awalaki statement and Trump, have also been removed (as I noted above).

It is clear that these videos are being posted by Trump critics rather than al-Shabaab supporters and their removal is breathing life into a conspiracy theory being propagated by some Trump supporters: that the al-Shabaab video itself is a fabrication created by the Clinton campaign!

It seems likely that there are some Trump supporters who — following the lead of Bashar al-Assad supporters — are using YouTube’s community guidelines in order to silence criticism.

Although in the short clips of the al-Shabaab, Awlaki is indeed inciting violence, the clips themselves are clearly not being posted in order to incite violence — they have been posted to show how Trump’s rhetoric serves as a propaganda gift for jihadists.

By removing these clips, YouTube is playing straight into the hands of conspiracy theorists.

At the same time, censorship also buttresses the perception among ISIS and al Qaeda supporters, that the West feels threatened by “the truth.”

It’s worth remembering the trajectory Awlaki followed which eventually led to him promoting terrorism from Yemen.

In 2000, he supported George Bush’s campaign to become president and after 9/11 believed his own emerging role must be to serve as bridge between America and all Muslims.

Last August, Scott Shane wrote:

At midnight on Sept. 14, 2001, Awlaki, then a young Yemeni-American imam at the prominent Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Va., finished a long day by answering an email from his younger brother about the terrorist attacks of a few days before. ‘‘I personally think it was horrible,’’ he wrote to Ammar, a college student in New Mexico at the time. ‘‘I am very upset about it.’’ He added, ‘‘The media are all over us.’’ Anwar was disconcerted, but perhaps also pleased that an onslaught of reporters had turned his Friday prayers, or jummah, into a circus. ‘‘At jummah today we had ABC, NBC, CBS and The Washington Post.’’ He closed on a positive note, hinting at a noble purpose, to be sure, but also displaying a trace of personal ambition: ‘‘I hope we can use this for the good of all of us.’’

Though the country was in mourning, a sense of defiant unity emerged. A non-Muslim neighbor of Dar al-Hijrah organized a candlelight vigil around the building to show solidarity with the mosque. Roughly 80 residents of a nearby apartment building sent over a note saying, ‘‘We want your congregation to know that we welcome you in this community.’’ Journalists, hunting for an authoritative voice from the Muslim community, began to pass regularly under the mosque’s grand marble arches or to gather in Awlaki’s modest family home. He denounced the 9/11 attacks but in the same breath would criticize America’s record in the Middle East. Reporters were impressed. The New York Times wrote that Awlaki, just 30, was being ‘‘held up as a new generation of Muslim leader capable of merging East and West.’’ He relished the spotlight. He seemed to be quite self-consciously auditioning for a dual role: explainer of Islam to America and of America to Muslims. ‘‘We came here to build, not to destroy,’’ he declared from his pulpit. ‘‘We are the bridge between America and one billion Muslims worldwide.’’

The challenge presented by ISIS, al Qaeda and other jihadist groups is more than one of security and communications. At its core, this is a moral challenge.

The jihadists present themselves as offering the solution to a moral problem: a way for Muslims to confront the immorality, corruption, and hypocrisy they see in the contemporary Western-dominated world.

An effective counter-jihadist strategy cannot simply brush off this critique of the West. It has to present an alternative solution.

Currently, who has the more credible voice? Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, or Anwar al-Awlaki?

Unfortunately, it’s Awlaki.

As Shane observed:

Awlaki’s pronouncements seem to carry greater authority today than when he was living, because America killed him.

Right now, it’s easy to castigate Trump for providing terrorists with fodder for propaganda, but we mustn’t forget the extent to which the U.S. led by Bush and then Obama, has helped reinforce the jihadists’ narrative — by opening Guantanamo; through the use of torture, rendition and secret prisons; through the disastrous war in Iraq; through drone strikes in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia; through continuing to prop up authoritarian regimes across the Middle East; through allowing the Assad regime to destroy Syria, and through failing to broker an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The real challenge for Western political leaders and whoever becomes the next U.S. president is not whether they can destroy ISIS and effectively tackle global terrorism.

