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Record US airstrikes force Al-Shabaab to take refuge at urban centers in Somalia

By Staff reporter , Garowe Online

MOGADISHU, Somalia - Al-Shabaab militants have changed tactics, moving back to major urban centers in Somalia, a UN report has observed, in a strategy meant to shield them from frequent airstrikes.

To crush the militants, the US, in collaboration with SNA soldiers, the US military has focused central and southern Somalia, where the militants had shifted to after losing battle in urban centers.

In 2011, SNA troops and AU forces flushed the militants out of Mogadishu and other major towns, forcing a number of them to retreat to villages, the UN observes.

And it's in these villages that the militants have managed to use for recruitment and training, forcing the US military to launch airstrikes.

But the recent record-breaking airstrikes, the UN report notes, has forced the Al-Shabaab to return to urban centers "to mitigate American airpower".

The report also detailed that improvised explosive attacks carried out by the al-Qaida-affiliated Islamic extremist group are up.

From May 1, 2019 to Oct. 12, 3019, Shabab fighters carried out 99 IED attacks —which is an increase from the 83 carried out by the group during the same period in 2018, according to the UN.

Throughout 2019, the report indicates, the US managed to unleash 63 airstrikes, mainly within Jubaland and Hirshebelle, where the militants had taken refuge due to remoteness.

Michael Rubin, a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, told Military Times that the "urban environment will offer some degree of protection to the Al-Shabaab".

Usually, the airstrikes do not target urban areas due to huge presence of civilians, whose protection is vital in the mission to vanquish Al-Shabaab, he added.

Besides taking refuge in urban centers for protection, the Al-Shabaab is also keen to expand tax empire in those towns, further explaining their mass exodus from villages.

“Al-Shabab has always sought out control of the cities for financial reasons; they make money by taxing commerce, issuing licenses and seek ultimately to run the ports, as they did before,” Rubin added.

This year, to add to the record 63 airstrikes of 2019, the US has so far conducted another 14, mainly in Lower Juba, killing dozens of militants, Maj. Karl Wiest, a spokesman for AFRICOM, said.

Jilib town is the unofficial headquarters of the Al-Shabaab militants, and so far this year, two compounds have been dismembered, with several sophisticated weapons also being destroyed, AFRICOM added.

Wiest said the strikes have hurt Shabab’s ability to plot and carry out attacks across East Africa and have impacted the “terrorists’ command and control, as well as their ability to mass and maneuver.”

But even with significant gains in the villages, recent reports indicate that the Al-Shabaab is almost taking over Mogadishu, imposing it's mafia-style taxation tactics, a number of businessmen told the media in Nairobi.

The puzzle would now force the US and allied forces to reinvent their approach, with an aim of flushing the militants from the capital, which had experienced relative calm.

Also, the US has indicated a possibility of withdrawing a number of troops from Africa, a move that could jeopardize efforts to completely crush the militants.

But Defense Secretary Mark Esper defended the move, which would affect over 7,000 troops in Africa, rebuffing claims that the strategy will have a negative devastating effect.

“I know the inclination is whenever someone says ‘review,’ the word that automatically pops up in their head is ‘reduction,’” Esper told reporters. “It is a rebalancing.”

“In some cases, we will increase, in some cases, we won’t change, and in some cases, we will decrease,” Esper said.

Currently, there are close to 600 US elite forces in Somalia, whose main duty is to offer logistical support besides training SNA forces, AFRICOM said.