August 07, 2011

Al Shabaab's Withdrawal from Mogadishu

Al Shabaab, the al Qaeda-linked militant group in Somalia, abruptly vacated key bases in Mogadishu Saturday morning. The militants left in trucks, heading toward strongholds in southern and central Somalia. Al Shabaab leaders confirmed the departure. The group's spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamed Rage said over a radio station controlled by the group: “The retreat by our forces is only aiming to counter-attack the enemy. People will hear happy news in the coming hours. We shall fight the enemy wherever they are.” Rage announced the group had changed its tactics, and that it would continue to “defend” the Somali people.

Though pockets of al Shabaab militants remain in Mogadishu, representatives from the UN and the UN-backed Transitional Federal Government in Somalia (TFG) heralded the retreat of al Shabaab as progress in the fight against the militant group. An African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) spokesman, Captain Ndayiragije Come, asserted that AMISOM and the TFG controlled 90 percent of Mogadishu, and that the groups were working to oust the remaining militants. Fighting broke out between militants and TFG troops Sunday morning near a major al Shabaab base at Mogadishu stadium.

It is unclear what the exact motivations behind al Shabaab’s retreat were. Somalia has been hard-hit by a drought, which has led to famine conditions in many areas under al Shabaab’s control and in displaced persons camps in Mogadishu. International aid agencies have historically had limited access to al Shabaab-controlled territory and al Shabaab has been blamed for the current humanitarian situation in southern and central Somalia.

  • Al Shabaab may have been significantly weakened by the famine in Somalia and a recent TFG and AMISOM offensive against al Shabaab strongholds in Mogadishu. The group may be unable to hold territory in Mogadishu, which has been a front-line for the insurgency against the Somali government and African Union peacekeepers. What could have been the start of a second Ramadan offensive resulted in a significant loss for al Shabaab.
  • The TFG, backed by AMISOM, will have to expand its security operations in Mogadishu and work to secure a larger territory with the same force size. Somali warlords may already be looking to move into the power vacuum left by al Shabaab, a challenge that the government would have to meet. Over the short term, TFG and AMISOM troops will be spread across the capital, exposing them to more risk.
  • A withdrawal from Mogadishu would remove some of the barriers that international humanitarian organizations face in delivering aid to Somalis. Incidents of violence attached to the delivery of aid, such as Friday’s deaths of at least seven people at the hands of TFG soldiers at a World Food Program distribution center, cannot be attributed to al Shabaab. Al Shabaab has raided and attacked aid centers and has kidnapped aid workers in the past. The retreat from Mogadishu may help to protect al Shabaab’s public image, and a worsening of the situation could serve as propaganda against the TFG and the West for al Shabaab.

It is too early to call al Shabaab’s retreat from Mogadishu a victory. Al Shabaab has not lost or ceded control of key territory just outside of the capital. It still holds most of the Afgoi corridor, to the southwest of Mogadishu, and the K50 airfield near the capital. Al Shabaab has maintained the capability to launch an offensive against the TFG from Afgoi, and could also move forces into the city from the northwest, out of the Middle Shabelle region. The government and aid agencies, however, can take advantage of the opening to deliver much-needed humanitarian assistance to the people.