The US military has confirmed that American forces took part in a Jan. 18 raid on a Shabaab “indoctrination center.” Several civilians, including children, were reportedly killed in the firefight that ensued. Both Somali and American sources say that 30 children were freed.*
US “forces accompanied Somali National Security Forces on a mission in the Lower Shabelle region of Somalia resulting in the recovery of 30 male children from an al-Shabaab indoctrination center,” United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) said in a statement emailed to FDD’s Long War Journal. “We support the Federal Government of Somalia and UNICEF efforts to reunite these children with their families.”
The operation was quickly confirmed by Somali officials in the press. For example, Reuters published an account of the raid the following day (Jan. 19). However, AFRICOM did not officially comment on it until today.
Shabaab, al Qaeda’s branch in East Africa, also made a big deal about the incident in its propaganda, publishing statements on its social media channels and its Shahada News Agency website. An excerpt of one such statement can be seen on the right.
Shabaab spokesman Ali Mahmoud Rage claimed that the US attacked a “legitimate” “Sharia institute” for the “sons” of a tribe that “is known for its love of Islam and hatred of Kuffar [infidels]” and whose members “fought historical battles against the Crusaders.”
Rage confirmed that children were being taught “the Sharia, as well as the Qur’an and Sunnah, the Jurisprudence, and other sciences” at the school.
The Shabaab front man then criticized the Americans, saying that four “children and their teacher” were killed in the attack and others were kidnapped after they [the Americans] tortured them” and then “took them to one of their military bases in the country.” Rage said a “letter of condolences” had been sent to the tribe, as its members had been “exposed [to] this unjust aggressor’s attack.” Rage added: “We must ask why the children were attacked? What crime have they committed.”
AFRICOM said in its statement today that it appears children were killed during the raid, but claims that the American forces involved did not open fire.
“During the mission, the Somali National Security Forces received hostile fire,” AFRICOM said. “The Somali forces returned fire in self-defense.”
“In the ensuing firefight, five individuals were killed and six were wounded,” AFRICOM continued. “Some of those killed in the engagement appear to have been under the age of 18. US personnel were in an advisory capacity, and did not fire their weapons.”
Shabaab is indoctrinating children at sharia schools
Sheikh Rage claimed that “the killing of these children was instigated [by] the organization Human Rights Watch [HRW], which claims to be involved in human rights.”
“It released a report a few days ago to incite the soldiers of Kufr [infidels] in Somalia to stop a campaign of the Mujahideen [who aim] to teach children their religion, and forced the closure of Sharia institutes immediately,” Rage complained. He added that Shabaab holds HRW “fully responsible for the killing and capturing of the children.”
Rage was responding to an in-depth report by HRW, which has documented Shabaab’s various abuses. In its World Report 2018, HRW found that Shabaab is “forcibly recruiting adults and children” for its operations.
“They have also recruited and used children in military operations,” HRW reported. Shabaab “increasingly focused on duksis (Quranic schools) to indoctrinate children, particularly in communities where it sought to assert control such as in Mudug, Galgadud, and Bay regions.”
HRW noted that the “federal government” has been “committed” to efforts to “rehabilitate children linked to” the al Qaeda branch. But HRW also criticized Somalia’s “military courts,” which “have prosecuted and sentenced children to heavy penalties for terrorism-related offenses in trials that do not meet international juvenile justice standards.”
Shabaab fiercely defends its indoctrination of children.
“We must strive in the teaching of our children the science of Sharia, and to end plans of the enemy which aims to intimidate people and remove them from their religion,” Rage said in his statement on the raid. “And to the Mujahideen I say, God bless you. Do your best to defend your nation and your brothers and their children and continue to teach people their religion, both young and old, and stand in the face of the objectives of the Crusaders.”
The fate of Somalia will depend, in large part, on whether the youth can avoid al Qaeda-style indoctrination and take control of their country’s future. Therefore, the Jan. 18 raid is a flashpoint in the battle for Somalia’s soul.
Shabaab takes advantage of the nation’s tribalism, weak central government, corruption and the population’s grievances to spread its jihadist ideology. Meanwhile, the Somali federal government, backed by the US and its allies, needs to provide stability in the face of the insurgents’ threats in order to secure the nation’s future.
*Somali officials initially reported 32 children were freed.