Photo Credit: The Telegraph
By Ian Churchill, Columnist
Though many observers of the multinational effort to stamp out al Shabaab in Somalia characterize the group as ‘on its heels,’ such optimistic assessments belie the uncomfortable truths unfolding on the ground.[i] Boasting between seven and nine thousand fighters, Harakat al Shabaab al Mujahideen, or ‘Movement of the Striving Youth’ in Arabic, is Somalia’s largest and most powerful non-state actor.[ii] Despite energetic efforts to cripple the organization through decapitation of its leadership structure and conventional campaigns to reduce its territory, al Shabaab has proven extremely resilient and adaptive while maintaining the capability to conduct spectacularly bloody transnational terrorist attacks against neighboring countries, particularly Kenya.
Since Kenya’s invasion of Somalia in 2011, al Shabaab has lost much of the territory it once controlled and continues to cede towns and villages to a coalition of international peacekeepers under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali National Army (SNA) forces. On the battlefield, al Shabaab has shifted to guerilla tactics. When AMISOM/SNA forces capture a town, Shabaab militants withdraw or melt into the population, then attack the coalition’s supply lines, creating isolated pockets of Somali Federal Government (SFG) ‘control’ throughout the South.[iii] Compounding the problem is the coalition’s tendency to loot the towns they’re supposedly ‘liberating’ aggravating Somalia’s infamously complex web of inter-clan grievances.[iv] Far from putting al Shabaab on the path to extinction, there is evidence that AMISOM/SNA operations have created space for an al Shabaab resurgence. As the coalition continues taking territory, its forces are spread increasingly thin. This has invited the resumption of conventional frontal assaults by al Shabaab, as evidenced by the January 15 attack on AMISOM forces in El-Ade, near the Kenyan border.[v] Further, al Shabaab is attempting to expand its capability into strikes against commercial aviation, possibly with the assistance of technology transfers from nearby al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.[vi] The group claimed responsibility for the failed bombing of a Daallo Airlines flight departing Mogadishu on February 2.[vii]
Perhaps most worryingly, al Shabaab has cultivated a superb intelligence service, the Amniyat network, which has thoroughly penetrated the SFG, AMISOM, and foreign aid organizations, and is often left behind when al Shabaab withdraws from towns formerly under its control.[viii] The Amniyat network gathers information and uses it to intimidate businesses into paying al Shabaab monthly taxes, a key replacement revenue stream as piracy ransom money from the Gulf of Aden has declined. Some of the group’s more spectacular bombings in Mogadishu have targeted hotels that refused to pay into the protection racket.[ix]
Against this backdrop, a constellation of forces threatens to undermine the already questionable effectiveness of AMISOM/SNA operations to combat al Shabaab. In March, the European Union decided to cut its funding for the AMISOM mission by twenty percent. With the funding cuts, the EU is attempting to coerce Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza to negotiate with his domestic political rivals by constricting the roughly $52 million that flows into Burundi’s coffers as payment for the country’s military contingent in Somalia, which comprises a quarter of AMISOM’s 22,000 soldiers.[x] Additionally, graft threatens to unravel the Somali National Army militias, as soldiers are going without pay for months at a time, their salaries diverted by corrupt superiors – a situation all the more vexing because their funding originates from international donors, including the US.[xi] It’s therefore unsurprising that unpaid but heavily armed soldiers fighting under the SFG banner take to plundering the villages under their control, or even defect to al Shabaab in order to secure a reliable paycheck.[xii]
Finally, Kenya announced on May 11 that it intends to shutter Dadaab refugee camp, home to hundreds of thousands of Somalis who fled Somalia’s civil war, over fears that the camp is a breeding ground for al Shabaab terrorists.[xiii] Should Nairobi attempt to follow through, the camp’s many thousands of desperate refugees may find themselves forced back across the Kenyan-Somali border, further destabilizing the region and sowing chaos that al Shabaab would no doubt seek to exploit.
The fight against al Shabaab on the ground in Somalia is deteriorating. AMISOM/SNA forces are spread increasingly thin, are suffering from massive corruption, and must now absorb steep budget cuts. Al Shabaab, ever resilient, is poised to take maximum advantage of AMISOM/SNA weakness, adapting its tactics between guerrilla, terrorist, and frontal assaults as conditions dictate. A far cry from defeated, al Shabaab is ready to make a grim resurgence.
[i] Muhammad Fraser-Rahim, “Somalia is Still Fragile, But Fragile is Progress,” African Arguments, April 14, 2016, http://africanarguments.org/2016/04/14/somalia-is-still-fragile-but-fragile-is-progress/.
[ii] “Who Are Somalia’s al-Shabab?,” BBC News, April 3, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-15336689.
[iii] Kenneth Menkhaus, “State-Building & Non-State Armed Actors in Somalia.” Lecture before the Syracuse University Maxwell School of International Relations, November 6, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QkzDqh9FSB4.
[v] “Al-Shabab attacks African Union base in Somalia,” Al Jazeera, January 15, 2016, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/01/al-shabab-attacks-african-union-base-somalia-160115070814884.html.
[vi] Quote from Somalia expert Kenneth Menkhaus: “Has there been a technology transfer from AQAP? That’s certainly possible” in “Al Shabaab ‘can survive for 30 years’,” AFP, March 7, 2016, http://www.newvision.co.ug/new_vision/news/1418896/al-shabaab-survive.
[vii] “Al-Shabaab Claims Responsibility for Somali Plane Bomb,” The Associated Press, February 13, 2016, http://www.wsj.com/articles/al-shabaab-claims-responsibility-for-somali-plane-bomb-1455376818.
[viii] Menkhaus, “State-Building & Non-State Armed Actors in Somalia.”
[x] Edmund Blair, “Exclusive: EU Takes Aim Where it Hurts Burundi: Peacekeeper Funding,” Reuters, March 29, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-burundi-security-eu-idUSKCN0WV0BD.
[xi] Menkhaus, “State-Building & Non-State Armed Actors in Somalia.”
[xiii] Jeffrey Gettleman, “Kenya Plans to Expel Somali Refugees From Dadaab Camp, Citing Terror Threat,” The New York Times, May 11, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/12/world/africa/kenya-citing-terror-threat-plans-to-expel-somali-refugees.html?ref=world.