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Beyond Despondency: Taking the Fight to al-Shabaab in Somalia

11/02/2011

It is easy to grow despondent over recent developments in Somalia. Dozens of Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) soldiers have defected to the al-Shabaab Islamists – ostensibly bringing with them both military hardware and intelligence. This week has also seen al-Shabaab launching its own television channel, al-Kataib News. Its first broadcast was a propaganda video of an alleged CIA-spy captured in northern Mogadishu who after confessing was summarily executed. Indeed, one could argue that al-Shabaab is well poised to take control over the whole of Somalia. Following its formal alliance with al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab has had the benefit of the newly acquired skills of Islamist veterans from Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iraq. There are now an estimated 300 foreign fighters on Somali soil. Domestically, al-Shabaab has been strengthened with it having merged with the Hizb Islami group. Analysts have also pointed out that al-Shabaab has undergone an internal re-structuring which allows greater autonomy to its local commanders allowing the organization to be highly adaptive and therefore resilient when confronted with threats. The TFG meanwhile is regarded as corrupt, ineffective and controlling no more than a few city blocks in Mogadishu – the latter due to the protection of AU forces. Indeed, analysts have criticized the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) as lacking a coherent strategy and not being robust enough in its engagement with al-Shabaab fighters.

Under these circumstances, some have argued that the TFG should be abandoned, and that a strategy of containment should be pursued. Still others believe that negotiations are possible with the more pragmatic (the more nationalist) elements within al-Shabaab. This “cut-and-run” strategy however is based on fallacious arguments and there is absolutely nothing in the recent rhetoric emanating from al-Shabaab suggesting any possibility of negotiations or compromise. If anything, the group has upped its ante at a rhetorical level and in its actions. Moreover, the consequences of such a strategy of disengagement would be disastrous for Somalia, the region and the international community.

Not happy with the vast swathe of south and central Somalia that it controls, al-Shabaab has also been hard at work at undermining the semi-autonomous regions of Puntland and Somaliland. Puntland, for instance, has seen a wave of assassinations of key office bearers including its Attorney-General in the Mudug region.

Al-Shabaab has also been active in the wider region. On 11 July 2010, twin bombings in the Ugandan capital of Kampala resulted in the death of 76 people with scores more wounded – ostensibly in retaliation for Uganda’s strong presence within AMISOM. In February 2011, Ugandan authorities were compelled to issue a fresh terror alert following intelligence that al-Shabaab fighters were once more targeting the country. Burundi, another participant in AMISOM , has also been targeted for terrorist reprisals from the organization. In February 2011, the US Embassy in Burundi warned its citizens that they could be targets of terror attacks. Meanwhile, al-Shabaab has also been involved in plots further afield – an attempt in September 2009 to target American interests in South Africa as well as an attempt to kill a Danish cartoonist for his caricature of the Prophet Muhammed. Fears that al-Shabaab may also have the ability to target the US and Europe itself following their recruitment of Somalis in the American and European diaspora have also surfaced. Moreover statements from the al-Shabaab leadership have become ever more bellicose, consistently issuing threats to an ever-wider list of enemies. Under these circumstances, Somalia, Africa and the international community cannot allow al-Shabaab the space to remake a Taliban-style regime in the Horn of Africa. As President Obama has warned, ‘if al-Shabaab gained strength, it would continue to export violent acts throughout Africa.’

If not disengagement or containment, I believe a far more aggressive strategy needs to be pursued. Whereas the strength of al-Shabaab is perhaps overstated, the successes of AMISOM and the TFG have received little attention.

Tensions have been escalating within al-Shabaab of late along a number of axes: between the members of the dominant Hawiye clan within al-Shabaab and non-Hawiye members; between foreign fighters who are often in leadership positions and Somalis who are not; and between the different regional commands of the movement. These tensions need to be further exploited by the international community. Moreover we have witnessed the defection of high-ranking officials and fighters from al-Shabaab to the TFG as they oppose the excesses of the Islamist extremists. These defections have included Sheikh Mohamed Abdullahi who commanded the Maymana Brigade as well as Sheikh Ali Hassan Gheddi who had served as Deputy Commander-in-Chief of al-Shabaab forces in the Middle Shabele region.

It is also clear that al-Shabaab is losing the war for the hearts and minds of the Somali people with their strict Wahhabist interpretation of sharia law the destruction of Sunni shrines. This has resulted in non-jihadi Sunni Muslims fighting al-Shabaab forces in the form of Ahlu Sunnah wa Jama as well as local demonstrations of people against the excesses of al-Shabaab fighters. Indeed, this loss of popular support is reflected in last month’s appeal by al-Shabaab leader, Sheikh Mokhtar Abdurrahman Abu Zubeyr, to his fighters that they should not act in ways that turned Somalis against Islam.

Whilst AMISOM and the TFG do suffer from challenges, it is hardly as moribund as is made out. In January last year, the under-resourced AMISOM only controlled the airport, the State House, Villa Somalia and the famous K-4 junction in Mogadishu. By April, 2010 their control had been established in 12 bases and by October they pushed al-Shabaab fighters further still be taking control over other areas including the Juba Hotel, Bondere, Shakara, the parliament building, Dabka junction, Fishbay and Singale. Today, the TFG can exercise its control over 60 percent of Mogadishu thanks to AMISOM. During August 2010 in the holy month of Ramadaan, al-Shabaab launched a major offensive against AMISOM which failed dismally. Between 500 and 1000 al-Shabaab fighters were killed and AMISOM expanded its position within Mogadishu to 26 positions. The TFG has also prevented further defections of its troops by paying them regularly – many of those who defected had defected on account of receiving no salary for over a year. Meanwhile the TFG and international donors have been steadily setting up a civil administration and delivering services to the people living in the areas which they control. The success of this strategy is seen in Somalis moving from al-Shabaab- controlled areas to government-controlled areas for security and in order to access these services.

Much work still needs to be done, but the international community needs to hold their nerve and continue to support both the TFG and AMISOM. Al-Shabaab can be defeated and now is the time to take the fight to them.