In Somalia, Al Shabab Is Stronger Now Than in Years
Reasons include the terror group's adaptability and the government's failures
During the morning of April 1, 2018, a car drove up to an Ugandan army base in Bulamarer, Somalia, and blew up — the beginning of an Al Shabaab attack that, in combination with another suicide attack on a convoy of reinforcements, left at least 46 Ugandan soldiers dead.
The radical Islamist group has carried out many such attacks in recent months, which has put increased pressure on the Somali government and the African Union peacekeeping mission, AMISOM, which numbers some 22,000 troops from Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti and Burundi. In February, at least 18 people died in Mogadishu, the capital, in twin car bombings.
A recent analysis by Christopher Anzalone, a Ph.D. candidate of Islamic Studies at McGill University, concludes that the militant and terror group is possibly — now — in one of its strongest positions in years given its increasing willingness to launch bolder attacks while penetrating into Mogadishu with bombings and assassinations. Anzalone’s article is available at CTC Sentinel, the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point’s monthly journal.
Al Shabab also has a cohesive and adaptable organization with dedicated military, governing and intelligence structures capable of rooting out spies, launching company-sized infantry operations and governing its limited territory.
U.S. air strikes — numbering more than 40 since 2016 — and commando raids, while successful in killing Al Shabab militants, may have also increased opposition to the Somali government, the U.S. military and the African Union in a country marked by local divisions characterized by tribal loyalties.
Above — Somali police during a training session. At top — Ugandan peacekeepers in Somalia. AMISOM photos
Case in point, in August 2017, a firefight between a joint U.S.-Somali force and Al Shabab reportedly resulted in the deaths of 10 civilians including children during a raid in Bariire. The U.S. military denied it killed any civilians in the raid. The Daily Beast later reported that U.S. commandos fired on unarmed civilians, and placed weapons seized during the raid next to the bodies of slain civilians before photographing them.
“Different parts of the government’s security forces … rely on the control of lucrative checkpoints and the fees and bribes they can charge civilians,” Anzalone writes, “and they have engaged in gun battles over these checkpoints and regular protests decrying the government’s failure to pay them.”
Somalia lacks a true national army, which is more akin to a coalition of local tribal forces. The Somali government’s own pronouncements of Al Shabab’s failings cannot be taken at face value, according to Tricia Bacon writing separately for War on the Rocks. “There are questions about the reported surge in defections, with well-connected sources privately telling me that the Somali security services are hyping this trend to stoke dissension within Al Shabab,” Bacon writes.
U.S. air strikes and ground raids have not, at the least, stopped Al Shabaab.
“While airstrikes have taken a significant toll on al-Shabaab, including the targeted killings of senior leaders and administrators,” Anzalone adds, “and despite claims made in late January by a senior African Union official that drone attacks were ‘wiping out Al Shabab in good numbers’ the insurgents continued throughout 2017 to be able to assemble large forces of fighters and launch major attacks on AMISOM and Somali government bases.”
Fortunately, the Islamic State’s affiliate in Somalia, primarily base in Puntland, is small and appears disorganized compared to Al Shabab — which emerged out of the Islamic Courts Union and which controlled Mogadishu for a brief period in 2006.
To defeat both groups, however, the Somali government will need to substantially improve its own armed forces — marred as they are with corruption — along with the political and economic relationship with the country’s states.