ATbar The "Comeback" of Al-Shabaab-Al-Mujahideen in Somalia
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The "Comeback" of Al-Shabaab-Al-Mujahideen in Somalia

06/02/2017 | by Shay, Shaul (Dr.)  

Somalia’s Al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic group, Al-Shabaab Al-Mujahideen, is making a "comeback" after having steadily lost ground over the past five years, first losing control of the capital, Mogadishu, in 2011 and then being pushed out of all of Somalia’s other major cities and towns. This was largely the achievement of the African Union force (AMISOM) composed of 21,000 soldiers from Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi and Djibouti, which is supported by the UN. The relatively weak Somalia army, with 35,000 troops, also participated in the operations.

Al-Shabaab is far from a spent force, however, and has the ability to outmaneuver the Somali government and its international partners. The group has been on the offensive since the middle of 2016, retaking at least 10 towns from Ethiopian and African Union troops. The group has also increased its attacks on African Union bases, Somali government facilities and officials and security forces, hotels and targets in neighboring Kenya.

Al-Shabaab Attacks in Somalia

On January 28, 2017, Al-Shabaab fighters killed at least 57 Kenyan soldiers at a remote military base in the town of Kulbiyow in the country's south near the Kenyan border.  Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, the group’s military operations spokesman, told Reuters news agency that "Two mujahideen rammed suicide car bombs into the base in the town of Kulbiyow before storming it. We are pursuing the Kenyan soldiers who ran away into the woods". Al-Shabaab said that it lost fighters in the attack but did not provide numbers.[1]

On January 25, 2017, at least 28 people were killed and dozens more wounded in a coordinated gun-and-bomb attack carried out by Al-Shabaab at a popular hotel in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu. The assault began when attackers rammed an explosives-packed car into the gate of Dayah Hotel, which is near Somalia's Parliament in central Mogadishu, and then stormed the hotel, exchanging gunfire with security guards. A second massive car bomb blast went off after ambulances and journalists arrived at the scene, leaving at least four reporters wounded.[2]

The Kenyan army denied the claims, calling them "false". Kenyan television channel NTV reported that "several KDF [Kenya Defense Forces] soldiers were believed killed" in the raid and heavy fighting was reported.[3]

On November 26, 2016, a car bomb exploded at the entrance of Mogadishu port, killing at least 20 people and injuring dozens more. The blast took place when a man drove a van packed with explosives into a police station and a security checkpoint at the entrance to the port. Al-Shabaab took responsibility for the attack through an official statement on its radio channel, Radio Andalus.[4]

On December 11, 2016, a car full of explosives was detonated by remote control at the central Afisiyone marketplace in southern Mogadishu, killing at least 10 people and wounding twice as many in the densely populated area. Al- Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack.[5]

On January 2, 2017, two suicide car bombers detonated at a checkpoint near Mogadishu's international airport. The first explosives-laden vehicle exploded as security forces were searching cars at the checkpoint. The checkpoint is located near the main headquarters of the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia (AMISOM).[6]

The first blast enabled a second explosives-laden vehicle to pass through the checkpoint, at which point African Union troops engaged with gunfire and the vehicle exploded.                         The second, more powerful blast destroyed part of the nearby Peace Hotel, which is also located near United Nations offices and the airport. Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the bombings through its radio channel, Radio Andalus.[7]

Al-Shabaab Attacks in Kenya

Kenya has suffered a series of attacks since invading Somalia in 2011 in order to attack Al-Shabaab, which it accused of threatening its tourism industry. Kenyan forces have since joined an African Union force battling the Islamists. Al-Shabaab fighters have made a series of deadly incursions into neighboring Kenya, including the 2013 killing of at least 67 people at the Westgate Mall in the capital, Nairobi, and the massacre of 148 people at a university in the town of Garissa in April 2015.

Since 2016, Al-Shabaab increased its attacks in Kenya .The assaults have often been in the northeast, near the long and porous border with Somalia, but the group has also struck coastal areas popular with tourists.

On November 2, 2016, Al-Shabaab militants detonated an improvised explosive device (IED) targeting a Kenyan Defense Forces (KDF) convoy near the Somali-Kenyan border town of El Wak in Somalia’s Gedo region. The blast killed at least four KDF soldiers and wounded several others.[8]

On October 25, 2016, an attack on the Bisharo Hotel in Mandera claimed the lives of 10 actors who were visiting the town to perform at various schools in the county. Two local Somalis staying at the hotel were also killed the attack. The gunmen are said to have surrounded the hotel in a siege that lasted over an hour.