It is this: How can they regain sufficient moral authority that their words carry weight? How can they restore some much-needed respect for democracy?

In a global failure of governance, the Middle East can be viewed as the emergency room, while in the West, governance suffers from chronic illness for which symptom-relief is the only treatment on offer.

It’s time we face up to the fact that terrorism is just a symptom what ails the world. Indeed, much of the time a global obsession with terrorism is having the effect of turning our attention away from broader issues that undermine the health of societies and our ability to survive on this planet.

This isn’t a question of striving for some kind of unattainable and contestable moral purity. No one wants to live under the control of zealots. It’s about trying to create societies in which government is no longer a dirty word, where ordinary citizens receive the respect they deserve, and in which individuals are no longer cynical about the possibilities for securing collective interests.

In a word, it’s about the restoration of honesty in public life.

Facebooktwittermail

The refugee crisis that isn’t

Kenneth Roth writes: European leaders may differ about how to respond to the asylum-seekers and migrants surging their way, but they seem to agree they face a crisis of enormous proportions. Germany’s Angela Merkel has called it “the biggest challenge I have seen in European affairs in my time as chancellor.” Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni has warned that the migrant crisis could pose a major threat to the “soul” of Europe. But before we get carried away by such apocalyptic rhetoric, we should recognize that if there is a crisis, it is one of politics, not capacity.

There is no shortage of drama in thousands of desperate people risking life and limb to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean in rickety boats or enduring the hazards of land journeys through the Balkans. The available numbers suggest that most of these people are refugees from deadly conflict in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. Eritreans — another large group — fled a brutally repressive government. The largest group — the Syrians — fled the dreadful combination of their government’s indiscriminate attacks, including by barrel bombs and suffocating sieges, and atrocities by ISIS and other extremist groups. Only a minority of migrants arriving in Europe, these numbers suggest, were motivated solely by economic betterment.

This “wave of people” is more like a trickle when considered against the pool that must absorb it. The European Union’s population is roughly 500 million. The latest estimate of the numbers of people using irregular means to enter Europe this year via the Mediterranean or the Balkans is approximately 340,000. In other words, the influx this year is only 0.068 percent of the EU’s population. Considering the EU’s wealth and advanced economy, it is hard to argue that Europe lacks the means to absorb these newcomers. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

The refugee crisis requires much more than crisis management

Christopher Dickey writes: Ad hoc measures will be taken here and there, as we have seen, but they will do little more than displace the flood, not stop it:

The boats pushing into the Med from North Africa were never very seaworthy, but now they have to be completely expendable, ready to be seized, and to be written off, or to sink and be written off, by the gangs that launched them leaking and overloaded in the first place.

Close the borders with the Balkan states, and refugees climb into sealed trucks like that putrid 18-wheeler in Austria.

The only medium- and long-term solution for this horrific global problem is to build peace in the war zones of Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia, — the three countries that account for more than half of the world’s refugees; impose order on the chaos of Libya; deliver some modicum of freedom and prosperity in West and East Africa; and greater social and economic justice in Latin America.

To do that requires reliable long-term policies to promote development and good governance, not just the tossing of a few millions of dollars or euros here or there, or preaching about a system of globalized free trade that has made the rich so much richer and the poor, by comparison, so much poorer. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

U.S. operates drones from secret bases in Somalia

Foreign Policy reports: Some say the Americans are everywhere. Some say they are nowhere. Still others say they are everywhere and nowhere at once. But the shadowy U.S. presence in this strategic port city in war-torn southern Somalia has clear consequences for anyone with a share of power here. That includes Somali regional officials who are quick to praise American counterterrorism efforts, African Union forces who rely on U.S. intelligence as they battle back al-Shabab, and even the al Qaeda-linked militants themselves, who are increasingly hemmed in by a lethal combination of AU-led counterinsurgency, airstrikes, and raids by U.S. special operators.

