The Somali terror group is far from beaten
by PETER DÖRRIE
During the early morning hours of June 26, 2015, a car approached the African Union Mission to Somalia’s base at the small town of Leeg in South-Central Somalia.
As the car arrived at the main gate of the base — which housed about 150 Burundian soldiers — the vehicle exploded. Immediately afterwards, hundreds of Al Shabab fighters attacked the base and overpowered the peacekeepers.
About 30 Burundians died and an unknown number were taken captive. Al Shabab took control of the base, capturing a large number of weaponry, vehicles and ammunition. When Ugandan reinforcements reached the site 28 hours later, the insurgents had melted into the forests.
On the afternoon of June 11, two weeks before the attack on Leego, a convoy of Ethiopian troops passed through a remote area near Buurhakaba district in southern Somalia. It drove right into an Al Shabab ambush.
The group later claimed to have killed “dozens” of Ethiopian soldiers, “mowing them down with machine guns” and released pictures of burning Ethiopian vehicles and weaponry taken from the peacekeepers.
These two attacks were the most spectacular Al Shabab strikes in Somalia in years, but they were by no means the only ones.
The militant group unsuccessfully attacked the headquarters of Somalia’s military intelligence agency in Mogadishu, detonated a car bomb in the capital, attacked multiple army bases and massacred civilians near the Kenyan border town of Mandera.
This is by no means a complete list.
According to Cedric Barnes, a Somalia analyst for the International Crisis Group, these attacks are part of Al Shabab’s highly symbolic annual Ramadan offensive. “These are long-planned and carefully executed operations,” Barnes told War Is Boring.
While successful operations doesn’t necessarily mean that Al Shabab has increased its military capacity, the peacekeepers’ approach to fighting the terror group has clearly reached its limits, he added.
To understand why, it’s worth looking at Somalia’s history. With the fall of dictator Siad Barre in 1991, Somalia disintegrated into a free-for-all with various clan-based militias and warlords battling for supremacy.
The U.S. shortly flirted with peacekeeping there itself, before the Black Hawk Down incident and 18 dead U.S. soldiers put a quick end to that in 1993.
Somalia became the quintessential failed state with no federal government worth its name. The northern regions Somaliland and Puntland split away, claiming independence and autonomy, respectively. In the south and center, militias continued to rule.
In June 2006, lawlessness and outside intervention led to the rise of the Islamic Courts Union, a network of Sharia-based local courts that had garnered a positive reputation for bringing a level of sanity and legalism back to war-torn Somalia.
The ICU kicked a coalition of U.S.-backed warlords out of Mogadishu, but was then itself kicked out by an Ethiopian intervention in December 2006. Ethiopia has a long and violent history with the Somali people, and large parts of the population opposed its interference.
With the ICU out of the picture, its affiliated — and considerably more radical — youth wing Al Shabab began an all-out war with the “crusaders.” By 2009, the Islamists had taken control of more than 80 percent of southern Somalia, and had large parts of the capital under control.
AMISOM began a series of somewhat successful offensives against Al Shabab in 2011. Simultaneously, the peacekeeping force supported the formation of a Somali army under the command of a secular federal government.
AMISOM was militarily superior to Al Shabab, and successfully pushed the insurgents back. But in most cases, Al Shabab simply withdrew from towns and cities without a fight, limiting its losses in both men and equipment.
Instead of engaging in a direct fight, the insurgents focused on attacking AMISOM’s increasingly stretched lines of communication. The militants also undermined public opinion by staging suicide attacks and cutting off “liberated” towns from necessary supplies.
Also to the group’s benefit, Al Shabab kept its money flowing. The group previously held a monopoly over Somalia’s profitable charcoal trade, of which it levied taxes. While it lost control of all the country’s major ports after Kenya’s entry into the war in 2012, the group is still in control of the charcoal-producing hinterlands.
The United Nations maintains an embargo on charcoal exports from Somalia, but this is routinely ignored even by members of AMISOM, including Kenya. This is an “absolute scandal,” Barnes said.
Al Shabab relies on other, more opaque financial sources, too. The group derives a substantial amount of income from local taxes and “voluntary or quasi-voluntary contributions,” he added. These income sources won’t go away as long as Al Shabab still controls some territory.
To be sure, the insurgents have lost a considerable amount of territory, but the group cut back on spending to make up for the lost revenue. In this sense, Al Shabab is not only a example of a militant group that effectively adapts to changing circumstances, but also an example of how to run an insurgency cheaply.
That’s all very bad news. But the good news is that Al Shabab isn’t getting any stronger. The group’s capabilities and territorial holdings have degraded — without a doubt. Just not by very much.
“It is not so much a case of resurgence, but of continuing resilience,” Barnes said.
The group won’t likely do its enemies a favor and implode from within, either. In September 2014, a U.S. drone strike killed Al Shabab’s long-time leader Ahmed Abdi Godane. Following the attack, it was unclear how or if the group would recover. But this uncertainty “has settled down,” Barnes said.
Despite Kenya and Ethiopia having reinforced AMISOM in recent years — bringing the numbers of peacekeepers to more than 22,000 troops — the Somali federal government and the international community continue to lack the tools to beat down Al Shabab militarily.
Making the problem worse, AMISOM lacks aircraft for close air support as well as logistics and intelligence.
AMISOM’s constituent military forces reportedly don’t cooperate very well with each other. But the Somali army simply does not have the military capabilities to fight Al Shabab on its own. And clan-based militias continue to follow their own agendas, despite being nominally aligned with the government.
Compounding the problem, Al Shabab is by far the most established actor in Somali politics. While generally committed to a hard-line, orthodox interpretation of Islamic values, Al Shabab officials have demonstrated extraordinary flexibility and political acumen in their dealings with the country’s complex political and social landscape.
In contrast, AMISOM and the federal government are internally divided and lack political experience. Al Shabab is “strategic in the way that virtually everything else isn’t in Somalia,” Barnes said.
So what should be done? According to Barnes, the federal government needs to invest massively in political outreach, conflict management and local services to erode support for Al Shabab. So far, it has failed to do any of that.
Outside of Mogadishu, it’s mostly the insurgents who fund adequate schools and local administrations. “Al Shabab are not popular, but the alternatives are not credible,” Barnes said.
As long as this assessment holds true for most Somalis, the war will continue. That means more peacekeepers — and Somalis — will die.