Al Shabab Refines Militant Tactics as Dozens of Peacekeepers Die
Without air support and intelligence, African Union troops are easy prey
In the early morning hours of Sept. 1, 2015, an Al Shabab suicide bomber rammed his explosive-laden vehicle into an African Union peacekeeping fort near Janale, about 50 miles southwest of Mogadishu.
The blast blew open a hole. Within moments, dozens of Al Shabab fighters poured through the gap and overran the facility, which was manned by an Ugandan contingent of the A.U. Mission in Somalia, or AMISOM.
The insurgents later claimed to have killed up to 70 Ugandan soldiers, while the peacekeeping force officially acknowledged 12 dead personnel. Both AMISOM and Al Shabab have in the past lied about casualty numbers.
Al Shabab has made a point in recent months to stage large scale attacks on fortified AMISOM positions, as if to prove that they are still a force to be reckoned with — despite having suffered large territorial losses to peacekeepers and government troops.
But the attack was highly complex and noteworthy in its sophistication. It’s a sign the Somali terror group is refining its tactics. Simultaneous to the attack on the fort, Al Shabab destroyed a nearby bridge, effectively cutting the base off from timely reinforcements.
Apart from having reconnoitered the base itself, Al Shabab apparently had a good overview of AMISOM troop movements and positioning, allowing the Islamists to isolate the Ugandan contingent. Basically, Al Shabab knew where they were and how to hit them.
AMISOM could not deploy reinforcements fast enough, as Al Shabab knew how to block them. Worse, the Islamists were able to position several dozen fighters backed by “technicals” — pickup trucks with heavy weapons — close enough to the peacekeepers to exploit gaps in their defenses after initiating the assault.
In June, the group claimed to have killed “dozens” of Ethiopian AMISOM soldiers during an attack on a convoy, and it overran a Burundian outpost in an attack strongly resembling the recent one in Janale.
Up to 50 Burundian soldiers died in that engagement. In July, Al Shabab ambushed a Burundian convoy, killing several peacekeepers and destroying an armored personnel carrier.
The tempo of ambushed convoys and overrun bases — and larger losses for the peacekeepers — points to another major weakness for AMISOM. That is, the lack of aerial support and intelligence. AMISOM does not provide official information on the mission’s air force, but everything we know suggests its size and capabilities are severely limited.
When Uganda first tried to deploy four transport helicopters to Somalia in 2012, three of those crashed en route in Kenyan territory due to bad weather.
Since Kenya’s entry into the conflict in 2011, its air force has occasionally flown vintage Northrop F-5s to bomb Al Shabab positions. But neither the planes, nor their command and control networks likely have the capability to provide close air support for the diverse AMISOM forces, which largely operate separately under their respective national command structures.
Kenya and Somalia share a border, but the Kenyan air force has no surveillance assets and very limited transport capabilities — negating its closeness to the battlefield. Ethiopia deployed Mil Mi-24 and Mi-35 attack helicopters to Somalia to support its own troops, but did not share them with other troop-contributing countries. Burundi has no aerial capability worth mentioning.
After the Al Shabab attacks in June and July, Uganda, which has a number of transport and attack helicopters and modern multi-role combat aircraft, announced that it would upgrade AMISOM’s aerial capabilities. But so far, no additional aircraft have appeared in Somalia.
Uganda’s Sukhoi Su-30MMK fighters can’t reach Somalia from their Ugandan bases. In Somalia itself, no facilities exist that would be able to support these sophisticated aircraft. A few more Mi-24s, of which the Ugandan military has several, and some dedicated transports, would do wonders for AMISOM’s ability to react to ambushes of the type seen in Janale.
Perhaps even more important would be some dedicated reconnaissance planes. The United States frequently has reconnaissance aircraft and armed drones over Somalia, based out of Djibouti and Ethiopia.
But the U.S. drones are focused on hunting and killing Al Shabab’s leadership, exemplified in the drone strike that took out the insurgency’s longtime leader Ahmed Abdi Godane. The militant attack on Janale coincided with the one-year anniversary of Godane’s death.
Another problem — Al Shabab is and will always be vastly superior to AMISOM in collecting human intelligence, because the peacekeepers face cultural and linguistic barriers when accessing sources on the ground.
Reconnaissance drones would reduce this disadvantage somewhat, giving A.U. troops the capability to monitor large areas continuously for suspicious movements.
Both Uganda and Kenya have access to tiny, hand-launched Raven drones, which Kenya deployed to combat poaching in its national parks. But the short-range Ravens have an endurance of only 60 to 90 minutes.
Ethiopia has some domestic drone production capabilities, in partnership with Israeli company Blue Bird Aero Systems. Some of the airframes advertised by Blue Bird would be able to fit the bill for a long-range AMISOM reconnaissance drone.
The problem here? Ethiopia has historically been the least cooperative member of the African alliance, clearly more focused on its own agenda in Somalia than dedicated to the larger mission.
Halfway across the continent, the U.N. mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has had reconnaissance drones since December 2013. In April 2015, a U.N. advisory panel recommended to extend this kind of capability to all peacekeeping missions.
AMISOM should take note, because Al Shabab is busy expanding its own arsenal.
Every time the militants overrun an AMISOM base, they capture several tons worth of weapons and ammunition. Pictures published by Al Shabab after the Janale raid showed dozens of mortar rounds and a ZPU-4 anti-aircraft gun, which will probably soon find a new home on an Al Shabab technical.