U.S. drone strike kills more than 150 at Somalia terrorist camp, military says
March 8, 2016 12:00 AM
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
In this Feb. 13, 2015 file photo, Lisa Monaco, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, speaks in Stanford, Calif.
The United States launched a series of airstrikes on an al-Shabab training camp in Somalia on Saturday, killing 150 militants and averting what a Pentagon official Monday described as an “imminent threat” posed by the group to both U.S. and African Union troops stationed in the war-torn country.
The U.S. attack, the deadliest against al-Shabab in more than a decade and the most destructive it has conducted in North Africa in several years, involved both manned and unmanned aircraft, according to a senior defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly about the operation. There were believed to be no civilian casualties in the strike, although the Pentagon is still assessing the situation, said the official.
News of the attack comes as the White House announced Monday that it will disclose how many people have been killed by American drones and other counterterrorism strikes since 2009, when President Barack Obama took office.
Lisa Monaco, Mr. Obama’s counterterrorism and homeland security adviser, said the report will be released “in the coming weeks,” casting it as part of a commitment to transparency for U.S. actions overseas. Ms. Monaco said the figures would be disclosed annually in the future, although it will ultimately be up to Mr. Obama’s successor to decide whether to continue the practice.
The report will include both combatants and civilians the U.S. believes have died in strikes. It won’t cover major war zones like Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, but will focus on strikes against extremist targets in other regions such as Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and other locations in North Africa.
“We know that not only is greater transparency the right thing to do, it is the best way to maintain the legitimacy of our counterterrorism actions and the broad support of our allies,” Ms. Monaco said at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The strike on the camp in Raso, approximately 120 miles north of Mogadishu, is the second U.S. attack on a major terrorist training facility in less than a month. In February, a U.S. airstrike targeted an Islamic State training camp in Sabratha, Libya. A senior leader of the group, Noureddine Chouchane, and 48 other IS fighters were killed.
According to the defense official, U.S. intelligence assets had been watching the camp in Somalia for several weeks prior to the strike. The site was home to a large group of fighters who were scheduled to depart in the coming days.
Last month, al-Shabab claimed responsibility for a suicide bomber attack that ripped a hole in the side of an Emirati airliner, forcing the plane to land in Mogadishu. No one was killed except the bomber. A statement from al-Shabab claimed the attack was aimed to target Western and Turkish intelligence officials, and it is thought that the bomber might have been aboard the wrong plane.
“The removal of these fighters degrades al-Shabab’s ability to meet the group’s objectives in Somalia, including recruiting new members, establishing bases, and planning attacks on U.S. and AMISOM forces,” said Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook, using an acronym for the African Union’s troops.
In September 2014, a series of airstrikes killed one of al-Shabab’s founders, Ahmed Abdi Godanen, in an attack the Pentagon said decapitated the group’s senior leadership.
Al-Shabab, means “the youth” in Arabic. The U.S. campaign against the group, which pledged allegiance to al-Qaida in 2012, began in earnest in May 2008. Though the U.S. has continually struck at the group, al-Shabab has remained resilient and locally active despite losing some of its senior leadership.
In 2015, al-Shabab was targeted by the Islamic State group in a propaganda campaign that aimed to convince the group’s leadership to pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of IS. Despite some infighting, the group remained mostly insulated from IS’s growing influence.
According to data compiled by the think tank New America, there have been 15 special operation raids and 12 drone strikes in Somalia since 2003. In 2013, U.S. Navy SEALs carried out a nighttime raid in a bid to kill or capture one of al-Shabab’s senior leaders. The raid turned into a prolonged gun battle after the SEALs were discovered, forcing the commandoes to retreat to the sea.
In the 13 years of U.S. operations in Somalia, the combination of raids and drone strikes have killed approximately 150 al-Shabab and al-Qaida militants. The entirety of the drone strikes, however, have occurred during Mr. Obama’s tenure, as his administration has sought to contain the growth of al-Shabab.
Al-Shabab rebels have lost much of the territory they once controlled in Somalia, as well as the ports that provided revenue to the group. However, the militants have launched regular attacks, including mass shootings and suicide bombings, and still control many rural areas.
Al-Shabab first took control of Mogadishu in 2006 after its fighters ousted local warlords. The Sunni Muslim group quickly enforced its harsh version of Islamic law. Religious police patrolled the streets, and it was illegal to play soccer or listen to music.
Troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia, a rotating force of about 22,000 troops from Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia and Djibouti, retook Mogadishu in 2011 and drove the militants from many towns in the south.
In 2013, a number of al-Shabab militia members seized control of the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in an attack that killed at least 67 people. Last year, the group was responsible for an attack on dormitories at Garissa University College in northeastern Kenya that killed 148 people. On Jan. 22, suicide bombers and gunmen killed 25 people when they stormed an oceanfront restaurant in Mogadishu.
There is a small detachment of approximately 50 U.S. advisers in Somalia aiding the African Union troops stationed in the war-torn country. Their deployment in 2013 marked the first time U.S. ground troops were stationed in the country since a detachment of Rangers and Delta Force soldiers withdrew following the failure of Operation Gothic Serpent, known to many as the Black Hawk Down incident, in 1993. The drones that carried out the strike are seen as likely to have been flown from the small U.S. drone base at Chabelley Airfield in nearby Djibouti.
While sketchy details often emerge about individual drone strikes, the full scope of the U.S. drone program — conducted by both the Defense Department and the CIA — has long been shrouded from view. And the new report is not likely to answer all of the questions.
The U.S. doesn’t publicly disclose all the places its drones operate, so the report isn’t expected to detail specific countries where people died.
Instead, it will offer an aggregate assessment of casualties outside of areas of “active hostilities” — a designation that takes into account the scope and intensity of fighting and is used to determine when Mr. Obama’s specific counterterrorism policies apply. Iraq and Syria, where U.S. airstrikes are pummeling IS, currently are on that list and won’t be in the report, said a senior administration official, who wasn’t authorized to comment publicly and requested anonymity.
“There will obviously be some limitations on where we can be transparent, given a variety of sensitivities — including diplomatic,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
Mr. Obama’s move to shed more light on the drone wars comes as the U.S. struggles to contain extremist groups and violent ideologies that are growing and spreading. For example, IS in Iraq and Syria is spreading to under-governed places in Libya and Afghanistan, and is spawning affiliates and recruits around the world.
Ms. Monaco, the counterterrorism adviser, described the strikes as one tool in a fight against terrorism that has entered a new, unpredictable phase nearly 15 years after the 9/11 attacks. In place of top-down, well-organized groups like al-Qaida, the threat has shifted to a diffuse array of smaller groups and lone actors in what Ms. Monaco dubbed “do-it-yourself terrorism.”
“What keeps me up at night is that this threat is unlike what we’ve seen before,” she said.
Associated Press and Tribune News Service contributed.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – Barack Obama – Somalia – Kenya – Mogadishu – East Africa – United States – Africa – North America – U.S. Department of Defense – Al-Shabab – Islamic State group – United States military – U.S. Navy SEALs – African Union – Al-Qaida – United States government – U.S. Navy
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