Looking Ahead in Mogadishu: Tough Decisions
The UN-supported Transitional Federal Government (TFG) currently faces a strong and credible threat to its survival from the radical Islamist group, al Shabaab. Al Shabaab already controls most of southern Somalia, and Mogadishu is the only major city with a significant TFG presence. Al Shabaab has restricted the government’s ability to operate even within the capital, confining the TFG’s area of control to the few blocks surrounding government buildings. The lack of security in Mogadishu also deters members of parliament from attending sessions, further eroding the significance and the already tenuous effectiveness of the government. The fall of the TFG would eliminate the last vestige of a Somali state and leave a terrorist group with strong ties to al Qaeda in a position to claim control of the country’s capital—the first time an Islamist group would have taken control of a national capital since the Taliban took Kabul in 1996.
The TFG cannot defend itself. It survives only because the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), a peacekeeping force established by the African Union (AU) in January 2007, protects it. The terms of AMISOM’s mandate severely impede the troops’ ability to combat al Shabaab, however, restricting the force to protecting primary government infrastructure and the main supply route.
Al Shabaab launched a major ongoing offensive against the TFG and AMISOM during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan (August 11 - September 9). This offensive challenges AMISOM’s positions throughout Mogadishu and has come close to cutting off the TFG and some AMISOM units.
Mogadishu Map: al Shabaab's Offensive
The threat is very serious. Al Shabaab has a presence throughout most of Mogadishu’s districts, controls nearly all of the main roads, and has expanded its safe zone in the city since the beginning of the year. The AMISOM peacekeeping force has not been able to protect the population. Mogadishu residents have borne the brunt of the fighting—the majority of the casualties have been civilians killed by shelling by both sides. Moreover, increased violence has shut down business in certain areas of Mogadishu, including the main market, Bakara, for the first week of the offensive and at irregular intervals since the beginning of September. The UN estimated in late October that over 50,900 people have been displaced in Mogadishu, 30,100 of whom have left the capital since the start of the al Shabaab Ramadan offensive. Al Shabaab’s offensive could push the TFG and AMISOM to the brink of collapse or even destroy the TFG entirely.
The prospect of al Shabaab taking control of Mogadishu is alarming and requires a much more careful examination of Western policies toward the Horn of Africa than they have so far received. But the details of the potential collapse of the TFG need even more urgent consideration. Even if the TFG can be saved, it is quite possible that military exigencies on the ground in the coming weeks or months will lead to requests for external military assistance by AMISOM forces. The U.S. may well face some difficult choices. We would do well to examine some of the most likely challenges and consider beforehand what our responses should be.
International efforts to train a capable Somali force have failed. There are 10,000 soldiers and policemen currently on the TFG’s rolls, but the government has not paid them for months. As a result, TFG soldiers and policemen have deserted en masse, have sold materiel to al Shabaab and Hizb al Islam, and, in some cases, have defected to al Shabaab. TFG troops recently blockaded several roads in Mogadishu, including the primary supply route, Makka al Mukarama road, to protest the “nonpayment of salaries.” A high-ranking Somali official said of the TFG forces, “On paydays we have almost 20,000 soldiers. When there’s a battle, we can’t find 100.” European countries and the U.S. have funded training missions in Djibouti, Uganda, and Ethiopia, but the desertion rate after completion of these programs is high because of the government’s failure to pay salaries. The rampant corruption in Somalia reaches the highest levels of the military: President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed fired his military chief, General Mohamed Ghelle Kahiye, and several subordinates for their roles in the disappearance of weapons from government military facilities in Mogadishu.