Based out of a fortress of fading green Hesco barriers at the ramshackle airport in Kismayo, a team of special operators from the Joint Special Operations Command, the elite U.S. military organization famous for killing Osama bin Laden, flies drones and carries out other counterterrorism activities, multiple Somali government and African Union sources have confirmed. Their presence in this volatile city, which until 2012 was controlled by al-Shabab, has not previously been reported. Nor has the United States acknowledged operating drones from Somali soil. (Unmanned armed and surveillance flights are said to originate from Camp Lemonnier in nearby Djibouti or from bases in neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia.)

“They have a base over there,” Abdighani Abdi Jama, state minister for the presidency in the interim regional administration in Kismayo, said of U.S. forces, gesturing to a heavily fortified compound not far from the airport’s small terminal. He confirmed that as many as 40 U.S. military personnel are currently stationed in Kismayo, roughly 300 miles south of the capital of Mogadishu, where he said they operate drones from the airport’s single runway and carry out covert “intelligence” and “counterterrorism” operations. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

How Somalia’s Al Shabaab turned against its own foreign fighters

Jeremy Scahill reports: U.S. counterterrorism agencies have long been preoccupied with the threat posed by the recruiting successes of the Somali terrorist group al Shabaab in Western countries. The group has managed to lure hundreds of foreign fighters — including some 40 Americans — to Somalia through online propaganda videos and word-of-mouth in disaffected immigrant communities.

In recent years, however, al Shabaab has turned on the foreign fighters in its own ranks, waging a brutal campaign to purge the perceived spies from its midst. An intimate account of the Shabaab civil war was provided to The Intercept in a series of interviews conducted with a current member of al Shabaab and a source who has maintained close contacts with the group.

Al Shabaab has assassinated several foreign fighters on the CIA’s kill/capture list over the past few years and currently runs a network of secret prisons that hold, on charges of spying, U.S., British and other Western citizens who came to Somalia to join Shabaab, The Intercept has found. Shabaab operatives torture detainees using techniques such as waterboarding, beatings, and food and sleep deprivation, and conduct public executions of suspected spies, including by crucifixion. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

John Kerry has unannounced meeting at Mogadishu airport

The Associated Press reports: “More than 20 years ago, the United States was forced to pull back from your country,” Kerry said [at a meeting with Somalia’s president and prime minister and several regional chiefs and civil society groups], invoking the “Black Hawk Down” debacle when 18 servicemen died after Somali militiamen shot down two U.S. helicopters and a subsequent rescue mission failed. “Now we are returning.”

The trip was made under tight security. Somalia’s government only learned a day ago that Kerry would join the State Department’s top Africa official, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, on the trip. U.S. officials closely controlled access to the conference building where the discussions took place, an edifice encased by 6-foot high piles of sandbags and ringed by fencing wire.

The actual meeting room was bleak and dark, illuminated by a single fluorescent light overhead. Down the street African peacekeeping troops sat at picnic tables as oily streaks of airplane fuel glimmered in the Indian Ocean. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Kenya’s wrongheaded approach to terrorism

Hussein Khalid writes: The merciless killing of more than 140 innocent students at Kenya’s Garissa University College last month by al-Shabab terrorists requires a serious government response — both from Kenya and the United States. Unfortunately, my government has decided to double down on a long-standing counterterrorism strategy that includes human rights abuses and the indiscriminate targeting of the country’s Muslims. This is guaranteed to make the situation worse, not better. As Kenya’s loyal partner, the United States must persuade Nairobi to drop this unsound strategy.

The Kenyan government is cracking down on those who have sought to engage in counter-radicalization efforts simply because they have dared to question its tactics. Without presenting any evidence, Kenya’s top police official recently tried to label my nongovernmental organization, Haki Africa, which documents and challenges human rights abuses perpetrated by Kenyan security forces, as a possible associate of al-Shabab. Our bank account was frozen simply because of the work that we do. Another organization, Muslims for Human Rights, was similarly targeted.

This action was just the latest in an increasingly worrying trend of harassment and intimidation of civil society organizations. Such a heavy-handed approach is more than unjust; it is also ineffective and counterproductive. By alienating an important and sizable Kenyan community, the government is losing a key ally in its fight against violent extremism. If this pattern continues, I fear the security situation in my country can only get worse. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail