On 09 November 2018, al Shabaab claimed credit for three explosions in the KM4 area in Mogadishu, Somalia outside three main buildings: Hotel Hayaat, Sahafi Hotel and the Somalia’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID) HQ. A disconcerting message of al Shabaab’s resilience in the face of a new president, government counter terrorism strategies and AMISOM’s efforts to eradicate Al-Shabaab’s chokehold on Somalia, Shabaab’s recent focus on Mogadishu will likely continue with attacks focusing more on hotels, military instalments and markets within Mogadishu itself. As ever, statements claiming credit for the attacks/bombings have exaggerated numbers of casualties as a means to inflate Al-Shabaab’s lethality and capability in the country.
al Shabaab presents a classical case of where state instability enabled an environment for a terrorist group to fester, strengthen and presents itself as a “better alternative for existence” to the populace. It is not only about social change within an order, but the implementation of a completely new state ideology that allows al Shabaab to regenerate new alliances (i.e. tribal communities) and associations with the people of Somalia. In Somalia, the confluence of four factors cannot be ignored in explaining al Shabaab’s existence: the failure in providing human security, political weakness, and ineffective state capacity (for more on social disintegration and terrorism refer to Susan Fahey & Gary LaFree (2015) Does Country-Level Social Disorganization Increase Terrorist Attacks? Terrorism and Political Violence, 27:1, 81-111, DOI: 10.1080/09546553.2014.972156).
The severity of a Somali state in search of social cohesion and control is evident in the manner which al Shabaab is able to persist not only with attacks, but also creating alternative government structures. al Shabaab does not necessarily have popular support in Somalia, but those rejecting its ideology, tactics and forced recruitment simply lacks a state capacity and societal cohesion to revert. Hence, a situation of silent acquiescence for survival or official exploitation (read corruption and irregular activities) to serve individual interests has become institutionalized within society. Individual and/or tribal associations and bonds have replaced hope of a Somalia in the process of becoming a consolidated functioning state. al Shabaab presents no better alternative, is extreme in behaviour and does not shy away from viewing citizens being killed as collateral damage. Yet simultaneously, time has allowed the group to become a permanent feature of the Somali landscape, integrating into local communities and even convincing some sectors of community life that its executions are just. Hence, the execution of people not adhering to its ruthless ideological behaviour is sold as the outcome of a court proceeding and/or the paying of taxes carries with it the benefit of security, not to be found anywhere else.
Somalia is in need of some level of social cohesion and institutional stability in in order to counter one of the more sophisticated extremist groups on the African continent, al Shabaab. The Government needs tangible indicators of progress in the daily lives of the Somali people, such as health care, food supplies, education and a non-compromising stance towards corruption, which are of equal importance to countering al Shabaab with a security force trusted by all. Relying solely on force via AMISOM, foreign training and assistance as well as drone attacks are all providing a glimmer of hope quickly overshadowed by the next al Shabaab attack or seizing control of areas. The absence of a Government projecting an enterprise of consolidation and soft and hard power projection are a luxury commodity for al Shabaab, and they do not shy away in using such commodities to its own benefit.
al Shabaab’s ability to use and adjust to gain competitive advantage in Somalia was best explained in an article by Katharine Petrich, al Shabaab’s Mata Hari Network (published on 14 August 2018 by War on the Rocks). Here we see an al Shabaab willing to compromise on its ideological position in accessing intelligence in Nairobi, Kenya. Shabaab’s use of prostitutes from Tanzania in Nairobi to gain vital information contradicts its position in Somalia where it has imposed death penalties for adultery and prostitution. al Shabaab is thus much more intrusive than the tragic West Gate shopping mall attack in Nairobi.
