US-targeted Daesh in Somalia could be a ‘significant threat’
The country with its weak govt already struggles to combat Al-Shabab
MOGADISHU: The Daesh 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-Shabab extremists to adopt tactics like beheadings.
The US military this month carried out its first drone strikes against Daesh 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.
Daesh 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, Daesh 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-Shabab, an ally of Al-Qaeda, which is blamed for last month’s truck bombing in 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-Shabab and now Daesh.
Two years ago, some of its fighters began to split away to join Daesh. Some small pro-Daesh cells have been reported in Al-Shabab’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 Daesh 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 Daesh extremists.
The UN experts documented at least one shipment of small arms, including machine guns, delivered to the Daesh fighters from Yemen. “The majority of arms supplied to the ISIL faction originate in Yemen,” Daesh defectors told them.
A phone number previously used by the Daesh’s US-sanctioned leader, Abdulqadir Mumin, showed “repeated contact” with a phone number selector used by a Yemenbased man who reportedly serves as an intermediary with senior Daesh leaders in Iraq and Syria, the experts’ report says.
While Daesh in Somalia has a small number of foreign fighters, the Puntland government’s weak control over the rural Bari region where the terror group is based “renders it a potential haven” for foreign Daesh fighters, the report says.
Daesh’s growing presence brought an angry response from Al-Shabab, 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-Shabab arrested dozens of members accused of sympathizing with Daesh 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-Shabab control have suffered. “Possibly in response to the growing prominence of ISIL, Al-Shabab imposed more violent punishments, including amputations, beheading and stoning, on those found guilty of spying...,” the new UN report says.
Al-Shabab militants sit outside a building in Dayniile, Somalia, in a file photo. (Reuters)