In Somalia, the al-Shabab militant group is suffering setback after setback. The African Union Mission in Somalia’s (AMISOM) forces have pushed the group out of Mogadishu as well as other territory throughout southern Somalia. Its last significant stronghold is in Kismayo, a strategic port city. As AMISOM forces converge on al-Shabab’s key refuge, the militant group has transformed from a Shari`a-enforcing body to a weakened band of insurgents.

Based on recent fieldwork in Nairobi, Kenya,[1] this article examines the three primary factors behind al-Shabab’s recent setbacks: the successful model provided by AMISOM; clan rivalries within al-Shabab; and al-Shabab’s  mishandling of the regional drought in 2011. The article also identifies the challenges facing the Somali government as it begins to strengthen its position against what has until recently been an intractable foe.

AMISOM: A Model for Success
Formed by the African Union (AU) in February 2007, AMISOM is currently mandated until January 16, 2013, by the United Nations as a peacekeeping force and to assist the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and its successor, the National Constituent Assembly (NCA),[2] in efforts to fight al-Shabab. AMISOM has operated in the country since March 2007, and it consists primarily of troops from Uganda, Kenya, Burundi, Djibouti and Sierra Leone.

A turning point for AMISOM was in August 2011 when African troops together with TFG forces pushed al-Shabab out of the capital Mogadishu. A number of reasons account for this turnaround, including more troop contributions from member states, greater coordination between AMISOM and TFG forces, and reported training of Somali intelligence operatives by the Central Intelligence Agency.[3] Since then, AMISOM remains on the offensive and its numbers have been augmented by troops from Djibouti and Kenya. The involvement of the Kenyan Defense Forces (KDF), which is well equipped and includes a relatively large navy and air force, has greatly contributed to recent achievements against al-Shabab. In addition, Ethiopia, which is not part of AMISOM, has redeployed troops into Somalia, capturing Beledwyne, and has moved rapidly into the central regions of Hiraan and Galgadud and further still into the Shabelle River Valley. The KDF has liberated Gedo and Juba while AMISOM forces spearheaded by the Ugandans have pushed al-Shabab more than 100 miles from the capital, Mogadishu.

Several countries concerned with the growing al-Qa`ida presence in the Horn of Africa have welcomed the AMISOM mission. “What we’ve seen here is a marked increase in African countries’ capacities and willingness to successfully address challenges,” affirmed Matt Goshko, an official at the Somali Affairs Unit in the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi.[4] While it is undoubtedly receiving foreign (and especially U.S.) assistance, AMISOM is a body made up of African troops who have responded to an African crisis at the direction of an African political organization. The AU members have shown a willingness and desire to act swiftly and largely independently to ensure their own national security and protect lucrative tourism industries. In addition, the Burundian and Ugandan soldiers who have pushed al-Shabab out of Mogadishu have gained valuable experience in urban warfare, which may pay dividends in other areas in the Horn of Africa.

Today, al-Shabab has consolidated influence in the strategic port city of Kismayo, and AMISOM forces have surrounded the city in preparation for a major offensive. Kismayo holds strategic importance as the financial lifeblood of the jihadist militia. For months, al-Shabab has generated revenue by taxing the production, transport and export of charcoal produced in the region. Kismayo is home to the country’s main port from which coal is exported to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.[5]  Shutting down this significant stream of income by capturing the city is therefore one of the primary military objectives of AMISOM before its mandate expires.

After preparing their offensive for weeks, reports surfaced in mid-September that Kenyan troops were pushing into Kismayo.[6] Voice of America interviewed residents who witnessed al-Shabab fighters fleeing the city after suffering losses from Kenyan troops.[7]

Internal Clan Divisions
Al-Shabab also appears weakened by internal divisions among the group’s leadership. Most analysis suggests that this disagreement is centered on the group’s merger with al-Qa`ida. In February 2012, Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr (also known as Godane), one of the more ideologically committed jihadists in al-Shabab’s leadership, oficially announced this new partnership.[8] The courting of al-Qa`ida is believed by some to be the reason for a rift between Godane and another leader, Hassan Dahir Aweys, who does not appear as devoted as Godane to the global jihadist appeal.

Aweys is the former head of Hisbul Islamiyya, a militia that fought against and then merged with al-Shabab in late 2010 once it became clear that victory was unattainable.[9] Aweys’ past suggests he is opportunistic and willing to back the stronger horse as the situation changes on the ground. Not only did he cut a deal with al-Shabab when he was head of Hisbul Islamiyya—albeit from a position of weakness—but in 2006 he resigned from the leadership of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) when it began losing control of Mogadishu.[10] Rumors abound that he is now seeking to sit down with the Somali government as it begins to strengthen and his own allies lose ground.[11] Aweys may be opposed to the al-Qa`ida elements in al-Shabab, but he is far more concerned with staying alive and in power.

