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Somalia’s Al Shabaab: Evolving Tactics – Professor Hussein Solomon

May 11, 2015

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Somalia’s Al Shabaab: Evolving Tactics

By Hussein Solomon

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 3 (2015), Number 4 (May 2015)

The evolution of Somalia’s Al Shabaab Islamist militants in the face of superior odds has been quite remarkable in recent years. Confronted with a superior conventional force in the form of the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) made up of 22,000 soldiers from six countries[i] Al Shabaab was compelled to change their tactics. In 2011, they attempted to go toe-to-toe against AMISOM in a conventional battle for Mogadishu. As a result, they lost many of their fighters and had to ignominiously retreat[ii]. This was not repeated in Kismayo – another Al Shabaab stronghold. Here Al Shabaab forces merely withdrew in the face of a superior conventional force.

In recent years, Al Shabaab has evolved into a sophisticated guerrilla insurgency with classic hit-and-run tactics which includes the planting of improvised explosive devices along the roads as AMISOM patrols go by, targeted assassinations of key government officials and striking at targets in neighbouring states, notably Kenya, designed to increase further polarisation between ethnic Somalis and other Kenyans as well as tensions between Muslims and Christians.

Some examples of the targeted assassinations of key government officials were the assassination of Major Sabriya in Mogadishu in April 2015[iii]. The twin objective behind the repeated targeting of senior military officials was to emphasise to the civilian population that if senior military officials could not protect themselves, how could they protect the civilian population? This point, was also emphasised immediately after Major Sabriya was gunned down in Mogadishu when an Al Shabaab suicide bomber killed 10 patrons at a popular Mogadishu restaurant[iv]. The second object behind the repeated targeting of security officials is to deter would-be recruits from joining Somalia’s nascent police and military structures. The point was underscored when Al Shabaab attacked a police station in Bosasso, capital of Puntland[v].

But it is not only security officials being targeted – other government officials are also being targeted. Aden Haji Hussein, a legislator from Puntland was shot outside a Mogadishu hospital in April 2015. Two buildings housing government ministries were also stormed that same week resulting in the deaths of 10 more senior government officials[vi].  The specific targeting of government officials continued with renewed vigour in May 2015 with the assassination of Abdifatah Baree, the deputy district commissioner of Mogadishu’s Wadajir district[vii]. The most disturbing aspect regarding these assassinations of senior government officials is that Al Shabaab meticulously planned these attacks and knew the movements of their victims beforehand and struck when they were most vulnerable. In other words, somebody close to these officials must have supplied this information to Al Shabaab. If this is indeed the case, Somali Federal Government needs to take urgent steps to plugs these leaks.

But Al Shabaab which, over the years, has forged strong ties with Al Qaeda’s East African franchise is not merely a domestic threat but a regional one if one considers its attacks on Uganda, Djibouti and repeatedly in Kenya. Last month’s attack at Garissa University College which resulted in the deaths of 148 students was particularly appalling but strategically brilliant on the part of Al Shabaab. If its aim was to demonstrate to Kenyans the poor state of Kenya’s security services – that they were unable to protect their citizens – they succeeded brilliantly. Indeed, despite warnings from its international partners regarding the imminent nature of such an Al Shabaab attack, Nairobi did precious little to beef up security. Worse, Kenyans were appalled at the fact that their special forces could not get to the 12 hour attack on the university due to the non-availability of suitable air transport. That these security failures were taking place in the aftermath of the  2013 Westgate Mall siege when security was said to be tightened was particularly galling to ordinary Kenyans.

Al Shabaab’s goal was also to inflame Muslim-Christian tensions in Kenya. This was self-evident by separating Muslim from fellow Christian students, timing the attack so it coincided with the Easter religious festivities and lobbying grenades into the chapel on campus whilst students were at prayer[viii]. Whilst there were reprisal attacks against local Muslims, these must cease and the authorities need to take the lead in this regard. If not, Al Shabaab secures yet another victory.

The most disturbing issue in the Garissa attack is that some of the gunmen were recruited amongst ethnic Somalis in Kenya itself – including one who was a Kenyan official’s son[ix]. Under these circumstances, Kenya’s attempt to secure its borders with Somalia or wishing to remove the Dadaab refugee camp will not resolve the problem of radicalization among ethnic Somalis within Kenya itself. Indeed, in interviews I conducted with Somali Kenyans, it is clear that many detest being treated as second class citizens in the country of their birth. This is an issue which the government of Uhuru Kenyatta must prioritize.

[i] “AU: Somalia sex abuse allegations largely unproven,” News 24. 22 April 2015. Internet: http://www.news24.com/Africa/News/AU-Somalia-sex-abuse-allegations-largely-unproven-20150422. Date accessed: 12 May 2015.

[ii] “Al-Shabaab kills senior military officer in Mogadishu,” News24. 23 April 2015. Internet: http://news24.com/Africa/News.Al-Shabaab-kills-senior-military-officer-in-Mogadishu-20150423. Date accessed: 12 May 2015.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] “Shabaab militants kill regional Somali lawmaker,” News 24. 18 April 2015. Internet: http://www.news24.com/Africa/News/Shabaab-militants-kill-regional-Somali-lawmaker-20150418. Date accessed: 12 May 2015.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] “Shabaab militants shoot government official dead in Mogadishu,” News 24. 6 May 2015. Internet: http://www.news24.com/Africa/News/Shabaab-militants-shoot-government-official-dead-in-Mogadishu-20150606. Date accessed: 12 May 2015.

[viii] Murithi Mutiga, “Kenya shock and defiance as al-Shabaab gunman revealed to be official’s son,” The Guardian. 5 April 2015. Internet: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/05/kenya-shock-and-defiance-as-al-shabaab-gunman-revealed-to-be-officials-son. Date accessed: 12 May 2015.

[ix] Ibid.

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