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Somalia’s Al-Shabaab Down but Far from Out
Somalia’s Al-Shabaab Down but Far from Out
Somalia: Transforming Hope into Stability
Somalia: Transforming Hope into Stability
A Somali soldier takes position at the scene of a suicide attack by al Shabaab militants in capital Mogadishu on 21 June 2015. REUTERS/Feisal Omar
Commentary / Africa

Somalia’s Al-Shabaab Down but Far from Out

Somalia’s militant group, Al-Shabaab, has often defied its adversaries’ claims that it is in decline. In recent months, however, the movement has suffered setbacks, including territorial losses, high-ranking commanders killed and defections. The Somali Federal Government (SFG) and its internal, regional and international allies need to be clear-sighted about the reasons for these, and what they can do to stop another Al-Shabaab recovery.

Al-Shabaab’s set-backs – and fewer attacks by the movement during the Ramadan holy Muslim month of fasting than in previous years – are the result of three distinct and unrelated factors. First, an enhanced and largely externally directed and funded campaign including drone strikes has eliminated high-profile leaders and diminished its military capacity. Second, some of Somalia’s new federal units are demonstrating greater military effectiveness, even if they and the government still rely primarily on clan-based militias. Third, the Islamic State (IS) has challenged Al-Shabaab’s greatest internal vulnerability – its ideological cohesion.

Whether the Somali government and its allies can advance their cause will largely depend on greater agreement on priorities and coordination of action – no easy task, given the wide and diverse range of external and internal actors.

The Impact of U.S. Strikes

The U.S. has already stepped up its longstanding campaign against individual Al-Shabaab commanders and attacking the group’s military capacity. Drone strikes and ground operations have killed at least five Al-Shabaab leaders: Abdirahman Sandhere “Ukash”, from the combat operations wing (jabha), in December 2015; Hassan Ali Dhore, from the security and intelligence wing (amniyat) in March 2016; Daud Ma’alim (also known as Yusuf Haji), also from the amniyat, in May 2016; and Ma’alim Aden Hassan, a military instructor, in June 2016.

The U.S. army also claims that a drone strike in March this year killed 150 militants in a training camp in the Hiiraan region. Other successful assaults were launched by the U.S. contractor-trained Somali “Thunder” (Danab) Brigade – an elite, 570-strong commando force – from its Baladogle military air base in the Lower Shabelle region. Most recently the brigade killed Mohammed Mahmoud Ali “Dulyadeen” or “Kuno”, a leading commander reportedly responsible for the attack on Kenya’s Garissa university college that killed 147 students.

Map of Somalia. CRISIS GROUP 2016

The Clan Resistance and Islamic State Encroachment

Another important strike against Al-Shabaab came from some Somali clans, a reversal of Al-Shabaab’s usually deft management of clan relations. In February 2016, Abgal clan militias forced the group out of several locations in the Middle Shabelle region following resistance against alms (zakat) demands; Gugundhabe “Ma’awis Lei” clan militias did the same in Hiiraan, as did the original clan-based Sufi-inspired anti-Al-Shabaab militia Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama’a in Gedo (with the help of Ethiopian forces). The now more substantive federal states and interim administrations have also used their clan-based militias. In March 2016, for example, Al-Shabaab units were caught between the Somali National Army, Puntland’s “Darwiish” forces and Galmudug Interim Administration militias as they attempted to enter the Mudug region and its port town of Gara’ad.

The IS factor is the latest playing into a number of internal divisions that are arguably more deadly to Al-Shabaab than the military forces pitted against it.

The March 2016 losses in Mudug were the result of Al-Shabaab’s botched attempts to move fighters toward their Golis mountain stronghold between Puntland and Somaliland as the group tried to eliminate a dissident faction that had declared allegiance to the so-called IS. The IS factor is the latest playing into a number of longstanding internal divisions – including reports of internal criticism of the current Emir Ahmed Diriye “Abu Ubaidah” – that are arguably more deadly to Al-Shabaab than the military forces pitted against it. The prominent Sheikh Abdulqadir Mumim’s October 2015 pledge of loyalty (ba’ya) to IS was the most high-profile of at least four different pro-IS dissident factions across Somalia, which Al-Shabaab’s amniyat security wing ruthlessly began to exterminate in November 2015.

