Since 2018 American UAV operations in Somalia have concentrated on the 4,000 or so local al Shabaab Islamic terrorists because the few (about 200 men) ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) members in the country have dispersed and changed its tactics. From 2015 to 2017 the main target of American UAV operations in Somalia was ISIL In late 2018 this led to speculation that the United States would halt UAV operations in Somalia because the U.S. was pulling troops out of overseas battle zones where American troops were not essential. Somalia was not subject to this new policy because few American troops are stationed inside Somalia and those that are there are either part of an international military training effort for the new Somali army. The main purpose of the UAV operations in Somalia (including Puntland and Somaliland) is to deal with international Islamic terrorists like ISIL or al Qaeda (which al Shabaab technically belongs to). The UAV effort does not depend on any American troops in Somalia and is operated out of a joint (U.S.-French) special operations base in neighboring Djibouti (which is not a combat zone).
There were some UAV attacks against ISIL in 2017 but none in 2018. It is no secret that there are still some ISIL in Somalia but the few that remain are maintaining a low profile, especially in the Puntland highlands where most of them are. There ISIL is getting by as bandits, too busy with that to pose much of an international Islamic terrorist threat. Then there is the local politics angle. The ISIL operations in Puntland are run by a local fellow with ties to the powerful local Ali Salebaan clan. In return for clan patronage (protection), the local ISIL faction played by clan rules. Banditry is permitted but large scale attacks are not. Since 2015 ISIL has been trying to take advantage of local (Puntland and Galmudug) clan feuds to establish a presence in Puntland. This began in October 2015 when an al Shabaab faction declared that it was now the local branch of ISIL. The ISIL members up there were largely former al Shabaab men who wanted more violence or whatever. ISIL was more daring and dangerous than mainstream Islamic terror groups like al Qaeda (which al Shabaab associates with as well as seeks to destroy) but is also self-destructive as ISIL considers any other Islamic terror group a potential enemy (if the other group does not recognize ISIL as the leader).
The small ISIL factions in Somalia (the main one in Puntland and smaller ones in and around Mogadishu and another in the southeast) are still violent, but mainly in the form of assassinations against those who resist extortion demands and, increasingly, against al Shabaab leaders who are most effective in finding and killing ISIL members. As of 2019 al Shabaab is officially at war with ISIL and making progress because al Shabaab has far more members in Somalia than ISIL regards their war with ISIL as a more typical Somali blood feud that is made more urgent with each al Shabaab member killed by ISIL death squads. While the Somali ISIL groups have received some foreign ISIL members (refugees from the defeats in Iraq and Syria) the Somali ISIL are almost all local Somalis who concentrate most of their energies on fighting al Shabaab. ISIL has always attracted a lot of hard core al Shabaab members who saw al Shabaab as going soft and not violent enough to accomplish their goal of imposing a religious dictatorship on Somalia. ISIL offered a more violent alternative and those new recruits keep the local ISIL factions going and slowly growing.
There are still some al Shabaab factions that show up (in chatter or whatever that foreign intel agencies can detect) as still trying to support violence outside of Somalia. Often this is other African states like Kenya or Uganda. Since these two countries supply many of the AU (African Union) peacekeepers, the Americans go after any al Shabaab cells that appear to be planning violence in neighboring states.
ISIL has long favored assassinations against intelligence and counterterrorism officers and has carried out more and more of these in the last few years. Gradually more al Shabaab leaders have been added to the target list as well as “economic targets” (those who resist ISIL extortion demands). ISIL tries to carry out as many assassinations are possible in Mogadishu, where there are a lot of targets. But that city also has a lot of Somali police and soldiers along with many peacekeepers. More importantly, Mogadishu has reliable cell phone service which means hostile locals can easily become anonymous informants who reveal ISIL presence to the police who then often succeed in arresting of killing local ISIL operatives. ISIL has adapted to the hostile environment in Mogadishu and during 2018 ISIL carried out more assassinations in Mogadishu while becoming more successful in evading the local security forces. Because of the small number of ISIL operatives in Mogadishu a few arrests there could stall ISIL death squad activity for a while, but only until ISIL replacements could be brought in from Puntland or the southeastern faction. The success of these new ISIL tactics in Somalia was recognized by ISIL in 2018 as the Somali operations were increasingly praised in ISIL propaganda (mainly via the Internet) as an example of how to survive and thrive in a hostile environment. Worldwide ISIL thinks highly of these assassination operations. This can be seen when ISIL releases (as it increasingly does) statistics on its operations. Worldwide most of the ISIL “operations” are assassinations. In Somalia 85 percent of claimed ISIL operations are assassinations and that included many that were attributed to some other reason (personal feud or job related retaliation).
