The conflict between al-Shabaab and the Federal Government of Somalia

Date: 9 January 2015

Somalia Conflict Report

Operation Indian Ocean, launched by the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) with the help of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) as the second stage of a campaign aimed at wresting control of the remaining territories controlled by al-Shabaab, is now entering its fifth month. These military operations have so far regained several strategic towns in southern Somalia and have deprived al-Shabaab of valuable financial and tactical resources. Nonetheless, a conclusion to this campaign appears to remain allusive and violence within Somalia continues to prevail, with numerous terrorist attacks targeting neighbouring states involved in AMISOM operations.

Prominent Actors

Al-Shabaab has posed a threat to the sovereignty of Somalia for almost a decade. The group, whose name translates as ‘The Youth’, emerged as a small organisational cell in 2003, when a rift within Al-lttihad al-Islami (AIAI), a Salafi organization operating in Somalia since the 1990s, aligned its organisation with the Islamic Courts Union. Since then, al-Shabaab has grown into a well-organised armed group, formally pledging allegiance to alQaeda in February 2012. The group professes a quasi-Salafist ideology with a notable Wahhabist inflection. Its main goals are to liberate Somalia from “foreign colonisers” and to establish an administration axiomatic of Sharia law.

Al-Shabaab has a centralised structure led by an Amir and ‘Elders Council’ (Golaha Shuurada), but allows local governors (wali) to maintain a high degree of decision-making autonomy concerning everyday administration of their corresponding territories. Since May 2008 Ahmed Abdi Godane (also known as Mukhtar Abu Zubair) has held the position of Amir, before being killed by a US-led airstrike on 1 September 2014. Sheikh Ahmed Umar, also known as Abu Ubaidah, has now been nominated as the new Amir. Despite al-Shabaab’s historical internal discipline, the leadership has been affected on several occasions by infighting, most prominently in 2013 when a hardline faction led by Godane seized control of the group, killing the group’s co-founder Ibrahim al-Afghani.

The organisation has benefited from several different sources of income, ranging from extortion of local businesses in areas they control to piracy and kidnapping. In addition, the illicit trade of charcoal, sugar and illegal ivory trade have been important fund-raising activities to the organisation. The group has also capitalised on purported religious credentials to impose obligatory almsgiving (zakat), and to receive donations from complicit organisations located in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, Iran, Qatar, and Eritrea.

Al-Shabaab’s recruitment abilities have experienced a contraction since its formation, and the organisation now resorts heavily to recruiting non-ethnic Somalis. This has been evidenced in particular by al-Shabaab’s decision to disseminate propaganda videos in the English, Swahili, and Arabic languages. The precise number of active operatives is currently unclear; however; prior to the commencement of Operation Eagle at the beginning of 2014 the military command of al-Shabaab was estimated to control 5,000 fighters. This number is largely expected to have decreased as a result of continued military operations to counter the organisation, and due to several internal defections.

The Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) is the first elected permanent government in over two decades. The parliament elected Mohamed Osman Jawari as speaker and Hassan Sheikh Mohamud as the new president of Somalia on 10 September 2012. In December 2013, the president replaced the government of Abdi Farah Shirdon and appointed Abdiweli Sheikh Ahmed as the new prime minister. The strength of state institutions represents a great weakness in Somalia and is a significant obstacle in the conflict against al-Shabaab. Somalia’s new leaders aim to train and equip a professional army of approximately 28,000 soldiers within a three year period, however; the number of serving armed forces personnel is currently significantly smaller than this target figure. In addition, Somali armed forces have traditionally been an amalgamation of forces loyal to local clans and warlords. Serving personnel are poorly equipped, relying on Ethiopia and other foreign actors for basic supplies and training.

The FGS is supported by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), a regional peacekeeping mission led by the African Union with the approval of the United Nations since 2007. The mission, legislated by UN Resolution 2182 (2014), has a military component as well as policing and civilian functions. The AMISOM Police component, comprising 383 officers deployed from Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Kenya, has the mandate to train, mentor, monitor and advise the Somali Police Force (SPF) with the aim of transforming it into an effective policing force. AMISOM military personnel are deployed across six different sectors, are composed of 6,220 Ugandan soldiers; 5,338 Burundian soldiers; 4,395 Ethiopian soldiers; 3,664 Kenyan soldiers; 1,000 Djiboutian soldiers; 850 Sierra Leone soldiers; and 75 Staff Officers in the Force Headquarters.

Another actor actively involved in the conflict is the United States, which in recent years has pursued a two-pronged policy, both providing funding, training, and logistical support to forces fighting al-Shabaab and escalating counter-terrorism operations including Special Forces and drone attacks. Since February 2008, the United States has designated al-Shabaab as a terrorist organization. In addition, Foreign Private Security Contractor companies have also been operating in the country. They include Bancroft Global Development, which has been providing counter-insurgency training to troops from Uganda and Burundi deployed by the AMISOM peacekeeping force with finance provided by the United States and the UN, and Dyncorp International, providing logistical sustainment operations to forces taking part in AMISOM.