Clan loyalties, which reign supreme in the region, cannot be ignored when looking at splits within the group. For example, after a 2010 battle known as the First Ramadan Offensive, when al-Shabab tried, and failed, to wrest control of Mogadishu from AMISOM and TFG troops, cracks began to emerge. Shaykh Mukhtar Robow—a senior al-Shabab leader and member of the Rahanweyn clan that reportedly comprises a majority of the group’s foot soldiers—supposedly became incensed that his clan bore the brunt of the casualties.[12] “Robow was said to be livid that his troops were being used as cannon fodder,” said Matt Goshko of the Somali Affairs Unit in the U.S. Embassy, Nairobi. “His guys were reportedly being pushed to the front lines while foreign fighters were at the back. There was no medical help and several sources claimed that wounded fighters were killed after the defeat.”[13]

The 2011 Regional Drought
Al-Shabab’s mismanagement of a regional drought in mid-2011—which was among the worst for a generation—may later be seen as the heaviest blow to the group. Although the drought affected the entire region, it was only in the southern Bakool and Lower Shabelle areas controlled by al-Shabab where it also led to a famine. According to the United Nations, around three million people in al-Shabab-controlled areas of Somalia were without enough food.[14] This was in large part due to the militia’s refusal of foreign aid, which it saw as an attempt to undermine its authority and help spread Western influence. Al-Shabab spokesman Shaykh Ali Mohamud Rage even suggested that “the declaration of famine is political and is a lie with hidden agendas,” asserting that Somalia was only suffering from “a shortgage of rain.”[15] From this time on, al-Shabab has struggled to convincingly present itself as the provider of order and justice, which was a big factor in the ICU’s successful bid for power in 2006.

The mishandling of the drought and famine also likely contributed to clan divisions among the leadership.[16] Godane, a member of the Isaaq tribe based in Somaliland—which was hardly affected by the famine—publicly refused Western aid while Robow’s Rahanweyn clan starved. Robow’s request to accept the aid was ignored, and he is unlikely to have forgiven Godane and his allies.[17]

Al-Shabab Still Dangerous
While al-Shabab is no longer in control of southern Somalia, the group is still dangerous. It has ceased to be a viable political alternative to the Somali government and is moving back to its roots as a local insurgency.[18] AMISOM will have to adapt its tactics to respond to this new change in battle-space, and it will have to be more effective at protecting crucial trade routes from kidnappers and bandits.

Instead of engaging in conventional warfare with AMISOM, al-Shabab fighters are melting back into their clan militias.[19] This makes it almost impossible for AMISOM to identify the enemy. Moreover, given the fierce bonds of clan loyalty, there is little information being shared between clan elders and the AMISOM forces.[20] Safely ensconced in these militias, al-Shabab has increasingly embraced an asymmetric warfare strategy against both AMISOM and the TFG.

In addition, al-Shabab has shown its ability to strike in the countries that are fighting them in Somalia. One of the initial motivations for Uganda’s involvement in an aggressive military engagement with al-Shabab was a July 2010 dual bomb attack in Kampala that killed 76 and threatened the country’s tourism industry.[21] Since then, the group has also executed grenade and gun attacks in Kenya. The most recent of these was a massacre of 17 congregants at a church in Garissa, a town on the Kenyan border with Somalia.[22]

Ahmed Iman Ali, a Kenyan former preacher who has recently emerged as a senior al-Shabab commander in charge of non-Somali militia members, has threatened further attacks on Kenya in reprisal for their encroachment into what he sees as “Muslim lands.”[23]  These threats are not empty, and Kenyan officials are concerned about his ability to coordinate attacks in Nairobi and Mombasa that are likely to be carried out by a new breed of homegrown Kenyan jihadists.

The TFG and the Future of Somalia
As the military challenges confronting AMISOM ease, the complexities of Somali politics are likely to take center stage. The notoriously corrupt TFG has earned the ire of Somalis for stealing development aid, and it appears to be snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. According to one senior AMISOM counterterrorism official, the TFG has failed to provide basic services to areas liberated from al-Shabab control. There have also been reports that Somalis are unhappy that local leaders who have replaced former al-Shabab leaders often do not come from the majority clan in the area and are put in place by the central authority.[24] Thus, the TFG has struggled to gain legitimacy, while AMISOM is perceived by many as a foreign occupying force. Under the circumstances, the AMISOM official lamented that “we are winning the battles and losing the war.”[25]

To win the fight against al-Shabab, the international community must lean on the TFG and NCA to be more responsive to Somali needs, and increase its capacity to do so where appropriate.[26] It is also important to develop a closer interface between the military strategy and the political vision post-Kismayo.

What would a new, more inclusive political vision entail? To understand the central problem in the current political order one cannot ignore the 2002-2004 Somali peace conference that proposed a clan quota for the distribution of power, and which persists to this day. This clan quota is more commonly known as “the 4.5 formula” where the four refers to the majority clans of the Darood, Hawiye, Dir, and Rahanweyn, and the 0.5 refers to all the minority clans.[27] Under this formula, if one belongs to a minority clan, it means that they likely have to resign themselves to occupying junior positions in government.

