Hell to Heartland: U.S. Boots on the Ground to Help Somali Army Combat Al-Shabaab

May 08, 2017 10:37 PM

American troops are on the ground in Somalia for the first time in almost 25 years. An Army general tells 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS they won't be coming home anytime soon. 

Their mission is to train Somali Army soldiers to fight Al-Shabaab terrorists. Al-Shabaab wants to destabilize the Somali government and force U.S. and other soldiers to leave the country so they can control the land. 


KSTP's Farrah Fazal saw the casualties of Al-Shabaab's random attacks while on a journey across the Horn of Africa, and the resulting reporting is part of her Hell to Heartland series. 

The once historic buildings in Mogadishu are now rubble. There are barricades and soldiers around every corner. The anxiety of what people who live in Mogadishu feel on a daily basis was palpable. 

Al-Shabaab could attack at any minute, and that's why military commanders said they need American boots on the ground. 

Al-Shabaab also wants to recruit new members to keep its army going. 

MORE: Hell to Heartland

Two brothers aged 15 and 18 escaped an Al-Shabaab training camp in Somalia. They walked hundreds of miles and found a shack, where they try every day to survive. They told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS they only eat some days. Al-Shabaab killed their father and chased away their mother. They are alone in the world, sustained by one pot, a few pieces of clothing and a bed made of paint cans. 

But this life is better than the one they escaped. The boys' names and location are being withheld for their protection. They're afraid Al-Shabaab will find them. But they did talk about their Al-Shabaab training camp experience.

"They told us, 'You will be trained how to shoot a gun, handle a gun,'" the brothers said, and that the group uses death threats to intimidate. Thousands of children like these brothers are vulnerable to Al-Shabaab largely because they have nowhere else to go. 

"They are going to do whatever they can to exploit them because ultimately what Al-Shabaab needs to stay in power are soldiers," said Brig. Gen. Jon Jensen of the Minnesota National Guard's 34th Infantry Division. 

Jensen was also the deputy commanding general of the U.S. Army in Africa. 

"There isn't opportunity; people are living at the very edges of society," he said. 

Jensen is from Apple Valley. He said his tour of duty gave him a window into a continent in crisis.

"The eastern African Countries are well aware of Al-Shabaab and their affiliation with Al-Qaeda and ISIS," Jensen said. He said Al-Shabaab may have up to 9,000 members. They forcefully recruit teenagers across Somalia, around the world and in Minnesota. 

"They are trying to maintain numbers of Al-Shabaab, so yes, they are still trying to recruit," he said. 

Jensen also said the terrorists have the ability to export terrorism from Somalia, as evidenced by their attacks in Kenya.  

"Ultimately, like all of these organizations, it's power, it's illegitimate power," he said. Tracking that illegitimate power is one of the reasons U.S. military forces, like the highly-skilled Navy SEAL Team Six, have been covertly operating in Somalia for several years. 

President Donald Trump has said defeating radical terrorist groups is his highest priority. He ordered 40 troops from the 101st Airborne to deploy to Somalia in April. It's the first time in nearly 25 years an American president publicly ordered boots on the ground in Somalia. The last mission for American troops in Somalia was in 1993 at the Battle for Mogadishu, the inspiration for the film "Black Hawk Down."

In that battle, a special operations team of soldiers swooped into Mogadishu to take down warlords. It turned into a 15-hour battle. Somali militia fighters shot down two American Black Hawk helicopters. 

Eighteen Americans died, 73 were wounded, and thousands of Somalis were killed. An Army captain was a prisoner of war for 11 days. 

"No, it's not 1993 all over again," Jensen said. "We are in a completely different role."  

He said Americans and African Union soldiers will work together to train Somalis to fight Al-Shabaab and the terrorists who control swaths of Somalia's central and southern regions. Soldiers are protecting areas that are home to many Somalis whose families are in Minnesota. 

Jensen said he believes blocking the pathway to freedom for refugees who want to join their families in Minnesota hurts the U.S.

"When we start barring people, we may not benefit at the very end," he said. "We are an immigrant country, we can't forget that, or be something else. That remains the key to our country."

He said the U.S. has an investment in making sure Somalia is stable. The country should care, Jensen said, because "people are allowed to live in secure environment. They should be able to send their kids to school, they should be able to have employment and provide their kids a better future, the same motivations we have in the U.S. -- what we call the American dream." 

The American dream for the brothers who escaped Al-Shabaab is just a fantasy. The lost boys measure their dream by breaths, by surviving another day. They are living with their secrets, holding their breath, and hiding in the open at the point of no return. 

The U.S. Army African commander told President Trump he believes the U.S. cannot leave until Somalia is stable, and that might not be until 2021. That's when the next Somali elections are slated to take place. 


Farrah Fazal

Copyright 2017 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company


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