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Somalia’s Al-Shabaab Down but Far from Out
Somalia’s Al-Shabaab Down but Far from Out
Somalia: New Leadership, Persistent Problems
Somalia: New Leadership, Persistent Problems
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: New Leadership, Persistent Problems

The recent election of President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo is an important step toward Somalia's recovery after decades of instability. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2017 annual early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group encourages the European Union and its member states to support the government by injecting new life into the national reconciliation talks and boost assistance for sub-national governance.

This commentary on the new leadership in Somalia is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2017.

Somalia finally has a new leadership but faces a slew of longstanding problems, moving forward. The country’s course in the next year will depend in particular on how the new Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) handles the fallout from a fraudulent and fractious electoral process and the country’s multiple security threats. If left unaddressed, these challenges combined with others such as illicit foreign funding of politicians, divisions over the country’s regional and international relations and persistent clashes driven by clan-based interests will create opportunities for armed actors – including Al-Shabaab and an emerging Islamic State (IS) – to continue to operate and expand.

The Day After Divisive Elections

The FGS and federal member states have come through a delayed, chaotic and divisive election process to select a new president and two houses of parliament. Newly elected President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo secured unprecedented cross-clan support but expectations are high and a backlash against him is probable unless he moves quickly to fulfil his pledge to rebuild the security forces and state institutions, tackle corruption and unify the country. Furthermore, Farmajo’s intention to reshape Somalia’s foreign policy could prove unsettling for the country and the region. He won partly thanks to his campaign image as a staunch nationalist, opposed to foreign meddling, but he will need to move cautiously to manage tricky regional politics and ease the anxieties of powerful neighbours. In turn, the African Union (AU) and other partners need to be aware of the destabilising potential of the perceived resurgent Somali nationalism embodied in Farmajo and should encourage discreet diplomacy between Somalia and its neighbours to promote dialogue and accommodation.

The indirect election process made positive steps toward improving representation at clan-based level and could pave the way for direct elections. But the absence of transparency and accountability among electoral bodies undermined the polls’ legitimacy and increased the chances that the results will be contested. There are credible allegations of foreign states (mostly in the Gulf) supporting their favoured candidates financially. Gender balance in the new parliament will improve but the proportion of women will still fall short of the 30 per cent quota.

President Farmajo will have to navigate Somalia’s dysfunctional politics, including its contentious federalism project.

Conflicts Between and Within Federal Member States

President Farmajo will have to navigate Somalia’s dysfunctional politics, including its contentious federalism project. The lack of agreed policies or framework to tackle disputes among federal member states or between them and central government makes his work particularly tricky. The most intractable of the conflicts between federal states remains that between the Galmudug Interim Administration (GIA) and Puntland over the city of Galkayo which straddles their common border. Clashes in November and December 2016 saw hundreds killed and thousands displaced. Tensions subsided following a ceasefire agreement in late December, but the violence highlights the ferocity of competition between clans for territorial control.​​​​​​​

Disputes within federal states also hamper efforts to rebuild the country. On 10 January, local Galmudug state parliamentarians passed a no-confidence motion against GIA President Abdikarim Guled, which he rejected on the grounds that it fell short of the required two-thirds threshold and was passed while parliament was closed. The GIA also faces resistance from the Sufi-aligned, anti-Al-Shabaab militia, Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama (ASWJ), which continues to control Galmudug state capital, Dhusamareeb.

In Somaliland, which does not recognise the FGS’s authority, elections planned for March 2017 have been pushed back until October due to drought. Since clan tensions have risen significantly there, the process could be more violent than in the past.

Al-Shabaab Adapts as Islamic State Looks for a Foothold

Al-Shabaab remains resilient and continues to launch strikes against civilian and military targets across Somalia, especially in Mogadishu’s heavily guarded centre. Though weakened, it has adapted and become versatile in using both urban and rural guerrilla tactics. Effective counter-insurgency will require concerted action by both military and civilian actors. While U.S. airstrikes and ground operations have degraded the group’s military strength and eliminated high-profile figures, they do not constitute a long-term solution.