The AMISOM force consists of 7,200 Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers stationed in Mogadishu—shy of the original 8,000-troop AMISOM mandate. The AU raised the cap on the number of troops authorized to serve under the AMISOM mandate to 20,000 soldiers following the July 11 Kampala bombings; however, the proposed increase still needs authorization and funding from the UN Security Council. Uganda, which already provides the bulk of the AMISOM peacekeepers, recently deployed an additional 900 or so troops and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said that “Uganda can raise the 20,000 alone, given logistics and equipment.” Burundi has pledged an additional battalion of 800 soldiers, but has been slow to deploy its troops to Mogadishu. Even if the proposed troop-level is reached, the current AMISOM mandate continues to restrict forces to defensive operations and institution-building.
Al Shabaab and Hizb al Islam have recognized the constraints under which AMISOM operates and exploit them by freely establishing military bases in areas of Mogadishu under Islamist control, targeting AMISOM convoys with IEDs rather than engaging them with direct fire attacks (that would allow the AMISOM soldiers to respond with force under their mandate), and working to drive AMISOM back into the sea. Since the Kampala bombings, AMISOM has become more aggressive in establishing bases to guard key infrastructure. It set up at least seven new bases over the course of September, but maintaining these additional positions strains the small force. AMISOM spokesman Major Barigye Bahoku noted that the rapid expansion cannot continue with the force’s current size.
Al Shabaab’s Ramadan Offensive
Al Shabaab, supported by Hizb al Islam, is currently waging an aggressive offensive with the goal of taking control of all of Mogadishu. Al Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamed Rage, also known as Sheikh Ali Dhere, announced the Ramadan offensive during a press conference on August 23 saying that al Shabaab militants “will continue [fighting] until Allah’s wish is fulfilled. The enemy will face larger attacks from now on. This operation is meant to eliminate the invading Christians and their apostate government in Somalia.” The night that Rage announced the offensive, militants attacked government and AMISOM barracks in Hodan and Bondhere districts in Mogadishu. Mid-morning on August 24, al Shabaab militants disguised in government uniforms carrying guns and wearing suicide vests stormed the Muna Hotel, only blocks from Villa Somalia and often frequented by members of parliament and government officials. The militants went through the building room by room, and only after government troops had surrounded the militants did they detonate their vests. The attack killed at least 32 people, including four MPs. The Muna Hotel attack is one of the large-scale attacks in Mogadishu that Rage had promised just the evening before, and it heralded a new style of attack for al Shabaab. Previous attacks, such as the September 17, 2009 twin suicide bombings of AMISOM headquarters and the December 3, 2009 suicide bombing of a graduation ceremony, relied solely on explosives to inflict damage. At the Muna Hotel, militants fought security forces for some time before detonating their explosives.
The al Shabaab offensive takes a two-pronged approach that couples a higher level of violence within Mogadishu with periodic high-value attacks. The ground operations target strategic positions in the capital. Al Shabaab militants engaged AMISOM soldiers along the Makka al Mukarama road in an attempt to gain control of the supply route. The road runs between the Villa Somalia and the airport. Sheikh Abdi Aziz Abu Mus’ab, al Shabaab’s military operations spokesman, said on August 25 that Makka al Mukarama road was the only major transportation route under government control and “with the assistance of Allah’s power, our fighters cut off that road today and the enemy cannot move between their positions.” In addition to attempting to seize control of major logistics routes, al Shabaab has also worked to disrupt TFG and AMISOM convoys using roadside IEDs. Al Shabaab has also had limited success attacking government positions with mortars. On August 30, a mortar fired at Villa Somalia landed near a Ugandan AMISOM base inside the compound and killed four soldiers. A second mortar attack on September 18 during a session of parliament wounded one lawmaker.