On October 6, 2016, Al-Shabaab militants killed six people in an attack in northeast Kenya. Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, the group’s military operations spokesman, said that "we are behind the Mandera attack in which we killed six Christians”.[9]

In September 2016, Al-Shabaab militants attacked Amei police post in Garissa. The militants abducted four police officers whom they later executed in Somalia. The militants also stole several weapons and a land cruiser from the station.

On June 21, 2016, five Kenyan policemen escorting a passenger bus were killed after Al-Shabaab fighters ambushed their convoy near the remote Kenyan town of Elwak, on the border with Somalia. The bus driver sped away, but the police vehicle was set on fire after being hit by a suspected rocket-propelled grenade.[10]

In January 2016, Al-Shabaab launched one of the bloodiest attacks against Kenyan soldiers in Somalia. The attack claimed lives of more than 100 soldiers with more than a dozen others injured or captured by the terror group. The attack began after the terrorists rammed a car bomb into the gates of an army camp in El-Adde that was being used by KDF troops belonging to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces.

There are four main reasons for the comeback of Al-Shabaab:

  • The sudden withdrawal of Ethiopian forces from Ethiopia.
  • An offensive designed to destabilize Somalia and undermine the presidential elections.
  • The African Union (AU) announced plans to withdraw AMISOM starting in 2018.
  • The Al Qaeda – ISIS competition.  

Ethiopia

Estimates of the size of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) range from 140,000 to 200,000. About 8000 soldiers were deployed in Somalia. Ethiopia's military provides more than 4,000 to the AMISOM force and it makes up the third largest contingent in Somalia. Ethiopia had another force with 4,000 soldiers that operated outside of, but in tandem with, AMISOM, providing crucial assistance.

The Ethiopian troops that were not part of AMISOM were suddenly withdrawn to Ethiopia a few days after the Ethiopian government declared a six-month state of emergency on October 9, 2016.[11]  

Ethiopia pulled its forces out of the towns of Halgan, El-Ali and Mahas in the Hiran region of south-central Somalia and Tiyeglow, in the southwestern Bakool region. Al-Shabaab wasted no time and, within hours, its fighters had seized control of those towns where they raised their black flags.                                                                                     

There are several explanations for the Ethiopian decision: 

  • Ethiopia declared the state of emergency after weeks of anti-government protests and riots during which at least 50 people were killed and more than 2,000 demonstrators were temporarily detained. The demonstrations were initially triggered by anger over a development scheme for the capital, Addis Ababa, but then broadened into demonstrations against political restrictions. Addis Ababa has denied that the latest withdrawal of troops has anything to do with events back home.
  • The expenses of Ethiopian forces outside of AMISOM were covered by the Ethiopian budget and the unrest was making it more expensive for Ethiopia to have its non-AMISOM troops in Somalia, as its foreign direct investment has been hit and its foreign exchange reserves are decreasing. “We are pulling out because for a long time our country has shouldered a heavy financial burden having troops in Somalia and it is time the international community took over,” said Getachew Reda, Ethiopia’s communications affairs minister.[12]
  • The Ethiopian government felt it did not have the diplomatic support it should have and that its efforts had not been recognized.

The Elections in Somalia

Somalia will hold its presidential election on February 8, 2017. The elections will come six months after it was originally set for August 2016, having been delayed multiple times due to disputes, fraud accusations and organizational challenges. Despite allegations of corruption, there are tentative signs of democratization and progress.

The original promise of a one-person, one-vote national poll had to be abandoned because of insecurity, political infighting and a lack of basic requirements such as an electoral roll.            An electoral college system was instituted instead, whereby 135 clan elders chose 14,025 delegates who then voted for each of the 275 seats in the lower house of Parliament, distributed according to clan. Upper house seats were distributed by region, and were increased from 54 to 72 after complaints of insufficient representation by some clans.            In the Somali elections, the members of parliament elect the President.

Somalia has not had an effective central government since the 1991 overthrow of President Ziad Barre's military regime, which ushered in more than two decades of lawlessness and conflict in a country deeply divided along clan lines. The current elections could mark a watershed on the road to democratic governance for a country long regarded as a failed state.[13]

The precarious security situation presents the organizers of the elections with enormous challenges. Al-Shabaab has persistently tried to disrupt the elections with a series of terrorist attacks.

AMISOM

AMISOM has grown from an initial deployment of 1,500 Ugandan soldiers in 2007 to a multi-national African force of over 21,000 soldiers, with troops from Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti and Uganda. Sierra Leone withdrew its battalion of troops in early 2015.[14]

The international community pays each country in AMISOM $1,028 (990 Euros) per month for each soldier. Countries are free to choose how much of that each soldier receives, while the United Nations Support Office for AMISOM (UNSOA) covers all logistics and associated costs.

