Somalia’s Shabaab ‘still far from defeat’


Al-Shabaab. (File: AFP)Al-Shabaab. (File: AFP)



Mogadishu – With reinforcements expected, Somali and African forces fighting Shabaab extremists speak confidently of victory, but analysts warn of tough battles ahead and say that military campaigns alone will not bring peace.

The al-Qaeda linked Shabaab have fled a string of towns in the past two years ahead of the advancing African Union force in Somalia (Amisom) – fighting alongside Somalia’s rag-tag army, various aligned militia forces and Ethiopian troops – and commanders brag that the Islamists are on the back foot.

“Al-Shabaab is standing on one leg, and we are doing our best to hack off that leg and liberate the small areas they still control,” Somalia’s Minister of Defence Abdihakim Haji Mohamud Fiqi told AFP.

“Their military strength is weakened, they are now launching just desperate attacks.”

United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said last month that Amisom advances had “ground to a halt” because it lacked a sufficient number of troops.

Diplomats say the UN Security Council is expected to soon authorise 4 000 more troops for the African Union force in Somalia, boosting the five-nation fighting force by a quarter to at least 22 000 strong.

But even as the extremists have lost ground, Shabaab commanders have increasingly developed the force’s capability to carry out guerrilla attacks, regular events inside Somalia including storming a UN compound in June.

But they have also showed their ability to stage attacks in neighbouring Kenya, with the September massacre of shoppers and staff in Nairobi’s upmarket Westgate mall in which at least 67 people were killed.

Repeatedly retreating ahead of advancing AU forces, choosing later to stage hit-and-run attacks, the Shabaab face a shrinking space to operate in openly, with key towns left in southern Somalia including the port of Barawe in Lower Shabelle, and the bastion of Badhere, in Gedo region.

Commanders are hunted by US drones, with a missile strike last month killing a top suicide bomb-maker.

Elusive Shabaab cells

But according to a recent UN monitoring report, Shabaab have built up a powerful “Amniyat” secret service, under strict command of the insurgent’s chief Ahmed Abdi Godane, a secretive and ruthless leader who Washington have offered a $7m bounty for.

“Even if international efforts to dismantle the group’s fighting forces succeed, the chances that the cells under the leadership of Godane will continue operating is high,” said Andrews Atta-Asamoah, of the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS).

“The ongoing military operation against the group might face a long fight.”

In many frontline zones, territory patrolled during the day by Amisom is controlled at night by Shabaab.

“Amisom reinforcements – especially if air capability is increased such as helicopter gunships — will allow the force to take further towns,” said a security expert working on Somalia.

“But the more territory they take, the more supply lines will be stretched… the Shabaab continue to control rural areas in between.”

In coming months, renewed Amisom-led offensives against Shabaab’s positions in southern Somalia will likely intensify, with the force optimistic extra troops can help it advance again.

Fresh push

Amisom, announced a fresh push last month in southern Somalia to “deny al-Shabaab freedom of movement” and “reduce their ability” to carry out attacks.

“Given additional troops… and given ‘force multipliers’ like helicopters and armoured vehicles, we shall be in position to defeat the Shabaab,” said Amisom spokesperson Captain Deo Akiiki.

Long-term targets include seizing Barawe — a reputed suicide commando training centre for the extremists – at least 180km south of the capital Mogadishu.

Taking Barawe would help cut coastal resupply routes and link up AU forces physically split between Mogadishu and the far south of Somalia.

“Making the Shabaab lose access to sea is crucial, because at the moment they use Barawe as a supply route,” Akiiki added, adding that capturing Barawe would “cut their veins”.

At the same time, Somalia’s central government is trying to improve collaboration with breakaway regions, notably the southern Jubaland zone, controlled by a warlord previously opposed to the rule of central government but who is also battling the Shabaab.

“Taking territory from the Shabaab and targeting commanders is key, but that won’t stop the hard core of the Shabaab continuing terrorist attacks,” the security expert added.

Others warn that alongside military assaults must be an attempt to talk to less radical elements.

“Radical elements within the leadership can be contained through the ongoing military solution,” Atta-Asamoah added, but arguing that what is “really missing in the search for a solution is the question of opening dialogue” with those Shabaab who might switch sides.