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Somalia sees enemy al-Shabab weaken under U.S. military pressure

After years of civil war and upheaval, Somalia is struggling to its feet, and the U.S. is back in with boots on the ground and drones in the skies. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson and videographer Alessandro Pavone report on the ways the U.S. and other African partner nations are helping Somali forces fight al-Shabab militants on a very complex battlefield.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But first, The last time most Americans thought of the East African nation of Somalia was a quarter-century ago, when U.S. troops died fighting in the capital, Mogadishu.

    Now, after years of civil war and upheaval, the country is struggling to its feet. And the U.S. is back in Somalia, with boots on the ground and drones in the skies. Just last week, the U.S. launched more airstrikes against the Islamist militant group Al-Shabaab. The group struck Mogadishu Friday night with suicide bombers and gunmen. More than 40 people died in that attack.

    As special correspondent Jane Ferguson and videographer Alessandro Pavone found, the U.S. and African partner nations are helping Somali forces fight that insurgency on a very complex battlefield.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The soldiers patrolling this dangerous road are a long way from home. They are Ugandans, stationed here in Malia as part of an African Union peacekeeping force.

    They search for bombs planted by fighters from Al-Shabaab, Somalia's powerful Islamist militant group. Allied with al-Qaida, Al-Shabaab gunmen have enjoyed a freedom here few armed groups have had anywhere in the world, ruling over swathes of this country for years, attacking the central government's security forces, and even making videos to celebrate their attacks.

    The African Union troops have been here for 12 years, and aren't alone in this fight. They work alongside the Somali national army, local militias, and, increasingly, Americans. The U.S. military began conducting drone strikes and Special Forces raids here under the Obama administration.

    Since President Trump entered the White House, the drone strikes have more than doubled from 14 in 2016 to at least 34 in 2017. Last November, U.S. boots on the ground officially increased from 50 to 500. American commanders say they want to prevent Somalia from becoming a hub for other groups like ISIS.

    In May 2017, U.S. Navy SEAL Kyle Milliken was killed during an operation against Al-Shabaab. His was the first U.S. military death in Somalia since the Black Hawk Down incident in 1993, where 18 U.S. soldiers were killed in clashes with local fighters.

    It is believed that at least hundreds of Somalis died also that day.

  • Col. Chris Ogwal:

    We have seen them personally in area around June. And there were some Special Forces moving their vehicle. And these strikes, we could hear, even beyond across the river where we are not present. We could hear bombs during the day, during at night.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Do you feel in the field here that American drone strikes targeting their leadership, Special Forces operations, does that help weaken them? Have you seen a difference?

  • Col. Chris Ogwal:

    Absolutely. And that is what has caused a lot of fear in them these days, because at times we could hear the drones moving around, and we hear bombs.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    That fear has forced Al-Shabaab from an active army into shadow, from controlling towns and cities into an insurgency, hiding in rural areas.

  • Abdirahman Omar Osman:

    And now every time they move one place to another, they believe that we are doing an airstrike, so they are more cautious.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Somalia's information minister says his government has watched its enemy weaken under U.S. military pressure.

  • Abdirahman Omar Osman:

    We fully appreciate the support that we get from the Americans in that. Otherwise, we wouldn't have enjoyed the peace that we are enjoying in Mogadishu.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Because you think that the drone strikes have them on the run?

  • Abdirahman Omar Osman:

    Absolutely, not only on the run, but also to believe that they cannot hide anymore.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The capital city, Mogadishu, for decades synonymous with war, is starting to know peace again. On patrol with African Union soldiers, the danger of an ambush or a hidden roadside bomb is always there, but so too are surreal moments of calm.

    Stopping to get out of our armored vehicles, we found a park. No guns allowed here, just bird song and families enjoying the cooler winter weather, and these teenagers hanging out. Everyone we spoke with said they feel safe.

    "There are no problems here, the situation is very good," 19-year-old Najma told me.

    Down the road at Lido Beach, we found joyful scenes, and Somalis eager to chat with us.

