NEWS

Al-Shabab attracts ISIS to Somalia with increased beheadings

The Islamic State 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 U.S. military this month carried out its first drone strikes against IS 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 U.S. saying "some terrorists" were killed.

The Islamic State group 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 U.S.military advisers.

The US military confirmed a June strike killed eight al-Shabab militants in Somalia. (AP photo via News Edge)

Since then, IS 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-Qaida, which is blamed for last month's truck bombing in the capital, 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 U.S. military on Sunday told The Associated Press it had carried out 26 airstrikes this year against al-Shabab and now the Islamic State group.

For more than a decade, al-Shabab has sought a Somalia ruled by Islamic Shariah law. Two years ago, some of its fighters began to split away to join the Islamic State group. Some small pro-IS cells have been reported in al-Shabab'ssouthern Somalia stronghold, but the most prominent one and the target of U.S. airstrikes is in the north in Puntland, a hotbed of arms smuggling and a short sail from Yemen.

AQAP fighters in Yemen.

The IS fighters in Puntland are now thought to number around 200, according to a U.N. report released this month by experts monitoring sanctions on Somalia. The experts traveled to the region and interviewed several imprisoned IS extremists.

The U.N. experts documented at least one shipment of small arms, including machine guns, delivered to the Islamic State fighters from Yemen. "The majority of arms supplied to the ISIL faction originate in Yemen," IS defectors told them.

A phone number previously used by the IS group's U.S.-sanctioned leader, Abdulqadir Mumin, showed "repeated contact" with a phone number selector used by a Yemen-based man who reportedly serves as an intermediary with senior IS group leaders in Iraq and Syria, the experts' report says.

While the Islamic State group in Somalia has a small number of foreign fighters, the Puntland government's weak control over the rural Bari region where the IS group is based "renders it a potential haven" for foreign IS fighters, the report says.

The IS group'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 the Islamic State faction 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.

Read More: The US just obliterated this al Shabab base in Somalia

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, desertion or breaches of sharia law," the new U.N. report says.

Some Somali officials say al-Shabab has begun to de-escalate its hostility against the IS fighters as its initial concerns about rapid growth have eased. Al-Shabab has begun to see IS in Somalia as a supplementary power that could help its fight against Puntland authorities, said Mohamed Ahmed, a senior counterterrorism official there.

Officials also believe that the Islamic State group has difficulty finding the money to expand. Its fighters are paid from nothing to $50 a month, the U.N. report says.

"For them, getting arms is a lot easier than funds because of the tight anti-terrorism finance regulations," said Yusuf Mohamud, a Somali security expert.

For now, no one but al-Shabab has the ability to carry out the kind of massive bombing that rocked Mogadishu last month. For the Puntland-based IS fighters to even reach the capital, they would have to pass numerous checkpoints manned by Somali security forces or al-Shabab itself.

Talk about harsh conditions...The FAL has also been the chosen weapons of many of the world's insurgent armies. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

That said, two Islamic State fighters who defected from al-Shabab and were later captured told the U.N. experts they had received airline tickets from Mogadishu to Puntland's Galkayo as part of the IS group's "increasingly sophisticated recruitment methods," the U.N. report says.

Scenarios that could lead to IS fighters gaining power include the weakening of al-Shabab by the new wave of U.S. drone strikes, a new offensive by the 22,000-strong African Union force in Somalia or al-Shabab infighting, says the upcoming article by Warner and Weiss.

On the other hand, "it is a strong possibility that given the small size of the cells and waning fortunes of Islamic State globally, the cells might collapse entirely if their leadership is decapitated."

That's exactly what the U.S. military's first airstrikes against the Islamic State fighters this month were aiming to do, Somali officials told the AP. The U.S. says it is still assessing the results.

History

This pilot shot down an enemy fighter at Pearl Harbor in his pajamas

Comfort is important when doing a hard job. If it's hot on the work site, it's important to stay cool. If it's hazardous, proper protection needs to be worn. And comfort is apparently key when the Japanese sneak attack the Navy. Just ask Lt. Phil Rasmussen, who was one of four pilots who managed to get off the ground to fight the Japanese in the air.

Rasmussen, like many other American GIs in Hawaii that day, was still asleep when the Japanese launched the attack at 0755. The Army Air Forces 2nd Lieutenant was still groggy and in his pajamas when the attacking wave of enemy fighters swarmed Wheeler Field and destroyed many of the Army's aircraft on the ground.

Damaged aircraft on Hickam Field, Hawaii, after the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

There were still a number of outdated Curtiss P-36A Hawk fighters that were relatively untouched by the attack. Lieutenant Rasmussen strapped on a .45 pistol and ran out to the flightline, still in his pajamas, determined to meet the sucker-punching Japanese onslaught.

By the time the attack ended, Wheeler and Hickam Fields were both devastated. Bellows Field also took a lot of damage, its living quarters, mess halls, and chapels strafed by Japanese Zeros. American troops threw back everything they could muster – from anti-aircraft guns to their sidearms. But Rasmussen and a handful of other daring American pilots managed to get in the air, ready to take the fight right back to Japan in the Hawks if they had to. They took off under fire, but were still airborne.

Pearl Harbor pilots Harry Brown, Phil Rasmussen, Ken Taylor, George Welch, and Lewis Sanders.

They made it as far as Kaneohe Bay.

The four brave pilots were led by radio to Kaneohe, where they engaged 11 enemy fighters in a vicious dogfight. Even in his obsolete old fighter, Rasmussen proved that technology is no match for good ol' martial skills and courage under fire. He managed to shoot down one of the 11, but was double-teamed by two attacking Zeros.

Gunfire and 20mm shells shattered his canopy, destroyed his radio, and took out his hydraulic lines and rudder cables. He was forced out of the fighting, escaping into nearby clouds and making his way back to Wheeler Field. When he landed, he did it without brakes, a rudder, or a tailwheel.

There were 500 bullet holes in the P-36A's fuselage.

Skillz.

Lieutenant Rasmussen earned the Silver Star for his boldness and would survive the war, getting his second kill in 1943. He retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1965, but will live on in the Museum of the United States Air Force, forever immortalized as he hops into an outdated aircraft in his pajamas.

(U.S. Air Force photo)

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