January 6, 2019: In the southeast (Lower Shabelle region), an American UAV used a missile to destroy an al Shabaab vehicle and kill six al Shabaab gunmen. This is the second American airstrike in Somalia for 2019. The first one was on the 2nd in the same area and left ten al Shabaab dead. In 2018 the U.S. carried out at 45 of these air attacks in Somalia compared to 35 for all of 2017, 15 for 2016, 11 in 2015 and three in 2014. These air attacks are often a side effect of intel agencies (like the CIA) collecting intelligence (aerial surveillance and electronic monitoring) on Islamic terrorist activity in the region. This information is used to track changes in al Shabaab forces and capabilities and identify targets the Somali special operations forces can go after. These attacks are meant to disrupt al Shabaab operations or eliminate (capture or kill) their key leaders. These raids get noticed but the Somali special operations troops also carry out some surveillance missions which are purposely kept out of the news because these operations are mainly about future attacks.
January 5, 2019: West of Mogadishu (near Baidoa), local al Shabaab forces tried to take a small army base but were repulsed (with the aid of reinforcements arriving quickly). At least 14 of the attackers died along with eight soldiers. Army bases and camps near Baidoa are constantly attacked by local al Shabaab who find their extortion and intimidations operations constrained by the continued army presence.
January 1, 2019: The government expelled the top UN official in Somalia because he had criticized the arrest of former al Shabaab leader Mukhtar Robow on December 13th. The UN protested the expulsion and said it would quickly send a replacement.
Al Shabaab fired some mortar shells at the main peacekeeper base near the Mogadishu airport. The shells caused no injuries or casualties.
December 22, 2018: In Mogadishu, two al Shabaab suicide car bombers (one outside the presidential compound and another near a prison) killed 26, including seven soldiers.
December 21, 2018: Al Shabaab announced it was officially at war with the much smaller ISIL force in Somalia. This was in response to a December 16th ISIL announcement that it was going to war with al Shabaab and also posted pictures of 14 dead al Shabaab men they had recently killed in Puntland (where most local ISIL men are). Actually, the two groups have been fighting each other since 2015 but now it is official.
December 19, 2018: In the southwest, the long delayed regional elections took place today and a candidate known to be cooperative with the national government was elected as president of the South West state. The favored candidate, former al Shabaab leader Mukhtar Robow, was prevented from running when the federal government arrested him on the 13th and persuaded neighboring Ethiopia to send in troops to temporarily occupy key towns in the Southwest to prevent violent opposition to keeping Robow out of the election. These elections were supposed have taken place on November 17th but were delayed three times as the government sought to block Robow from running and becoming the president of the South West state. The official cause of all the delays is that local voting facilities were not ready. The delays are really about the federal government objecting to Robow, who was trying to run for this high political office and push for more religious control of government functions. Robow is an Islamic scholar and avid supporter of the Sufi form of Islam (which has long been dominant among many Somalis). Al Shabaab and especially ISIL are generally hostile to Sufis because Sufis tend to shun Islamic terrorism and religious violence in general. Yet many current al Shabaab members are (or were Sufi.) Islamic terrorist groups tend to follow one of the more traditional and violent Sunni forms of Islam. The federal government believes Robow is ineligible because he had not complied with all the terms of his surrender and amnesty deal. Al Shabaab also wants to prevent Robow from getting elected because that would make al Shabaab appear less legitimate in the eyes of many Somalis.
These presidential elections in the new federal states have to be carried out by 2019 and Robow had a chance of winning. This ban is all about Robow refusing to renounce Islamic terrorism or support for an Islamic religious dictatorship has the best form of government. Robow never denounced al Shabaab but surrendered to the government in 2017 to avoid getting killed by rival al Shabaab factions. At the start of 2018 al Shabaab officially declared one of their former senior leaders, Mukhtar Robow, an apostate and called on all good Moslems to try and kill him. That was because of how Robow organized his departure from al Shabaab. In mid-2017 Robow effectively aligned himself and his al Shabaab faction with the government. These negotiations were kept somewhat quiet but by late June 2017, it became difficult to conceal. That was when several hundred additional troops passed through Hudur, the capital of the Bakool region in central Somalia. The soldiers were there in case fighting broke out between Robow and other al Shabaab factions that wanted to kill him for negotiating with the government. Robow has been feuding with other al Shabaab leaders since 2010 over strategy and since 2013 has essentially declared that his al Shabaab faction (from his Rahanweyn clan, which dominates the region) was going to defend clan territory and do little else for al Shabaab. That meant al Shabaab men could move through Bakool but government forces would be resisted.