Key Developments

Recent military operations have undoubtedly been able to improve Somalia’s political, military and security situation. Since 2011 the government has achieved significant objectives; such as the recapture of Mogadishu in August 2011, held by al-Shabaab since 2009; and the seizure of the valuable port of Kismayo in September 2012, which was used by the group to raise money through taxing the town’s lucrative charcoal trade. Despite these positive developments, in the latter half of 2013 al-Shabaab has proved capable of carrying out lethal attacks not only within Somalia but also in the neighbouring countries, particularly Kenya. The Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi in 2013, where 67 people were killed, represents a pertinent case in point.

The territory under al-Shabaab’s control has significantly reduced in 2014. Operation Eagle has resulted in eight districts liberated, namely: Rab Dhuure, Wajid, Xudur, Bulo Burto, Warsheekh, Qoryooley, Maxaas and Ceelbuur. Concurrently, Operation Indian Ocean, focusing on Somalia’s strategic littoral regions, has so far recaptured eight towns: Golweyn, Bulo Marer, Kurtunwarey, Bulo-Gudud, Tayeeglow, Fidow, Jalalaqsi and the al-Shabaab strongholds of Baraawe and Cadale. The rationale of this campaign is to disrupt al-Shabaab’s resupply routes and then isolate pockets of resistance. In addition, FGS has offered an amnesty to alShabaab’s fighters. During the first 45-day amnesty period, more than 800 fighters conceded. At the same time, al-Shabaab’s leadership suffered a major symbolic and operational loss on 1 September 2014, when a United States done strike outside the port city of Baraawe killed al-Shabaab founding member Ahmed Abdi Godane.

Another important development has been the recent seizure of illegal arms shipments off the Somali coast, which signals the government’s increasing ability to manage maritime security and undermine al-Shabaab’s access to weapons and funding. In addition, UN Resolution 2182 (2014), which authorises States to inspect vessels suspected of violating the arms embargo in territorial waters and on the high seas, is an important legislative step forward in stopping the flow of illegal weapons into Somali ports (and the export of charcoal, a key source of revenue for al-Shabaab).

Currently, the group still controls six towns and large portions of territory in rural areas, and continues to carry out bombings and assassinations in Somalia and in the wider region. Although al-Shabaab has been deprived of valuable financial sources and significant supplies, in most occasions it has avoided a direct confrontation with AMISON and Somali forces, leaving many towns without fighting, and opting for more asymmetrical warfare tactics. This presents a notable shift in the modus operandi of the organisation, and its capacity to engage in more conventional insurgency operations has been degraded.

Significantly, al-Shabaab has also enacted further attacks in neighbouring Kenya; on 2nd December 2014, militants claiming to belong to al-Shabaab killed 36 non-Muslim civilian workers in Mandheera, a town located along the Kenya-Somalia border, blaming the involvement of Kenyan forces in Somalia. Ten days before this attack, the group killed 28 people on a passenger bus, shooting individuals unable to recite verses of the Quran. Twenty of the 28 killed in the bus attack were reportedly teachers who were returning to their homes for the Christmas holidays following the closure of schools. Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attacks stating that they were in retaliation to government crackdown on mosques in the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa, allegedly frequented by extremists.

These recent attacks in Mandheera are likely to affect the economy of the region, as most of its workers are non-Muslims coming from other parts of Kenya. As the town is dominated by Kenyan Somalis, most of whom are Muslims, al-Shabaab may be aiming to foment sectarian division in Mandheera.

Social, Economic, and Political Factors

Al-Shabaab cannot be considered only as an insurgent group but should be framed as a much deeper social phenomenon. While losing part of the territory under its control, the group has been able to maintain significant constituencies, in particular in south and central Somalia, and to permeate important sectors of Somali life. A major factor contributing to al-Shabaab’s resilience is social conservatism and the long-standing growth of Wahhabi preaching in Somalia. Al-Shabaab has been able to depict the conflict in Somalia as an attack on Islam, facilitated by the presence of AMISOM. The impact of the predominantly Christian composition of AMISOM forces should not be underestimated. Foreign troops are often described as African crusaders spreading Christianity and falsehood, while Somali armed forces are presented as apostates. In contrast, alShabaab operatives are glorified and the group has been particularly astute in combining Salafism and patriotic elements within their rhetoric.