Al-Shabaab still holds territory in the south and centre but discontent is rife among the population, especially in the Juba valley, where the group’s coercive collection of zakat tax has angered residents. In Middle Shabelle and Hiraan regions in the centre, local clan militias have mobilised and had some success in disrupting Al-Shabaab’s operations. Deep fragmentation among Somali clans makes them incapable of an organised large-scale revolt. Some could ally against Al-Shabaab but they would have to use great care as arming clans hastily and indiscriminately would risk more instability.

The emergence of IS after one of Al-Shabaab’s spiritual leaders pledged allegiance to the group in October 2015 is a further potentially serious threat to stability. Despite attempts by both Al-Shabaab and government troops to isolate pro-IS factions in the south and centre, IS briefly seized control of Qandala on Puntland’s Gulf of Aden coastline in the north in October 2016. The Puntland administration claims to have flushed IS from the town, but militants reportedly still control its peripheries. While IS has so far failed to break Al-Shabaab’s partnership with al-Qaeda, the local faction will try to exploit Al-Shabaab’s internal weaknesses to gain influence in the coming months.

Cracks in the Security Forces Play into Al-Shabaab’s Hands

The Somali National Army (SNA) is undermined by infighting over control of checkpoints (where soldiers can extort money) which has given Al-Shabaab opportunities to retake territory, most recently in Buulo Gaduud in the south west and War-Sheekh in the south east on 7 January. A wave of SNA defections to Al-Shabaab, lured by the group’s money and reassured by its pledge not to kill defectors, has buoyed the jihadists’ numbers and morale.

Unless the Somali leadership gives priority to reforming its security forces, external initiatives to help on this front will fail.

Unless the Somali leadership gives priority to reforming its security forces, external initiatives to help on this front will fail. Present rates of corruption – in Transparency International’s 2016 ranking corruption was perceived to be worse in Somalia than in any other country – not only call into question the leadership’s priorities but also fuel insecurity. Military reform need not be expensive, but troops must be committed: motivated groups like ASWJ have shown that with limited external support, Al-Shabaab can be defeated.

The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has had some significant successes against Al-Shabaab but is still struggling to fight a non-conventional war for which it is ill-suited and inadequately resourced. The SNA’s and FGS’s failure to secure and govern areas liberated by AMISOM has sapped peacekeepers’ morale and led some troop contributing countries to plan to leave the mission in the next two years. A hasty withdrawal would be disastrous, but AMISOM must plan to progressively hand over responsibility for security to effective Somali forces.

Refocusing Support on State Administrations and Clan-level Reconciliation

To help stabilise Somali politics and reduce violence, the European Union (EU) and its member states should continue to encourage the federal government to prioritise a bottom-up, national reconciliation process and to seek lasting political settlements with and between federal member states. In tandem, federal states, supported by the FGS, should launch grassroots efforts to reconcile clans and make local governance more inclusive. The EU and its member states should accompany this process by shifting the focus of their support from the federal government to state administrations to boost their role in intra- and inter-clan reconciliation and help reinforce local security forces.

If sub-national governance remains weak and dysfunctional and clans at loggerheads, there will likely be more conflict for Al-Shabaab to exploit. Donors – including the EU and its member states in part through the EU Training Mission (EUTM Somalia) – should adopt a strategy of decentralising their counter-insurgency support, currently focused overwhelmingly on Mogadishu, by increasing investment in federal states’ security forces and coordination structures.

The EU, having recently reduced its funding for AMISOM by 20 per cent, should maintain the current level while assisting the AU to secure additional funding from other donors. It should also agree with the AU and AMISOM on a new, more feasible force structure, help them work toward greater cooperation with state security forces, and plan a credible exit schedule.