The group has found means in assimilating into Nairobi’s local communities and use that to its advantage to the extent of Kenyan Defense Force collusion in the charcoal trade (as discussed by Petrich in her article). Herein, we see an al Shabaab with a regional presence, using tactics that require a compromise with its ideology, but justified in achieving its objectives in Somalia. al Shabaab is also more than mass scale attacks; it is about support channels beyond areas where forces are deployed to fight violence. For now, al Shabaab again seems to have the competitive advantage. Whereas counter terrorism operations focus on the expected, al Shabaab has already moved beyond the realm of expected activities. Petrich findings include the need for understand al Shabaab as a complex web of supply lines, that includes intelligence collection. A report by Crisis Group, titled Al-Shabaab Five Years after Westgate: Still a Menace in East Africa and published on 21 September 2018, concurs with Petrich finding in explaining the links of al Shabaab to Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
The article central message is of utmost importance: Whereas al Shabaab objective is confined to Somalia, countering al Shabaab requires an understanding of a complex web beyond the borders of Somalia. In the Horn of Africa context of socio-economic deprivation, human rights violations by governments, community discontent and porous borders facilitates the ideal breeding ground for extremism. As seen in al-Shabaab’s jump to the number one spot as the deadliest extremist group in the world, the violence has continued to increase in the Horn of Africa. Al-Shabaab has been improving their tactics and the violence is no longer limited to Somalia. The threat manifestation is on three tiers:
Al-Shabaab’s footprint is much more than just armed assaults and suicide bombings. All governments have legislation and implemented counterterrorism policies, the question arises on the successes of these policies. Often the policies lead to local divide and suspicion within communities. Even with deradicalisation programs, there is a great reliance on law enforcement agencies, including the military, rather than a community inspired engagement.
Al-Shabaab remains focused on Somalia, according to their extremist ideology. Achieving this goal, however requires a transnational footprint to secure by pipelines of support, be it financial or weapons-focused. Whereas Kenya is being directly attacked and recruitment activities and propaganda messages ventures into Uganda, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Eritrea.
Al-Shabaab has a dedicated brigade for executing attacks in Kenya, where it lacks a similar strategy to other regional states, which possibly indicates a non-exposure of pipelines or support streams which they are reliant on.
In July 2018, President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo ordered the military to take charge of security in Mogadishu. Consequently, on 14 October 2018 a battalion of soldiers was deployed in most parts of the city, replacing Mogadishu’s stabilization unit forces. The 14th October battalion is comprised of new recruits, not well experienced and questions remain if the deployment will succeed in preventing al Shabaab and Islamic State in Somalia attacks in Mogadishu.
AMISOM mandate has been extended to act as a counter al Shabaab force and comprised of about 22,000 troops from Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti, and Sierra Leone (Foreign Policy, Somalia Is a Country Without an Army by Amanda Sperber, June 2018). Reaction to the article was not always positive but presented one undeniable reality: Somalia does not have a National Defense Force able to fight al Shabaab. With the current situation showing little sign of a movement away from persistent attacks, stand by for another extension of the AMISOM mandate.
In the absence of a defense force, steps in foreign involvement, ranging from the United Kingdom and Turkey to the United States, a presence not always welcomed by the Somali people. Sperber’s article make specific reference to the United States that “has provided more than $900 million in bilateral assistance to AMISOM, and an additional $720 million to the U.N. Support Office in Somalia, which works with the army. By 2016, the EU was contributing about $23 million per month to AMISOM and spending about $35 million per year on the training mission”. Yet, looking at the continued al Shabaab attacks there are few signs of improvement in the environment in which the group operates.
Drone attacks merely serve as a moment of irritation to al Shabaab with minor impact on operational capacities. The Hiraal Institute’s evaluation of Security Incidents in the Third Quarter of 2018, shows “a two-fold increase in bombings, suggesting that AS made a conscious decision to switch to bombings as its primary source of targeting the Somali government and its allies as an efficient attack method that does not expose its men to attacks”. Herewith a point worth noting is that AMISOM’s success is also reliant on a supportive environment to deter al Shabaab activities. The Hiraal Institute report refers to a 21% decline in armed assaults during the reported period.
Airstrikes and armed assault involving foreign troops act like a double edge sword. Whereas the killing of leaders and fighters are celebrated, they often leave communities in mourning and anger with civilians being killed during such actions. According to the Guardian, during 2017 five attacks were conducted in July, resulting in more than 50 civilians being killed or injured. There are currently an investigation following an incident on 06 November 2018, during which Burundian soldiers, deployed as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) reportedly opened shot and killed civilians in the Huriwaa district on the outer edge of Mogadishu (The Guardian: Claims that peacekeepers in Somalia shot dead four men spark inquiry, 09 November 2018). The shooting reportedly followed after an IED explosion and gunfire targeted an AMISOM military vehicle (As tweeted by @HarunMaruf, author of the newly released book: Inside Al-Shabaab).
