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Somalia: Al-Shabaab – It Will Be a Long War
Somalia: Al-Shabaab – It Will Be a Long War
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Encouraging Reform and Reconciliation in Somalia
Encouraging Reform and Reconciliation in Somalia
Briefing 99 / Africa

Somalia: Al-Shabaab – It Will Be a Long War

Despite military gains against Somalia’s Islamist group Al-Shabaab, the insurgents’ defeat will remain elusive until the Somali government and its international partners address longstanding social – often clan-based – grievances through parallel local and national processes, as the basis for the revival of conventional governmental authority.

I. Overview

Despite the recent military surge against Somalia’s armed Islamist extremist and self-declared al-Qaeda affiliate, Al-Shabaab, its conclusive “defeat” remains elusive. The most likely scenario – already in evidence – is that its armed units will retreat to smaller, remote and rural enclaves, exploiting entrenched and ever-changing clan-based competition; at the same time, other groups of radicalised and well-trained individuals will continue to carry out assassinations and terrorist attacks in urban areas, including increasingly in neighbouring countries, especially Kenya. The long connection between Al-Shabaab’s current leadership and al-Qaeda is likely to strengthen. A critical breakthrough in the fight against the group cannot, therefore, be achieved by force of arms, even less so when it is foreign militaries, not the Somali National Army (SNA), that are in the lead. A more politically-focused approach is required.

Even as its territory is squeezed in the medium term, Al-Shabaab will continue to control both money and minds. It has the advantage of at least three decades of Salafi-Wahhabi proselytisation (daawa) in Somalia; social conservatism is already strongly entrenched – including in Somaliland and among Somali minorities in neigh­bouring states – giving it deep reservoirs of fiscal and ideological support, even without the intimidation it routinely employs.

An additional factor is the group’s proven ability to adapt, militarily and politically – flexibility that is assisted by its leadership’s freedom from direct accountability to any single constituency. From its first serious military setbacks in 2007 and again in 2011, it has continually reframed the terms of engagement. It appears to be doing so again.

Countering Al-Shabaab’s deep presence in south-central Somalia requires the kind of government – financially secure, with a common vision and coercive means – that is unlikely to materialise in the near term. More military surges will do little to reduce the socio-political dysfunction that has allowed Al-Shabaab to thrive; in certain areas it may even serve to deepen its hold. The Somali Federal Government (SFG), supported by external allies, should consider the following political options:

  • implementing, as outlined in the “National Stabilisation Strategy” (NSS), parallel national and local reconciliation processes at all levels of Somali society;
     
  • imitating Al-Shabaab’s frequently successful techniques of facilitating local clan dialogue and reconciliation (as per the National Stabilisation Strategy, NSS), as well as religious education;
     
  • developing a new approach to establishing local and regional administrations that privileges neither SFG appointees nor clients of neighbouring states; and
     
  • making the local (Somali) political grievances that enable Al-Shabaab to remain and rebuild in Somalia the paramount focus, not regional or wider international priorities.

Nairobi/Brussels, 26 June 2014

Commentary / Africa

Encouraging Reform and Reconciliation in Somalia

Clan divisions, a persistent jihadist presence and regional instability pose serious challenges as Somalia prepares for its first direct elections in decades. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018 early-warning update, Crisis Group urges European policy makers to support reforms aimed at bridging Somalia’s political and social divides ahead of elections in 2020.

The 16-17 July high-level Somalia Partnership Forum in Brussels, which brought together senior Somali officials, major donors and international organisations to discuss support to Somalia, came at a critical time for the country. Preparations for its first direct elections in decades, scheduled for 2020 (the parliamentary vote) and 2021 (the presidential), are underway. The African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) is drawing down its forces and progressively transferring responsibilities to the federal government and security forces. The European Union (EU)’s decision to begin granting Somalia 100 million euros in direct budgetary support, benchmarked to revenue collection and anti-corruption measures, provides the Somali government incentives for reform.