Moreover, al-Shabaab’s societal prevalence has played on three main characteristic of Somali social life: the presence of a clan structure, the corruption of central government, and fiscal strength. Even though Islamic ideology is usually considered in opposition to clan organization, al-Shabaab has actively avoided antagonising clan dynamics, and opposing clan customs, unless they strongly contravene sharia. Al-Shabaab divides clans into ansar (supporters of the mujahidin) and gaala lajir (collaborators with unbelievers); the designations are not immutable: for example, the Ogaden and Ayr-Habar Gedir clans were originally ansar but became gaala lajir at a later stage. The group has often taken advantage of political inferiority complexes of clans, offering support to those threatened by more powerful rivals. For this reason, al-Shabaab has often been seen by local clans and elders as an important actor capable of providing practical solutions and benefits, mediating clan disputes, and ensuring basic services. In this respect, al-Shabaab has clearly been able to obtain a degree of social capital that serves useful in withstanding the federal government offensive. Moreover, alShabaab has been able to capitalise on the impression of being less corrupt than its counterparts, including the local and central governments. The new FGS has not been immune to accusations of corruption, which were common during the tenure of the Transitional Federal Government. Finally, the group is able to pay its operatives regularly and take care of the families of “martyrs”, an aspect that has attracted many new recruits.

It is also noteworthy that the struggle between federal and regional governments has the ability to facilitate a growth in al-Shabaab capabilities: although the new provisional constitution adopted in August 2012 advocates a federal system of government, the FGS has been reluctant to recognise semi-autonomous administrations, such as Puntland and the newly-created Jubaland in the south. This aspect has created an impasse that is undermining efforts to rebuild federal institutions, including the army.

Possible future scenario

Although Somali armed forces and AMISOM have made recognisable progress, al-Shabaab is unlikely to disappear and has demonstrated significant aptitude in terms of strategic planning and a high level of adaptability to the evolving situation. The group, although weakened, is far from defeated and retains the capacity to strike within the “recovered” locations regardless of the loss of territory. Al-Shabaab’s presence in southern and central Somalia has reduced over the past months, but the group still controls key supply routes and, in rural areas, continues to exploit inter-clan tensions and local grievances to retain space in which it can operate, recruit, and obtain resources.

Since AMISOM possesses far superior conventional military capabilities, al-Shabaab’s militants are likely to adopt increasingly asymmetrical modes of operation and increasingly employ terrorist tactics at local and regional level. This is not a new paradigm for the organization given its roots as a conspicuously guerrilla insurgency in 2006 that included the use of IEDs, suicide bombings and political assassinations. Considering al-Shabaab’s previous success in conducting insurgency operations against foreign interventions, the group will likely revert to these tactics as a valuable solution to their reduced conventional capacity.

The most likely scenario will be a retreat to rural areas in order to survive, and further terrorist attacks in urban areas; and increasingly, in neighbouring countries involved with AMISOM operations. This will correspond with a greater reliance on the use of suicide bombings, improvised explosive devices, hit-and-run attacks, political threats and grenade attacks. Moreover, the group appears to be increasingly proficient in their assassinations, as shown recently by the successful operations against several Somali politicians. This tactic may allow alShabaab to stifle political progress sought by the federal government, prevent the normalisation of life in the capital, and pressurise AMISOM contributing nations with the aim of coercing a withdrawal of support for the operations. At the same time, al-Shabaab could also try to take advantage of its links with Kenya’s al-Hijrah group in order to fomenting religious clashes in neighbouring regions.

The outcome of this strategy will depend on whether AMISOM and Somali government will be able to launch a disciplined and coherent counterinsurgency campaign in support of the new government. Operation Eagle and Operation Indian Ocean have allowed FGS and AMISOM’s forces to reduce al-Shabaab to a manageable capacity, however; the real success of the campaign will depend on the implementation of a broader strategy that denies al-Shabaab the support of the population. Al-Shabaab’s best hope for resurgence would be the incompetence, corruption, or failure to deliver basic services of its domestic rivals. Without embracing political and social considerations, a more comprehensive approach that could address the roots of al-Shabaab support, a more stable and durable outcome cannot be expected. Unfortunately, there are disturbing signs that the coalition is not engaging in such a strategy. In addition, in security, economical, and political terms, the government appears largely dependent on its multiple international partners, which play a vital role in the struggle. At the same time, external actors will continue to have their own agendas within Somalia, as demonstrated by both Kenya and Ethiopia who have championed their long-standing allies in liberated areas (this has been the case, for example, with the Kismayo administration).

Finally, an aspect that could assume significant importance is the level of co-operation between Puntland and the SFG. For the past four years, the Golis Mountains have hosted Puntland insurgents, consisting of approximately 500 operatives that were co-opted by al-Shabaab in 2012. In light of the progress AMISOM is making in the south of the country, al Shabaab fighters have also migrated north to the Galgala Mountains of Puntland, where occasional clashes have been witnessed with local security forces. The insurgents regard these mountains as a territorial safe-haven, with a robust network of caves and training camps.

Despite these developments, Puntland forces launched an offensive in October 2014, assisted by US unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), in order to capture the town of Galgala, the headquarters of the insurgency, As such, the regional administration has declared that its security forces will use Galgala as a base to eliminate the insurgency in the surrounding mountains.


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