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The war against Al Shabaab is being lost – Professor Hussein Solomon

May 2, 2017


The war against Al Shabaab is being lost

By Hussein Solomon

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 5 (2017), Number 8 (May 2017)

If one were to take the words of James ole Seriani at face value, one would believe that Al Shabaab’s demise is imminent. Seriani is the director of Operation Linda Boni, an operation aimed to eradicate the threat posed by Al Shabaab militants in the Boni Forest. “For the past seven months, we haven’t experienced any attacks or attempts from Al Shabaab. This proves that the operation is successful,” he proudly declared. In the process Seriani seems to ignore the simple fact that such a counter-insurgency operation cannot be measured in such a short time frame. Moreover, he seems to have forgotten that local herders were removed from Boni Forest thereby turning local public opinion against the security forces.

Indeed if one believed the Kenyan Defence Forces (KDF) one would also believe that Al Shabaab’s days were numbered. On 28th April 2017, the KDF announced that its aircraft bombed an Al Shabaab camp near El Wak in the War-Gaduud area killing several of its fighters including the group’s deputy commander of the Gedo region, Ali Shangalow. This aerial attack followed a KDF ground offensive a week earlier in which another 52 Al Shabaab fighters were killed.

On the other hand Al Shabaab began 2017 with an attack on a Kenyan military base at Kolbiyow in Somalia’s Lower Juba region which killed 57 Kenyan soldiers and where military equipment was also captured by the Islamist militants. Indeed, over the past two years Al Shabaab has attacked several bases of those forming part of the 22,000 strong African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) force waging a tough war against it. Burundian soldiers at its Lego base were attacked as were Ugandan troops in Janale and the KDF once again at El Adde. In each case heavy casualties were inflicted and military equipment was captured by Al Shabaab. It is not only the foreign forces arrayed against it which has been the target of Al Shabaab’s wrath, but also local forces. On 23 April 2017, an improvised explosive device (IED) was detonated as a military truck belonging to security forces of the semi-autonomous region of Puntland passed by. Six soldiers were killed and a further eight were wounded.

Meanwhile, the weakness of the Somali government was aptly demonstrated when a car bomb exploded in a busy market in the capital Mogadishu in February 2017. 39 people were killed and 50 injured in this terrorist atrocity. What is clear is that Mogadishu is heavily reliant on foreign forces to keep itself in power. Far from using the years of external intervention to build up its own security forces to take the fight to Al Shabaab, successive Somali governments did very little to fix their ailing security apparatus. As a result when a foreign force removes itself from the Somali theatre, control is quickly lost. When Ethiopian troops withdrew from the town of Gal’ad in the central region of Galguduud in July 2016, Somalia’s soldiers withdrew shortly thereafter, allowing Al Shabaab to once more take control of the town.

The seriousness of the current situation is perhaps illustrated by the fact that the Trump administration plans to pursue expanded military involvement in the quagmire that is Somalia. The Pentagon is considering more US Special Forces in the Somali theatre as well as greater numbers of pre-emptive airstrikes. Will it work? Given Somalia’s historic antipathy towards a foreign military presence, the answer is perhaps not. Moreover, the increased US involvement may well serve to incense Somali public opinion – and thereby provide more recruits for Al Shabaab.

Whilst the military option can and should be used, it needs to be part of a broader more holistic response to the very real threat posed by Al Shabaab. Consider the following fact: the internal weaknesses within Al Shabaab have not been exploited in any systematic manner. In November 2016, for instance, Al Shabaab attempted to impose taxes on the hapless residents of Harardhere. They rebelled. Villagers ambushed Al Shabaab fighters, including destroying one of their armoured vehicles. There has been no concerted attempt on the part of either the Somali government or AMISOM to capitalize on these tensions.

The lack of a comprehensive response to Al Shabaab is also seen in the current famine crisis engulfing Somalia. Half of the country’s population is facing acute food shortages. In March 2017, it was reported that the United Nations’ US $864 million humanitarian appeal was only 31 percent funded. Al Shabaab, by contrast was distributing food in six central and southern regions of Bay, Bakol, Mudug, Hiraan, Lower Shabelle, and Galgudug – in the process winning hearts and minds. If the international community was serious about the fight against Al Shabaab militants, they would be the ones meeting the nutritional requirements of ordinary Somalis – not allowing Al Shabaab to score brownie points.

Under the circumstances, it is no wonder that the war against Al Shabaab is being lost.


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