In May 2018, US and Somali forces were accused of killing five civilians during a counter terrorism operation to capture three alleged al Shabaab commanders in the remote village of Macalinka — 25 miles outside Mogadishu (Somali NewsRoom). In an AP interview with relatives of those killed, one person noted that “They were not armed nor were they al-Shabab members” (AP News, 10 May 2018). In August 2017, al Shabaab and AFRICOM ended up in a dispute following a US-Somali forces raid in Bariiri, during which 10 civilians were killed, including children. al Shabaab was quick to publish photos of those killed. AFRICOM’s slow response and lack of factual detail played into the hands of al Shabaab as well as the anger of Bariiri residents. The outcome is inevitable: foreign involvement is viewed with suspicion.
The sustained attacks in Somalia not only show the continued presence and ability of al Shabaab to execute attacks but also a government struggling to gain effective control and support. Measures such as the banning of trucks during specific times and heightened security measures in Mogadishu pale into insignificance without the cooperation of residents. Accusations of collaboration of security and intelligence officers with al Shabaab shows the continued struggle in gaining effective institutional stability, a centrifugal pre-requisite in countering al Shabaab. On 02 August 2018, Mogadishu News tweeted a leaked document that shows some of Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) officers having links with al Shabaab – the document was signed in 2017 by the African Union mission:
The sentencing of three government soldiers on 05 August 2018 to 5 years in prison for their involvement in the robberies in Mogadishu is just another example of the Somalia National Army in desperate need of credibility. The soldiers were accused of assaulting at Hormud Telecom branches in the capital, taking from $11,354 earlier this month, court chief, Hassan Ali Nour Shoute said. Official involvement in corruption does not end at the military. On 18 August 2018, six top officials from the Ministry of Finance for Somali Federal Government were arrested for corruption. One of them is reportedly a close ally of President Farmajo. The officials were working at the Port of Mogadishu, an important financial resource for the Government. The arrests followed within 24 hours of opening the port. This again showed the reasons for the continual listing of Somalia as one of the most corrupt countries by Transparency International.
MOMENTUM OF OPTIMISM GONE BEGGING
Following the mass bombing in October 2017 in Mogadishu, a moment of optimism and condemnation by the people of Somalia succumbed to persistent attacks by al Shabaab. Residents held demonstrations showing their opposition to al Shabaab, with the President Mohamed Abdullahi calling on youths to join the defense force and take up arms against al Shabaab. These demonstrations were but only an immediate response to a devastating attack, with the Government unable to ensure that this reaction could sustain momentum to the benefit of security in Mogadishu.
A Somali government in a struggle to gain institutional stability and gaining some sense of national social cohesion is evident in differences between the federal Government and Jubaland over the appointment of military and security officials from Mogadishu (Source: @HarunMuraf). Radio Dalsan shared photos on 14 August 2018, on Jubaland rejection of the newly appointed regional NISA Chief Mire Ali Duale and his deputy Mohamed Ibrahim Duale, who were refused entry into Kismayo upon arrival at the city’s airport from Mogadishu.
As already explained, counter terrorism operations are often marred by the killing of civilians and a lacklustre response to factual accounts. Aggravating the current situation in Mogadishu is corruption, which allows people access to goods and arms, as well as intelligence cards, the latter used by al Shabaab during the 28 October 2017 attack.
No matter how sincere the Somali Government is in addressing the al Shabaab complex, the lack of institutional capability will only expose the day-to-day realities of the difficulty in combating al Shabaab, inevitably feeding al Shabaab propaganda and Somali frustration. That a war against the terror organization is a necessity is not disputed, but it is the outcome of current developments that also require urgent attention. For now, opportunities for attacks by al Shabaab remains alarmingly high and with that creating a perception of a group far from defeat.