The government’s main challenge is to carry out its National Transition Plan for Security, which lays out how its forces will take over from AMISOM, and its Political Roadmap on Inclusive Politics, which calls for a constitutional review process, direct elections by 2020, and clan reconciliation. There are obstacles ahead. Mogadishu and the governments of Somalia’s six federal states (or regions) have been unable to overcome their disagreements and implement reforms; the Islamist Al-Shabaab insurgency has proved resilient; a standoff between semi-autonomous federal state of Puntland and the self-declared republic of Somaliland threatens to escalate into open war; and spillover effects of the Gulf crisis have provoked a sharp deterioration of the Somali government’s relations with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), roiled Somalia’s already factious politics and aggravated tensions between Mogadishu and Somali regions.

In this context, there are several steps the EU and its member states could take:

  • Work in coordination with other international partners to press the federal government and Somali regions to implement the Plan for Security and the Political Roadmap, particularly the constitutional review process, and monitor progress;
     
  • Encourage AMISOM in this transitional period to focus more on mentoring, joint operations and greater interaction with Somali forces rather than merely training;
     
  • Support local and foreign mediation – notably by actors with leverage on one or more of the parties, such as the UAE and Ethiopia – to de-escalate tensions between Puntland and Somaliland; and
     
  • Explore, together with Gulf and Horn of Africa leaders, the option of holding a conference on Red Sea security comprising outside powers whose competition for influence is fuelling instability in Somalia and elsewhere in the Horn.  

Stuttering Progress toward Security Sector Reform and Elections

At a March meeting of the Somali National Security Council, the government and leaders of its six federal states (or regions), agreed on a timeline to integrate local security forces into an army of 18,000 soldiers and a 32,000-strong police force. Integration along these lines would be an important step: it would help establish more representative and effective security forces while addressing concerns that they are dominated by certain clans. Since that meeting, however, there has been little progress. Both Mogadishu and federal states appear to have failed to improve their cooperation on security matters despite repeated pledges to do so. A row between the government of the federal state of Jubaland and Mogadishu in mid-July over the replacement of the Somali National Army commander in Jubaland is symptomatic of the chronic mistrust hampering progress (a general appointed by Mogadishu to command the 43rd Division, General Ali Mohammed Bogmadow, in the city of Kismayo was refused entry after landing at the airport on 13 July and ordered back, allegedly because Jubaland

Increased European support should be tied to concrete steps on key priorities.

Federal government and regional leaders discussed ways to break such logjams at a May meeting in Baidoa, the capital of South West State, one of Somalia’s federal states. Although the tone of the gathering was positive, it – like its predecessors – in essence papered over key issues obstructing cooperation between Mogadishu and regions, notably how to apportion power and resources among them. While those disagreements remain unresolved, centre-periphery tensions will persist.

The EU could create incentives for the government and federal state leaders to break the deadlock. Increased European support should be tied to concrete steps on key priorities. These might include, for example, the completion of a constitutional review; agreement on legislation to apportion power and resources; and the creation of a functional and independent authority to address, arbitrate and resolve centre-periphery disputes. The constitutional review process, which started in May and envisages a final document by 2019, is particularly critical. Without a permanent constitution, efforts to build national institutions, including an army, and reforms aimed at enabling competitive elections are unlikely to endure.

There appears to be broad consensus among African troop contributors and Western donors that AMISOM will draw down, but only gradually, as the Somali government assumes responsibility for providing security. In preparation, AMISOM should move away from only training Somali forces and include those forces in joint operations, allowing for more hands on mentoring and interaction with other African armies.  

Al-Shabaab’s Resilience

Despite intensified U.S. airstrikes, Al-Shabaab remains strong. It owes its resilience in large part to political infighting both within the government and between the government and member states, as well as to those entities’ failure to govern notionally liberated areas. The lack of federal and member states’ administrative control means insurgents can continue to tax and intimidate local populations. Moreover, AMISOM and Somali forces have not sustained their military pressure on the insurgency, which has allowed Al-Shabaab to regroup and rebuild in the country’s vast rural hinterland.