The internal purge against suspected IS sympathisers may explain a wave of Al-Shabaab defections to Somali government forces. These include the April defections of Ahmed Mohamud Afrah, a senior commander responsible for collecting tax (zakawat) contributions and Mohamed Hooley, a district commander in Galgadud region, as well as the defection of amniyat security officer Hassan Isaq Nuur in May. It may also explain a reshuffle of Shabaab’s governors (walis) in Lower Shabelle, Hiiraan and Mudug.

A Still-Lethal Punch

Despite these setbacks, the group can still hit hard against the Somali Federal Government and its allies, including the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Soft targets like government offices and hotels in Mogadishu are regularly subject to Al-Shabaab “complex attacks”, the latest against the Naasa Hablood Hotel on 25 June and the Ambassador Hotel on 1 June, killing civilians and a number of SFG officials, ministers and members of parliament with whom both venues were popular. An AMISOM base manned by an Ethiopian National Defence Forces contingent near the town of Halgaan, in Hiiraan region, was overrun on 9 June with significant casualties. Unlike the devastating attack on the Kenya Defence Force contingent in AMISOM’s base in El-Adde in January 2016, (Ethiopian) air power and reinforcements came quickly to Halgaan and inflicted heavy casualties on Al-Shabaab.

Reduced European Union funding and domestic issues are making some troop contributing countries threaten a draw down, with Uganda announcing its planned exit in late 2017.

Worryingly, however, AMISOM has appeared to have disengaged somewhat on the ground. Despite its critical role and sacrifice in removing Al-Shabaab from strategic locations and opening the space for political progress, it has taken both a physical and political beating over the last eighteen months. Reduced European Union funding and domestic issues are making some troop contributing countries threaten a draw down, with Uganda announcing its planned exit in late 2017.

The Double-edged Sword of Regional Peace-support

AMISOM’s role as both an operation against Al-Shabaab and as a peace-support force increasingly suffers from being dominated by nearby powers. It could almost be called “IGADSOM”: Burundi aside, all troop contributing countries are members of East Africa’s regional peace and security organisation, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD). Kenya and Ethiopia are Somalia’s direct neighbours; part of a wider trend on the continent of neighbours participating in stabilisation or peace operations. A troop contributor that is a neighbour can more directly support the new federal entities with whom it shares borders and knows intimately. But this also risks sidelining the development of the still weak Somalia National Army, and may indirectly risk friction between the Somali Federal Government and federal entities, as well as between the entities themselves.

The heavy presence of neighbouring states in the newer federal entities of Jubaland, South West State and Galmudug can look like a partisan foreign occupation, especially where they are still internally disputed. Al-Shabaab can easily appeal to disgruntled Somali clans by charging that foreigners are manipulating internal affairs, then portray its role as Muslim resistance to non-Muslim powers, and implicitly, the defender of Somalia’s sovereignty.

Al-Shabaab has been a tough survivor and one of its easiest wins is that it has been able to split the internal and external threats it faces.

Ethiopia’s deployment to Somalia of the auxiliary (Ogaden) clan militias – from its own federal Somali National Regional State – has also led to clashes with non-Ogadeni Somali clans in the shared border regions. In the medium term, with better-armed federal entities and clans taking the fight to Al-Shabaab, AMISOM may be faced with more conventional tasks of inter-communal peacekeeping, tasks for which governments and electorates in the troop contributing countries may have little appetite.

Sustaining Gains Against Al-Shabaab

Any strengthening of Somalia’s federal states represents a threat to Al-Shabaab. This includes the coming elections, where local clan-based electoral colleges in each of the federal states will directly select MPs. This should garner greater local buy-in for the federal government model, if not for centrally directed government. Greater stabilisation support to the more substantive federal entities will also help. But to win back the political space and undermine Al-Shabaab’s ideology, Somali actors must create and act on a coherent narrative.

Al-Shabaab has been a tough survivor and one of its easiest wins is that it has been able to split the internal and external threats it faces. The divisions that IS prompts within Al-Shabaab are worth nothing if the Somali Federal Government does not offer a third way for political dialogue and accommodation, enhancing the current policy of individual amnesty.

