Somalia’s Al-Qaeda Franchise Has Made a Comeback

Country fractures further just as the security situation began to improve

Somalia’s Al-Qaeda Franchise Has Made a Comeback Somalia’s Al-Qaeda Franchise Has Made a Comeback

Uncategorized September 17, 2013 0

A fighter of the Ras Kimboni Brigade mans a heavy machine gun in Kismayo. U.N./Stuart Price photo Somalia’s Al-Qaeda Franchise Has Made a Comeback... Somalia’s Al-Qaeda Franchise Has Made a Comeback
A fighter of the Ras Kimboni Brigade mans a heavy machine gun in Kismayo. U.N./Stuart Price photo

Somalia’s Al-Qaeda Franchise Has Made a Comeback

Country fractures further just as the security situation began to improve

Updated 9/21

Up until last week, the archetypal failed state of Somalia could look back on a string of accomplishments: For the first time in since 1990, a president was elected in a process approaching democratic norms. And this president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, is not even a former warlord but an academic and respected political activist.

But for Al Shabaab, the Al Qaida-aligned Somali militant and terrorist group, this presents a golden opportunity. Somalia is still deeply divided, with varying factions and outside influences at play in the country. Instead of fighting a united and determined enemy, Al Shabaab can now exploit the weakness of the different factions separately.

It didn’t lose any time doing so.

On Sept. 12, a massive car bomb ripped through the important commercial trading center of Kismayo. The blast killed 20 people and injuring scores more. The newly-appointed president of Jubaland — a semi-autonomous state within Somalia — barely escaped with his life. The following day, Shabelle News reported heavy fighting between the president’s forces and Al Shabaab in Kismayo, although these reports have not yet been confirmed.

For Al Shabaab, this opportunity could not come at a better time. For one, the group is undergoing severe internal problems.

Several high-ranking jihadists, many of them from abroad, have turned against Al Shabaab’s main commander, Ahmed Abdi Godane. That in turn resulted in an ongoing effort to purge the organization, with the latest victim being Omar Hammami, an U.S. national and long-time fighter for Al Shabaab who published scathing criticism of Godane’s leadership. Hammami, who went by the nom de guerre Al Amriki or The American, was killed in a firefight together with several of his supporters on Sept. 12.

Godane may hope that going on the offensive against the new official authorities in Jubaland could serve to reunite Al Shabaab behind his leadership.

Soldiers from the Somali National Army (SNA) participate in a training exercise at Jazeera Training Camp in Mogadishu. U.N./Tobin Jones photo

Federalism’s downside

It might be surprising to hear, but Somalia was actually in better shape a few weeks ago.

A strong commitment of the African Union provided for a robust and capable peacekeeping force, AMISOM. This force succeeded in pushing Al Shabaab out of the capital Mogadishu in 2011, where the government held sway over only a few blocks before.

Together with government troops, the African Union force steadily enlarged the government-controlled territory, even providing inspiration for the new terms of engagement for the United Nations Mission in Congo. Al Shabaab was further weakened by a Kenyan military intervention in southern Somalia, where local militias and Kenyan troops pushed the rebels out Kismayo.

But while taking Kismayo and its harbor severely undermined one of Al Shabaab’s main sources of income, the Kenyan intervention was the first sign of trouble for the new Somali government and its African Union allies.

Kenya has long viewed the chaos in Somalia as a threat to its own internal stability. Until a few years ago, this threat was tolerable, because the sparsely-inhabited Somali border lies hundreds of kilometers away from Kenya’s commercial heartland.

But then Kenyan politicians hatched a plan to build a new rail and pipeline corridor to service the new nation of South Sudan and its oilfields. This corridor and its corresponding harbor close to the island of Lamu will be situated within less than 150 kilometers from Somalia.

Next, a string of attacks by Al Shabaab on Kenyan territory underlined the vulnerability of the planned infrastructure and so Kenya invaded — that country’s first war since independence. However, the goal of the Kenyan intervention was never to support the weak Somali government, which had little capacity to provide security for Kenya’s interests.

Instead, Kenya wants to create a buffer zone — now called Jubaland — between its territory and the chaos in Somalia.

Kenyan soldiers inside their armored personnel carrier in Kismayo. U.N./Stuart Price photo

Charcoal kings

Sheikh Ahmed Madobe is Jubaland’s most influential politician and master of its commercial center — and Al Shabaab’s target in last week’s bombing.

His militia was Kenya’s main ally in its fight to “liberate” Kismayo from Al Shabaab. And part of his motivation for teaming up with Kenya were the millions of sacks of charcoal lining the streets of Kismayo, waiting for a U.N. export embargo to be rescinded.

As luck would have it, several Kenyan businessmen also had strong interests in the charcoal trade and did swift business with Al Shabaab before and during the embargo.

With Kismayo under his control, Madobe and Kenya began a lobbying campaign to end the embargo. When they weren’t successful with this strategy, exporting of the charcoal began anyway, with Kenyan commanders taking their cut for looking the other way.

For the Somali government, control over Kismayo and its port would have been an incredible opportunity to strengthen its hold on the whole country. But government delegations from Mogadishu were routinely turned away by the new powers in Kismayo. Madobe had no interest in sharing power and profits and Kenya’s priorities are a calm border — not Somali unity.

This stance is supported by the other powerful regional player: Ethiopia. Somalia fought a devastating war against Ethiopia for control of the Ogaden region in the 1970s and the Ethiopian government is determined to keep Somalia divided — and without territorial ambitions — in the future.

In the end, Somali Pres. Mohamud bowed to Madobe’s influence and his powerful regional allies. Jubaland was declared an autonomous region, similar in status to Puntland and the de facto independent Somaliland in northern Somalia, effectively cutting the central government off from all the income from Kismayo’s port and denying its influence over the internal affairs of Jubaland.

And then there’s Al Shabaab.

The leadership of East Africa’s most dangerous terrorist group appears to making Jubaland their new target — now that it’s no longer the central government’s only internal opponent and with African Union troops breathing down their neck in central Somalia.

Jubaland could also offer Al Shabaab many more opportunities and greater freedom of operation. Additionally, controlling the production and initial trade of charcoal could be just as profitable as control over the port of Kismayo itself.

In the end, Kenya probably has undermined its own goals by propping up Madobe and pushing for an autonomous Jubaland. In the long run — and certainly with a view of securing its economic interests — a united Somalia with a strong central government in Mogadishu would serve Kenya’s interests much better than a divided country.

Update 9/21: Al-Shabaab has claimed responsibility for a high-profile terrorist attack on an upscale Nairobi mall on Sept. 21. The situation is still developing.