Even in those parts of the country where security has improved somewhat, Al-Shabaab is adapting. For the first time in several years, the group did not carry out a large-scale, vehicle-borne bombing in the capital Mogadishu during Ramadan – arguably a result of the government’s draconian road closures. But, instead of resorting to bombings, militants conducted a campaign of assassinations in Mogadishu and the neighbouring Shabelle valley, killing over 100 people, most of them junior officials. Even the government’s tightened security measures showed their limitations: on 7 July, twin car bomb attacks in Mogadishu targeted the interior ministry and killed at least fifteen soldiers, demonstrating Al-Shabaab’s continued lethal reach.

While neither the national transitional security plan nor the political roadmap are panaceas, effective implementation of the former, notably its security sector reforms, should help address some of the gaps the insurgents exploit, while the latter could help gain the support of communities whose wariness about Mogadishu can lead them to tacitly support Al-Shabaab.

War Drums in the North

Another worry is the military standoff between the semi-autonomous federal state of Puntland and the self-declared republic of Somaliland over control of two regions they have long contested, Sool and Sanaag. The two sides have clashed repeatedly since the start of 2018, often with large numbers of casualties, and are massing forces in the contested areas.

A war in the north would undercut the improvements in governance Somaliland and Puntland have made in the last ten years.

A war in the north would undercut the improvements in governance Somaliland and Puntland have made in the last ten years, as well as the international good-will they – particularly Somaliland – enjoy. It could have enormous human costs, triggering a large-scale humanitarian crisis, and potentially contribute to instability further south. It also could exacerbate other threats in the north, with Al-Shabaab still present, a small branch of the Islamic State (ISIS) operating in pockets of Puntland and human trafficking and piracy continuing.

The EU should consider supporting efforts by the UN and Ethiopia, among others, to mediate between the two sides. The role of clan elders is especially crucial and ought to be encouraged. While the two sides seem to have calmed their hostile rhetoric, the threat of war and imperative for mediation remain.

Alongside efforts to mediate between Puntland and Somaliland, detoxifying relations between Mogadishu and Hargeisa would help reduce the threat of armed conflict in the north – given that Mogadishu risks getting pulled into the conflict behind Puntland – and improve prospects for stability in the country as a whole. The EU could use its close ties to Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo” and Somaliland President Muse Bihi for the resumption of talks between the Somali government and Somaliland, which broke down after the latter unilaterally signed a deal in March with the Emirati conglomerate DP World to develop and operate Berbera port, infuriating Mogadishu officials. The government’s June decision to cancel Somaliland’s Special Arrangement – a framework that has enabled donor engagement in Somaliland since 2013 – further worsened relations between the two. They are unlikely to improve unless it is renewed.

The Gulf’s Impact

The spat between Gulf powers, which in June 2017 saw Saudi Arabia, the UAE and allies break diplomatic relations with and impose an embargo on Qatar, has aggravated Somalia’s instability. President Farmajo asserts that he remains neutral, but the UAE perceives his government as too close to Qatar. In response, Abu Dhabi appears to have upped support to Somalia’s federal states. Farmajo, in turn, has deepened ties with Doha and Ankara and repressed rivals, using their alleged ties to the Emiratis as a pretext.

June 2018 brought signs the Somali and Emirati governments recognise the need to re-engage. There was a marked decrease in antagonistic rhetoric and unconfirmed reports suggested backchannel diplomacy was underway. That same month, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed visited Mogadishu, reportedly in part to sound out Mogadishu’s willingness to accept his mediation.

The EU could be a potential broker of talks among the outside powers currently vying for influence around the Red Sea. Its strong role in maritime security, specifically via Operation Atalanta, the counter-piracy military initiative it launched in 2008 off the Horn of Africa coastal line and whose mandate has been extended to December 2018, gives it influence. So too do its relatively good relations with all countries involved.

EU foreign ministers and the EU special representative for the Horn of Africa have called for a forum that would bring together Horn and Gulf states to discuss ways to decrease tensions among Gulf powers, Turkey and other states. The African Union’s High-Level Implementation Panel for Sudan and South Sudan also has mooted the idea of some form of dialogue among Horn and Gulf states. It is an idea worth pursuing as a means of managing competition and promoting regional stability. Bringing together such an array of rival countries and facilitating constructive debate would be no small challenge. Ambitions should be modest. But all sides should have an interest in avoiding inadvertent escalation that would harm regional peace and security as well as shipping and other commercial activity