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U.S. Airstrikes In Somalia Target Al-Shabab Training Facility


Let's ask just what the United States has been accomplishing in the war in Somalia. The Pentagon says U.S. planes struck a training camp over the weekend and killed 150 fighters. They were with the group al-Shabab, which denies losing quite so many people in the strike. Seth Jones studies terrorist groups at the Rand Corp. and has visited Somalia more than once in the past year. Welcome to the program, sir.

SETH JONES: It's good to be on. Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: He's in our studios. What would have been at that training camp in Somalia?

JONES: Well, what al-Shabab has done at these training camps is put a number of fighters, weapons and other equipment in preparation for ground fighting against African Union and U.S. forces operating in Somalia, so lots of people and equipment.

INSKEEP: The Pentagon said there was an imminent threat. Any idea what kind of threat people at a training camp like that could pose?

JONES: Well, two kinds of threats. One is they've been using camps like this to pre-position equipment and personnel for some of the big strikes. We've seen them target airplanes, including one out of Mogadishu. We've also seen al-Shabab...

INSKEEP: Target airplanes how exactly? You mean on the ground or with anti-aircraft fire of some kind?

JONES: Well, both. But, I mean, they took an aircraft down out of Mogadishu by smuggling explosives onto the airplane. But they have also conducted ground attacks at these camps, meaning pre-positioned fighters and then advanced against African Union forces like the Kenyans and Ethiopians on the ground in particularly southern Somalia but also areas outside of Mogadishu.

INSKEEP: So we can presume that the U.S. believed that something like that was going on or could have gone on from that camp that was struck over the weekend?

JONES: Yeah, al-Shabab has been very active, so we can presume that they have been involved in some combination of ground combat and these more terrorist strikes.

INSKEEP: What's it like to be in Somalia right now having been there in recent months yourself?

JONES: Well, the whole region, East Africa, is - suffered a pretty serious drought a couple years ago. So there's not a lot. I mean, it's pretty brown, including when you fly over it. What's particularly useful for groups like al-Shabab, though, is they make money off of controlling territory. And that's what they're really trying to do. Port cities like Kismayo, villages like Bardere and Dinsor. By controlling ground, they control the flow of trucks that go into and out of these cities. And that gives them...

INSKEEP: They can tax commerce in effect.

JONES: Yeah, exactly. That gives them money.

INSKEEP: So are they gaining or losing ground in this battle against the U.S. and its allies in the region?

JONES: Since 2011, when al-Shabab controlled about 55 percent of the country, they have lost most of that. They probably control about 5 percent. They have been trying to resurge recently. But over the course of 2012, 13,14 and 15, they lost most of the territory they controlled primarily due to African Union ground operations.

INSKEEP: So what's going so much better there than in the battle against the Islamic State, where there's also a question of how much territory the group could control?

JONES: Al-Shabab's handling of the recent famine did not win them a lot of popular support. They have been fracturing because of a whole range of issues among key senior leadership. And African forces, particularly Kenyans and Ethiopians, have been pretty effective against them on the ground in taking back territory. So the U.S. has had a pretty good partner.

INSKEEP: Is this a war that is actually winnable? Or is this one of these groups that never really goes away?

JONES: Well, the problem with Somalia is there's no real government. So you can take back territory, but what do you put in its place is the real question.

INSKEEP: OK, thanks very much for coming by, Seth Jones.

JONES: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: Really appreciate it. He studies terrorist groups at the Rand Corp. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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