2016 saw the European Union (EU) cutting back funding to the AMISOM mission fighting against Al- Shabaab jihadists in Somalia. The EU, AMISOM's largest donor, cut its funding by 20 percent, leaving the African forces that contribute to it scrambling to come up with their own money. Uganda, the largest contributor of troops, announced it would pull its contingent of more than 6,000 soldiers out of Somalia by the end of 2017.

The African Union (AU) announced plans to withdraw AMISOM completely by the end of 2020, saying security responsibilities would be gradually transferred to Somalia's military starting in 2018.   

On December 20, 2016, President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, which has threatened to pull out of the force over the funding cut, urged the EU to provide more support. 

The Al-Qaeda – Islamic State competition

In 2016, the Islamic State (IS) launched a campaign to persuade Al-Shabaab to join its ranks.  On October 23, 2016 Abdul Qadir Mu’min, one of Al-Shabaab’s religious leaders pledged allegiance to Al-Baghdadi, the leader of the IS, along with about 20 of his followers.

Al-Shabaab’s resurgence comes after the terrorist group recently splintered. The leadership of Al-Shabaab must present significant achievements in order to be more attractive than the IS.

Summary

Al-Shabaab seeks to establish an Islamic emirate ruled by a strict version of shari’a. It regularly targets security forces and officials from within the relatively weak, UN-backed government. Bystanders are regularly killed or wounded by its indiscriminate bombing attacks. 

More than 21,000 peacekeepers are deployed in Somalia in the multi-national African Union force. Al-Shabaab opposes the presence of foreign troops and regularly attacks foreign interests and peacekeepers in the Region.

Ethiopian forces (ENDF) have been fighting in Somalia for over a decade (since 2006) and are the most experienced and most effective in the war against al-Shabaab. The withdrawal of Ethiopian troops certainly gives Al-Shabaab an opportunity to regain control of settlements it previously lost, and it will be a major boon for its forces and its propaganda machine.

Somalia’s security forces are supposed to be taking on more responsibility as the African Union force prepares to withdraw by the end of 2020, but this month’s attacks indicate that Somali forces may not be able to hold on to the gains made by the African Union troops that deprived Al-Shabaab of large parts of territory.

Al-Shabaab will not be defeated solely on the battlefield, but via political engagement that stifles the group’s ability to operate in the gaps of the fragile state’s security architecture.

Should Al-Shabaab, as a group, pledge allegiance to the IS, the alliance would perhaps help alleviate the former’s financial and other challenges. However, the likelihood of Al-Shabaab abandoning its allegiance to Al-Qaeda remains low even if there are individual cases of fighters defecting to, and supporting, the IS.

Nevertheless, Al-Shabaab has the support of both Al-Qaeda and IS followers. Furthermore, Al-Shabaab’s propaganda materials are often released through, and shared on, both pro-IS and pro-Al-Qaeda online forums.

 

Notes


[1] Al-Shabaab claims to have killed dozens of Kenyan troops, Al Jazeera, January 29, 2017.

[2] Somalia: Al-Shabaab attack at Mogadishu hotel 'kills 28, Al Jazeera, January 25, 2017.

[3] Al-Shabaab claims to have killed dozens of Kenyan troops, Al Jazeera, January 29, 2017.

[4] Car bomb explodes outside Somalia capital Mogadishu's port, D.W Africa, December11, 2016.

[5] Deadly car bomb hits Somalia marketplace, D.W Africa, November 26, 2016.

[6] Explosions hit checkpoint near international airport in Somalia, D.W. Africa, January 2, 2017.

[7] Explosions hit checkpoint near international airport in Somalia, D.W. Africa, January 2, 2017.

[8] Al Shabaab behind attack on KDF, death toll rises to 4,” Shabelle News, November 3, 2016.

[9] Al-Shabaab attack: Six dead in Kenya after militants strike at residential area in Mandera, The Telegraph, October 6, 2016.

[10] Kenya: Five police killed in 'Al-Shabaab convoy attack', Al Jazeera, June21, 2016.

[11] James Jeffrey, Is support for African military mission in Somalia waning? D.W Africa, December 30, 2016.

[12] Hamza Mohamed, As Somalia prepares for polls later this year al-Shabaab quietly takes over towns left by withdrawing Ethiopian troops, Aayyantuu News, November 14, 2016 

[13] Ludger Schadomsky, Somalia's Presidential Elections Delayed Again, D.W Africa, December 27, 2016.

[14] James Jeffrey, Is support for African military mission in Somalia waning? D.W Africa, December 30, 2016.