Large-scale attacks on key government infrastructure and personnel demonstrate the inability of AMISOM or the TFG to secure even limited territory in the capital. On September 9, al Shabaab attacked the Aden Adde International Airport just 40 minutes after the departure of a high-level UN delegation. Two militants successfully broke through the airport’s defenses and were “brought to a halt within 200 meters (yards) of the terminal building where they exploded their IED (improvised explosive device) vests,” according to an African Union statement. Two days later, al Shabaab attacked the seaport. On September 20 an al Shabaab militant carrying an automatic rifle jumped onto the back of an armored AMISOM vehicle in a convoy entering Villa Somalia. Security guards opened fire on the militant, who threw a grenade at them and then detonated a suicide vest. The moderate success of these attacks in infiltrating a presumably secure area shows that al Shabaab is fully capable of executing an attack on a high-value target that could severely impact the TFG or AMISOM. The evidence indicates that the group has prepared for such attacks throughout this offensive—a premature detonation of two vehicle-borne IEDs killed nine al Shabaab militants, including an imam, on August 21.
The progress al Shabaab has made and the near-success of several large-scale attacks on vital locations in Mogadishu make a catastrophic attack on the TFG or AMISOM to which those forces could not respond with the resources available to them a serious possibility. The tenuousness of the TFG today means that any successful major attack could put its existence on the line, threatening to remove the international community’s only partner in the fight against al Shabaab. Such an attack would likely manifest itself suddenly, forcing decisions to be made at short notice and increasing the likelihood that the U.S. response would be tactical and spasmodic rather than strategic. It is essential, therefore, to consider the possible most dangerous scenarios and the decision-points they would present to Washington and the world.
An analysis of al Shabaab’s current offensive and the posture of the TFG and AMISOM forces suggest four likely scenarios that would require rapid and decisive action from the U.S.: 1) al Shabaab militants surround an AMISOM contingent; 2) al Shabaab cuts off the supply routes to TFG or AMISOM positions; 3) al Shabaab lays siege to Villa Somalia or a primary government structure; and 4) al Shabaab executes a second successful international attack.
The first three cases would likely play out in a similar manner. TFG and AMISOM forces isolated or cut off from their lines of communications would face two options: either launch a counter-offensive against al Shabaab to regain control or try to evacuate the territory. Both options could well require additional assistance from outside actors. The first option, a counter-offensive against al Shabaab, would require trained ground forces at a minimum, and would benefit greatly from air support (which is not now available to AMISOM). Uganda and Burundi, the two troop contributing countries to AMISOM, would seek to ensure the safety of their troops in Mogadishu. Burundi, however, lacks the military capabilities to respond, and Uganda would likely need additional funding. It is unlikely that either could get reinforcements into Mogadishu rapidly enough to relieve isolated units. To buy time for their reinforcements to arrive, the AMISOM contingent would probably require airborne logistical help—Blackhawks over Mogadishu, in other words. Neighboring countries like Kenya and especially Ethiopia might contribute militarily to an offensive against al Shabaab. Their militaries could conceivably deploy contingents into Mogadishu rapidly, but at very high risk. The likelihood that the AU would ask U.S. or EU troops and/or airpower that are based in the region to assist in the operation either for combat or logistical support is high. Any such counter-offensive would likely seek to regain any territory lost, re-establishing some sort of stability to the front lines of Mogadishu, and it would also, most likely, result in the continued presence of some sort of increased force in order to maintain those results. In each of the three cases, opting to launch a counter-offensive would show the international community’s commitment to supporting the TFG, but could risk committing the international community more directly to the fighting.
Choosing the second option, to evacuate the territory, could also require outside support since neither the TFG nor AMISOM has air capabilities. This support would have to come from the same states that would be asked for assistance in supporting a counter-offensive: neighboring countries, AU states, the U.S. and the EU. Ethiopia has already volunteered to assist if its services were needed. At a press conference on August 11, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said, “The only time when we may cross it [the Ethiopian-Somali border] is if the lives of AMISOM troops are under threat, and if they ask for our assistance. Then we will intervene without hesitation.” Ethiopian intervention, Meles clarified, would be limited to the evacuation of peacekeepers. But evacuating 7,200 peacekeepers in such a situation is a daunting task, and it is far from clear that Ethiopia has the resources to execute it alone.