    Life seems to have improved here?

  • Mohammed Abdi:

    Yeah, a lot. It's like the risk is minimized and the Somali security apparatus can do their part.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    You are confident in that?

  • Mohammed Abdi:

    Yeah, yeah. We are confident in that.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Although security has improved for Somalis in the capital, Al-Shabaab are still able to strike weaker, softer targets through suicide bombings.

    In October last year, a truck bomb killed over 500 civilians in Mogadishu. It was one of the deadliest terrorist bombings anywhere ever. Despite this, everyone we spoke with in the city said life is much less dangerous than it has been in years.

    The newfound security is welcome here, even though some question the methods used to provide it. The U.S. military's involvement in the war here in Somalia happens in the shadows.

    Drone strikes and Special Forces operations take place inside Al-Shabaab territory. That has some people worried here about accountability.

  • Abdirizaq Omar Mohamed:

    The government officials do not have access to assess the damage and so on and so forth. So, it's — the public is not aware of the collateral damage.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Until last year, Abdirizaq Omar Mohamed was Somalia's internal security minister. He suspects that civilian deaths in drone strikes are being kept a secret.

  • Abdirizaq Omar Mohamed:

    Basically, we have to believe what the Americans tell us, that they have shot and killed Al-Shabaab leaders. So that's where we are.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Concern is also growing over how the U.S. decides who to hit with each attack. In taking on Al-Shabaab, the U.S. military is targeting a dangerous militant organization. The social landscape within which that fight takes place, however, is extremely complicated, and avoiding getting involved in local armed disputes and rivalries very important.

    Somalia's conflict is not simply a matter of Al-Shabaab vs. the government. At the same time, there are many clans, Somalia's version of tribes, fighting each other all across the country.

    In Somalia, even farmers carry guns to protect their property, so American forces need local informants to identify who is Al-Shabaab and who is not. In August of last year, a joint U.S. Special Forces and Somali forces raid on the town of Bariire killed 10 people.

    Outraged family members took these pictures, insisting the victims were just farmers, including young boys. Clan leader from the area Abdal Ilmi Hassan spoke with the NewsHour about the incident. He says a rival clan trying to push them off their land lied to the American Special Forces, telling them his people were Al-Shabaab.

  • Abdal Ilmi Hassan:

    (Through interpreter) Some clan men called us and said, "We used the Americans against you and will use them again, so leave the area."

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The U.S. military in Africa wouldn't speak to the "NewsHour" on camera, but have insisted the men and boys killed that day were enemy combatants.

    The bitterness left behind is clear.

  • Abdal Ilmi Hassan:

    (Through interpreter) The Americans came here to support the people, but the people ended up hating them because of that misinformation. I wish they would be more careful about any information they are given. They shouldn't be drawn into a conflict among clans.

    I honestly don't think the Americans have any interest in killing any clan or civilians, but the wrong information being given to them causes this.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Somalia's future depends on reconciling the warring clans. Since the government collapsed in 1991, fighting between them has made building a functioning state near impossible.

    The current government is often ineffective as a result of infighting amongst the clans. It's those divisions that Al-Shabaab feeds off. We met with this defector from the group, who said the weaker clans are more likely to join with Al-Shabaab while there is no peace.

  • Man:

    (Through interpreter) The minority clans are oppressed by the main clans. Their properties are taken and there is no justice for them. These people join voluntarily to get justice. Al-Shabaab are the only people who can give them that.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    It's a cycle that has been going on here for decades. The lack of a state means people often turn to armed groups for protection, strengthening the militants, which makes building any state with the power to enforce law and order all the more difficult.

    Every night in Mogadishu now, African Union troops supervise the Somali police at checkpoints, looking out for Al-Shabaab bombs and fighters slipping into the city under darkness. These soldiers won't be here forever. They are planning to leave in 2020 and have already started a slow drawdown.

    When they are gone, the weak Somali forces will be left to face Al-Shabaab by themselves, with only their American partners fighting with them.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jane Ferguson in Mogadishu, Somalia.

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