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US declares war against Al-Shabaab in latest crackdown

By Abuga Makori in Nairobi , Garowe Online
Gen. Stephen Townsend, the US Africa commander

MOGADISHU, Somalia - The Al-Shabaab militants are now the primary focus for the US in the fight against extremism in Africa, US Africa Command has said, terming the militants an "existential threat" to America's interests.

For over a decade now, Al-Shabaab militants have caused havoc across East Africa, killing close to 4,000 civilians, and dozens of security forces, UN records indicate.

Among areas targeted by the militants include military bases, security checkpoints, eateries, bars, and specific foreign joints. Somalia has borne the brunt of the raids.

Gen. Stephen Townsend, the US Africa commander, now insists that Al-Shabaab is an existential threat to the US and East Africa, adding that Washington is dedicated to "crush" in for the sake of peace.

Townsend, who addressed the House Armed Forces Committee on Tuesday, said "We've been putting a fair amount of pressure on al-Shabaab. If left unchecked I believe that would manifest into an international threat."

As part of a concerted effort to dismember the Al-Qaeda linked group, the US and its partners have increased airstrikes in Somalia, whose target is the Al-Shabaab hideouts in central and southern regions, he said.

By yesterday [Tuesday], the US had conducted a record 26 airstrikes in Somalia, the highest within the same duration in previous years. Nine terrorists have been killed in separate airstrikes within Janaale, Lower Shebelle this week, AFRICOM said.

Surprisingly, that's the highest ever operation outside the US by the special military this year. Somalia raids have now officially surpassed those done in Syria and Iraq against ISIS, thus showing Washington's commitment to bring order in Somalia.

"I would say that the threat is higher, has been higher in the last few months than it was 8 months ago when I first got to AFRICOM," he said. "That's exactly why you've seen this increase in strike activity."

Although greatly degraded, Al-Shabaab has been also waging sporadic attacks within strategic areas. For instance, the militants killed over 20 SNA soldiers at El-Salini military base last month, officials said.

On December 28 last year, Al-Shabaab also detonated an explosive-laden vehicle in Mogadishu, killing over 90 people. In a press statement, the militants said: "We targeted a Turkish convoy" while apologizing to civilians.

The US has remained a major target for the militants in the group's sophisticated operations. Early this year, Al-Shabaab raided a US Naval Base in Manda Bay, killing three Americans on spot.

In a previous appearance at the Senate, Gen. Townsend conceded that "Al-Shabaab caught us unprepared. We are investigating the circumstances of the attack".

Already, the US raids have yielded fruits, killing Bashir Qorgab, a top commander linked to the Manda Airfield raid. He was killed at Saakow town in Middle Juba last month, Pentagon said this week.

While the airstrikes have often targeted Al-Shabaab operatives, the group disputed figures released by AFRICOM last week, arguing that most of the victims were innocent civilians.

Ali Dhere, the group's spokesman, said "the US is not sincere. Out statisticians indicate that 82 percent of airstrikes victims are mainly poor farmers". The US pledged to investigate the claims.

Reports by the UN indicate that the militants have started abandoning remote villages for urban areas. This is due to the fact that the US does not raid towns due to the huge civilian population.

The US is also keen to push for economic prosperity in Somali, noting that "airstrikes alone cannot help us achieve our mission". Women troops are being taught to carry economic seminars in the war-torn nation.

"This is an issue that is embedded in every training event we do on the continent," Townsend, explaining how women are engaged in countering violent extremists in Africa.

Close to 22,000 AMISOM troops are also scheduled for exit from Somalia next year. To cover the anticipated gap, Somali National Army [SNA] is being trained to take over.

The US has slightly over 500 troops in Somalia. So far, it has trained dozens of Danab forces, who are well equipped to help the country defeat Al-Shabaab militants in future encounters, AFRICOM added.

Somalia is also expected to go for polls in December, a move that has informed the US' dialogic approach in the country to quell internal squabbles among political elites.