The implications of evacuating either troops or government officials from a position in Mogadishu vary depending on circumstances. The evacuation of a contingent of AMISOM troops from a location in Mogadishu might result only in the loss of limited territory to al Shabaab. The impact of such a loss on operations depends on the scale of the withdrawal and its precise location. If the withdrawal resulted from or led to the loss of a key supply route, then the impact could be extremely severe. Evacuating a primary government structure such as Villa Somalia would have the most significant impact on operations in Mogadishu. It would be a signal that the TFG had collapsed and there would no longer be a recognized government operating in Somalia. Furthermore, AMISOM, mandated to conduct peace support operations in Somalia, would no longer have a partner in Mogadishu, calling its international justification and purpose into question.
The fourth case—a successful international attack—would play out differently because it would be a sign of al Shabaab’s international reach, not of al Shabaab’s ground capabilities. If al Shabaab successfully attacked either a regional target like the July 11 Kampala bombings or a Western target, the result could be either the withdrawal of international actors from Somalia (such an attack could collapse support for the AMISOM mission in Uganda or Burundi) or a sudden determination by the West to intervene. The West has not in any way set conditions for a successful intervention, however, and a spasmodic reaction to an attack on the U.S. or Europe could have dire consequences. Nor have the Western states threatened by al Shabaab developed any credible policy alternatives to AMISOM should Uganda or Burundi lose the will to continue to fight. The stage is potentially set for the sudden emergence of a predictable crisis for which no one is ready.
Al Shabaab’s Ramadan offensive has challenged the meager force protecting the TFG in Mogadishu. The group currently exercises control over most of southern and central Somalia, and poses a serious threat to the survival of the TFG. Should Mogadishu fall entirely under control of al Shabaab, the group would be the only radical Islamist group to have an uncontested presence in a state’s capital. Somalia would become a true sanctuary for radical Islamists and the destination for terrorists to train and plan operations. Al Shabaab is not isolated within the radical Islamist network; it has reached out to the central al Qaeda leadership on multiple occasions. Recently, on October 8, al Shabaab leader Sheikh Mukhtar Robow Abu Mansur said, “We [are] telling the Mujahideen around, particularly, Sheikh Osama Bin Laden, our leader, your students in Somalia are united.” Furthermore, al Shabaab has directly threatened the United States and has displayed the ability to operate internationally. On July 11, al Shabaab successfully executed a high-casualty international attack in Kampala, Uganda, and it has threatened a second such attack on Uganda should the country not withdraw its troops. Should al Shabaab obtain uncontested control of the capital in addition to the territory within which it already operates, its capabilities would only increase and the options of its neighbors, regional states, and the West would be significantly constrained.
Even if these worst-case scenarios do not materialize, the situation in Somalia today is unacceptable. AMISOM is unable to secure its current positions, let alone expand. Even the increased force-level currently on the table at the UN Security Council would not be enough to drive al Shabaab completely out of the capital and would likely lead to a new stalemate with the AMISOM holding a somewhat larger area on behalf of the TFG. Al Shabaab would still be able to operate freely through the southern and central regions of Somalia, and the only real point of contestation would be the Banadir region, where Mogadishu is located. The additional troops might be able to create a true green zone within which the government could begin to operate, but outside of this, the situation would not change in any real manner: there would still not be a force capable of contesting al Shabaab’s dominance throughout south and central Somalia. That area of Somalia would remain an al Shabaab safe-haven. Al Shabaab would still be able to run the established terrorist training camps with relative impunity and to stage operations from its territory. The group’s threats against the U.S. make it a high likelihood that the group would launch attacks on U.S. interests from that territory.
The successes of the latest al Shabaab offensive in Mogadishu highlight not only the dangers facing the international community, but also the complete absence of any coherent policy or strategy for dealing with the threat posed by al Shabaab. There are no easy answers to this conundrum, but the likelihood of terrible surprises followed by bad choices increases every day the world’s attention to this problem drifts.