Even among the four main clans, rivalries are strong. The weakest among them is reportedly the Rahanweyn, who some look disparagingly upon as farmers and peasants.[28] It is not a coincidence, therefore, that many of al-Shabab’s foot soldiers belong to the Rahanweyn; membership in al-Shabab affords them more money, power and status. By stressing a radical Islamist identity as opposed to a clan identity, weaker clans can also merge with other clans to check the power of their main rivals. The jihadist identity developed by al-Shabab has in the past successfully provided minority clans with an alternative vehicle through which to access power.

Al-Shabab is now at its weakest. It is facing internal divisions, possible defections and the most sustained and well coordinated military challenge to its authority since its rise to power. The desire and determination of AMISOM—in particular its Ugandan and Kenyan contingents—to rid Somalia of jihadists shows no sign of abating, and it continues to enjoy the support of the United Nations.

It is premature, however, to assume that the group is close to defeat, and al-Shabab is likely to maintain a lethal presence as an insurgency in the country. It also has a proven ability to respond by attacking neighboring countries involved with AMISOM. Nonetheless, AMISOM has cleared the way for yet another attempt to bring long-term stability to a population that has never experienced it. It is now up to Somalis, with the help of the African Union and the West, to determine the future of their country.

Dr. Hussein Solomon is Senior Professor in the Department of Political Studies and Governance at the University of the Free State, South Africa, and Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics (LSE).

Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens is a Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR), King’s College, London. He is also an investigator for the University of Maryland’s START consortium. His latest publication is the forthcoming, “Lights, Camera, Jihad: Al-Shabaab’s Western Media Strategy” (ICSR, 2012).

[1] The authors conducted fieldwork in Nairobi, Kenya, between July 1-8, 2012.

[2] The TFG’s United Nations mandate officially expired on August 20, 2012, and it has been replaced by the National Constituent Assembly (NCA). In early September, the NCA elected Somalia’s new president, Hassan Sheik Mohamud. For more, see M.L. Roach, “Somalia’s Government Transition Maintains the Status Quo,” Heritage Foundation, August 20, 2012; “Inauguration of Somalia’s New President Begins,” Associated Press, September 16, 2012.

[3] Personal interview, senior AMISOM counterterrorism official, Nairobi, Kenya, July 2012; Jeffrey Gettleman, Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Relies on Contractors in Somalia Conflict,” New York Times, August 10, 2011.

[4] Personal interview, Matt Goshko, U.S. Embassy, Nairobi, Kenya, July 2, 2012.

[5] “Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1916 (2010),” United Nations Security Council, July 18, 2011.

[6] “Witnesses: Al-Shabab Pulling Out of Major Somali Port,” Voice of America, September 16, 2012.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Nelly Lahoud, “The Merger of al-Shabab and Qa`idat al-Jihad,” CTC Sentinel 5:2 (2012).

[9] Bill Roggio, “Hizbul Islam Joins Shabaab in Somalia,” The Long War Journal, December 19, 2010; Mary Harper, Getting Somalia Wrong: Faith, War and Hope in a Shattered State (London: Zed Books, 2012).

[10] Bill Roggio, “The Fall of the Islamic Courts Union,” The Long War Journal, December 27, 2010.

[11] “One of the leaders, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, has reportedly sought to defect to the government side, together with Sheik al-Amriki, and Sheikh Mukhtar Robow,” in “Kenya: Al Shabaab Chiefs Defect After Rout by KDF Forces,” The Star [Nairobi], September 7, 2012.

[12] Harper.

[13] Ibid.; personal interview, Matt Goshko, U.S. Embassy, Nairobi, Kenya, July 2012. For more, see Valentina Soria, “Global Jihad Sustained Through Africa,” Royal United Services Institute, April 2012.

[14] “Somalia: Humanitarian Access Analysis,” United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, March 2012.

[15] “Al-Shabab Reasserts Foreign Aid Ban,” al-Jazira, July 22, 2011.

[16] “Al-Shabaab Leadership Rift Widens,” Somalia Report, July 14, 2011.

[17] Personal interview, senior AMISOM counterterrorism official, Nairobi, Kenya, July 2012; “Could Somali Famine Deal a Fatal Blow to al-Shabab?” BBC, August 9, 2011.

[18] Personal interview, senior AMISOM counterterrorism official, Nairobi, Kenya, July 2012.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] “Why is Uganda Fighting in ‘Hellish’ Somalia?” BBC, March 15, 2012.

[22] “Red Cross: Kenya Church Attacks Kill 17 Near Somali Border,” CNN, July 1, 2012.

[23] Ahmed Iman Ali, video lecture, April 2012, copy in authors’ possession.

[24] Personal interview, senior AMISOM counterterrorism official, Nairobi, Kenya, July 2012.

[25] Ibid.

[26] For a critical assessment of the NCA, see Roach.

[27] Nastasya Tay and David Smith, “Somalia’s First Parliament Since 1991 Inaugurated in Mogadishu,” Guardian, August 20, 2012.

[28] Kenneth Menkhaus, “Somalia: A Situation Analysis and Trend Assessment,” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, August 2003.

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