Back in 2012, the U.S. had offered a $5 million reward for anyone who would make it possible to capture or kill Robow. But in mid- June 2017 that reward was quietly withdrawn and by August the U.S. made peace with Robow. This soon led to several al Shabaab leaders demanding that al Shabaab mass its depleted forces and punish Robow for this suspected betrayal. Many al Shabaab still blame Robow for the loss of Mogadishu in 2011. That mess began in 2010 when Robow (then al Shabaab deputy commander-in-chief) split with the group and withdrew his forces from Mogadishu. That also meant he was no longer the spokesman for the group or the deputy commander. The weakened and disorganized al Shabaab forces were then much less able to resist the pro-government clans/peacekeeper offensive to take control of the city.
Robow's complaint was that foreign terrorists were increasingly taking over al Shabaab, sometimes killing those who objected. At the time six al Qaeda foreigners were members of the ten man Sura Council (the al Shabaab supreme command) versus four Somalis. The defection of Robow meant al Shabaab lost about a quarter of its gunmen. That was when al Shabaab began recruiting more teenagers (who are easier to recruit, but aren't as effective in combat) to replace the older, more experienced men they were losing to combat injuries, desertion and defection. Al Shabaab also has to contend with the fact that most Somalis now hated the Islamic radicals and were increasing demonstrating that attitude by fleeing areas ruled by al Shabaab.
In mid-2017 the Somali government did not want Mukhtar Robow to get killed by al Shabaab because that would cause more fighting in central Somalia and enable al Shabaab to continue moving through an area that is the safest route for al Shabaab from northern to southern Somalia. Robow negotiated a peace deal with the government and al Shabaab suddenly has a much more difficult time moving from north to south and, in effect, al Shabaab forces in the south (mostly near the Kenyan border) and north (mostly in Puntland) were isolated from each other and easier to defeat. Robow took advantage of the situation and made the best deal (for himself and his clan) he could with the government.
December 17, 2018: Across the Gulf of Aden the Yemen civil war is winding down and a side effect of that has been a revival of people smuggling into Yemen from Somalia over the last two years. In 2017 about 100,000 illegal migrants came in and in 2018 that appears to have increased to 150,000. About 90 percent of these migrants are from Ethiopia while most of the remainder are from Somalia. Until the Yemen civil war broke out in 2015 people smuggling from Somalia (Somaliland) and Djibouti was a major criminal enterprise with over 10,000 foreigners arriving each month and then being moved north (mainly to Gulf oil states where cheap labor was in demand). The smuggling gangs had arrangements, especially with tribal leaders, throughout Yemen to allow the movement of the smuggled foreigners, for a fee. After 2015 the traffic began to go both ways with thousands of Yemeni refugees reaching Somaliland (often on smuggler boats that had carried African refugees to Yemen) each month. Meanwhile, the movement of Somalis (and other Africans) to Yemen continued with 100,000 arriving in 2015 and 115,000 in 2016. The civil war keeps most of these illegal migrants in UN supported refugee camps. Those with money can hire smugglers to take them across the Gulf of Aden to Sudan and from there to the Mediterranean coast and another boat to Europe. Since 2017 routes north to Saudi Arabia became usable and the people smugglers again had a way to get their customers to their destination.
December 16, 2018: South of Mogadishu, American UAVs carried out six attacks on al Shabaab targets near the coast over the last two days. These attacks left at least 62 al Shabaab men dead.
December 13, 2018: West of Mogadishu (Baidoa), former al Shabaab leader (and now local politician) Mukhtar Robow was invited to a meeting with government officials. Instead, Robow was arrested by Ethiopian peacekeepers and taken to a nearby Ethiopian base. As expected local Robow supporters clashed with soldiers in several towns, leaving at least eleven civilians and soldiers dead. Robow remained under arrest.
Some 37 kilometers off the coast an Indian warship belonging to the international anti-piracy patrol found and seized another fishing boat smuggling weapons to Somalia. This is the second such smuggler boat the Indian warship has seized since December 8th. Anti-piracy patrols have moved closer to the Somali coast because the remaining pirate gangs have shifted their focus to coastal waters where are smaller targets (local coastal cargo vessels and foreign fishing trawlers operating illegally). The money is not as good as the multi-million dollar fees paid to get back large container ships, freighters and tankers but the loot from these smaller ships keeps many pirates in business.
December 11, 2018: The government announced it has sold fishing licenses to Chinese firms that would allow 31 Chinese tuna fishing trawlers to operate off Somalia but no closer than 44 kilometers from the Somali coast. This would keep the Chinese trawlers out of coastal waters used by most Somali fishing boats.
December 6, 2018: In the southeast, six soldiers were killed by an al Shabaab roadside bomb.