Despite effective U.S. training for specialised commando units, overall attempts to rebuild the Somali National Army could be strengthened by better coordination among the large number of other states – at least eleven others – involved in their training. The reality of stronger federal entities and clan-based militias also demands a rethink of how Somalia’s security forces are to be rebuilt from a less centralised starting point. Above all, there is an urgent need for a concerted program of reconciliation at all levels, without which federal states and their clan militias are still as likely to fight one another (and the Somali National Army) as they are to take on Al-Shabaab itself.

With additional research by Horn of Africa Research Assistant Abdul Khalif

Commentary / Africa

Somalia: Transforming Hope into Stability

Somalia has a genuine opportunity to promote needed political and security reforms following the election of a new president and renewed international interest. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2017 – First Update early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union to seize the momentum by achieving consensus with its international partners on realistic goals ahead of the upcoming London Conference on Somalia in May. 

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2017 – First Update.

Somalia is at a tipping point. The election of a new president with cross-clan support, the emergence of a youthful and reform-minded parliament, and renewed international interest present a genuine opportunity to promote needed political and security reforms to combat Al-Shabaab and stabilise more areas. The London Conference on Somalia in May coincides with this moment and should be seized upon to mobilise international support. However, because the new federal cabinet was only approved in early March, conference organisers should be realistic about how detailed the government’s plans can or should be. More broadly, key international actors – the European Union (EU), African Union, Arab League, UK, Turkey and the U.S. – will need to coordinate and achieve consensus on realistic strategic goals, including creating an environment in which the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) can begin to draw down. If the new president fails to deliver on promised key reforms – including to rebuild the national army, revamp the constitution, curb corruption and strengthen federalism – both domestic and external support for the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) will inevitably wane and Al-Shabaab will be in a stronger position to rebuild its forces and support.

Al-Shabaab exploits humanitarian needs

Although international aid has picked up, its geographic coverage remains limited, not least because insecurity is rampant and the UN has so far managed to raise only 30 per cent of the $825 million it asked for in early March. As a result, the threat of famine is unlikely to diminish in the next six to twelve months and 5.5 million people (nearly half the population) will require emergency aid. The immediate priority is to mobilise more funds, prevent a repeat of the large-scale graft that marred past relief efforts and assist the hardest hit communities in remote regions which are increasingly turning to Al-Shabaab for assistance. Al-Shabaab is exploiting these needs to improve its image and attract public support, allowing people to move to relief centres run by local and international agencies, even as it gives no indication of its willingness to grant aid agencies access to areas it controls.

Al-Shabaab struggles to demonise diaspora Somalis’ crowd-funding campaign (collecting small amounts of money from a large number of people) and especially the Caawi Walaal campaign organised by youth volunteers to provide water and food to remote villages. International actors should therefore support such initiatives, given their potential to extend the reach of the relief effort to remote areas inaccessible to Western aid agencies.

Harnessing the diaspora

The recent elections produced Somalia’s most demographically diverse and youthful parliament ever. Nearly half its 283 members are younger than 50; over 90 hail from the diaspora; and 63 are female. President Mohammed Abdullahi Farmajo campaigned on reform and owes his victory to younger and well-educated diaspora MPs. However, efforts to push through needed reforms and national reconciliation will be complicated by the poor delineation of roles and authorities among the president, prime minister and speakers of the upper and lower houses, as well as by powerful vested interests that will want to maintain the 4.5 formula that apportions FGS positions among the four major and smaller minority clans. The president will not be able to rely solely on the diaspora bloc but will need to work with politicians more closely tied to the traditional clan leadership. In the same vein, the new administration will need to avoid giving too many positions to diaspora Somalis, which could aggravate deep societal divisions.

Economic regeneration (symbolised by upmarket hotels, restaurants and homes in Mogadishu) is largely underwritten by remittances from some two million diaspora Somalis, worth some $1.4 billion each year. The FGS has held meetings to mobilise more effective diaspora support for reconstruction, yet there is neither an agency entrusted with policy formulation nor a proper regulatory environment, a gap that could prove risky. For example, Mogadishu’s acute land crisis is fuelled by poorly planned investment exploiting local regulatory loopholes. One idea would be for the Somali Economic Forum, a donor-funded organisation fostering private sector development and economic growth, to use its upcoming conference in Dubai that will bring together diverse stakeholders to help the new administration create a rules-based regulatory environment to promote sensible investment.

Fostering peaceful federalism

Strengthening and broadening the fragile administrations of federal member states should be a priority for the government in order to stabilise areas far from Mogadishu. So far, the protracted and ad hoc devolution of power from the weak FGS to federal states has resulted in de facto blocs dominated by powerful clans which tend to monopolise power and resources. Minority clans, including smaller sub-clans within major ones, often feel sidelined, with dangerous implications: in Puntland, for example, successive mutinies by security forces occurred in February and March over unpaid wages, and several armed clan-based militias operate largely outside the control of Puntland President Abdiweli Gaas. Equally problematic are increasing Al-Shabaab attacks and targeted assassinations, as well as a growing, albeit small, Islamic State faction operating in Puntland.

Elsewhere, the ousting of Galmudug Interim Administration (GIA) President Abdikarim Guled by the state parliament has created a power vacuum and elections planned for late March were postponed due to the severe drought. A similar no confidence motion was initiated against Interim South West Administration (ISWA) President Sharif Hassan Sheikh Adan in March. Pushing for genuine and viable political settlements at the intra- and inter-federal state levels must remain a priority. To that end, the FGS and international actors should focus on the following:

  • Setting up a permanent mechanism to help resolve disputes among federal states, such as Puntland, Galmudug Interim Administration, Juba Interim Authority and Interim South West Administration. In so doing, the government in Mogadishu and state presidents would address the reality that several inter-state borders are contested and, in almost all states, minority clans feel aggrieved by local power sharing, with the risk that such discontent could trigger wider violence within and between states;
     
  • Supporting the Independent Boundaries Review Commission (IBRC) to first demarcate contested state borders and then define their boundaries more generally;
     
  • Supporting efforts to finalise currently vague and unaddressed issues in the provisional constitution, including especially by clarifying legislation on resource and power sharing among federal states and the FGS;
     
  • Supporting constructive dialogue between Somaliland, which continues to seek independence, and the FGS. In this respect, Somaliland’s agreement with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to manage Berbera port and host a military base is likely to exacerbate simmering tensions between Somaliland and the FGS.
     

Security after AMISOM?

Al-Shabaab remains a resilient force that undertakes suicide bombings, targeted assassinations, ambushes and sweeps across south-central Somalia. After AMISOM played a key role in pushing Al-Shabaab’s conventional forces from most urban centres, most troop contributing countries (TCCs) are seeking to depart; at a March meeting in Nairobi, the TCCs began crafting a plan for the mission’s drawdown. AMISOM Commander General Soubagleh now says the withdrawal could start as early as 2018. But to make this possible, the FGS and federal states will need to improve governance dramatically and end local conflicts in liberated areas.

[T]he plan to draw down AMISOM needs a coherent framework to establish a sustainable national force that can take over responsibility for security.

Indeed, without a clearer and more institutionalised division of power, resources and security responsibilities between the FGS and federal states, as well as among federal state administrations, current security gains against Al-Shabaab will be difficult to sustain. In addition, the plan to draw down AMISOM needs a coherent framework to establish a sustainable national force that can take over responsibility for security and mitigate the negative effects of regional competition. The new administration’s further development of a national security architecture is a positive step, but the roles and responsibilities of the National Security Council and the president, notably in terms of command and control authority, will need to be clarified and institutionalised. Moreover, efforts to build the Somali National Army (SNA) could be improved through much better international coordination among the EU, U.S., UK, Turkey and Gulf states, which are all involved in troop training. There are growing indications that the U.S., under the Trump administration, is determined to up its direct military involvement. This carries risks. Although enhanced training and equipment would help, increased airstrikes could inflame public opinion and unwittingly drive communities into Al-Shabaab’s arms – especially if they cause civilian deaths.

Pursuing electoral reform

Somalia still has a long way to go before shifting from the 4.5 quota system to one-person-one-vote elections; in particular, it is unlikely that the requisite level of security will be achieved in the next four years. Recent elections were also marred by lack of transparency and accountability, which generated both corruption and electoral manipulation. Therefore, rather than focusing on the overly ambitious goal of one-person-one-vote, the London Conference ought to consider some of the inherited challenges, principally the 4.5 clan system. In particular, Somalis and international actors should:

  • Encourage the FGS to finalise the process of establishing functioning political parties;
     
  • Provide technical support to register citizens across the country;
     
  • Strengthen the capacity of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) to organise and oversee future elections; and
     
  • Help the IEC organise smaller scale (eg municipal) elections.