April 01, 2010
Operation Briefer: The Upcoming Battle for Mogadishu
Somalia has struggled without an effective central government since January 1991, and the current transitional government suffers from numerous deficiencies. Still, the best prospect for both long-term stability in Somalia and the mitigation of the terror threat to the U.S. rests in the establishment of a central government capable of providing basic services, enforcing security, and minimizing the reach of al Shabaab. The operation to retake Mogadishu represents an important step in achieving that goal. No Somali entity besides the TFG has the immediate capacity to drive al Shabaab from the capital and establish itself as a legitimate government. Waiting for a viable alternative with fewer problems than the TFG to emerge could give al Shabaab additional time to consolidate its power and prepare for an international terror attack.
The TFG’s upcoming military operation will attempt to establish security in Mogadishu by driving two militant Islamist groups – al Shabaab and Hizb al Islam – out of the city. Control of the city would give the TFG the physical space needed to govern. Some members of the TFG parliament currently live abroad due to security concerns, making it almost impossible to achieve a quorum necessary to hold a session of parliament. The TFG at present only controls a few strategic locations inside Mogadishu, including the presidential villa, the airport, the seaport, and a few districts in the southeast of the city. Somalia’s Minister for Interior Affairs, Sheikh Abdulkadir Ali Omar, stated that his government is determined to retake the parts of the city that have fallen to Islamist control. Another TFG official stated more specifically that the offensive will aim to “retain the control of 10 [out of 16 total] districts in Mogadishu which are not under the control of the government.” This specific operation will focus only on Mogadishu, but some Somali officials, including TFG military spokesman Col. Aden Ibrahim Kalmoy, have hinted that it might be the first in a series of operations to eradicate militant Islamists from all of Somalia: “[The TFG] is committed to an inevitable war until [it] eradicate[s] the terrorists from all Somali territory.”
Blue Forces (Government and Government-allied Forces)
The TFG’s Somali National Security Force (SNSF) will lead the upcoming operation. The exact manpower of this force is difficult to determine with any precision. The total planned strength of the force is 8,000 troops, but as of November 1, 2009, only 2,900 troops were deemed “effective” and on the government’s payroll. An additional 2,500 Somali troops completed training in Kenya in early February 2010, and about 1,000 returned home from training in Uganda in mid-March 2010. These numbers indicate that at least 6,400 troops make up the current SNSF force . Complicating matters, however, the Kenyan government has so far refused the Somali president’s request to redeploy the 2,500 Somali troops trained in Kenya from the Kenya-Somalia border to Mogadishu, thereby putting in doubt their ability to serve in the upcoming battle for Mogadishu. A credible report from mid-March 2010 indicated that the SNSF has a total manpower of between 6,000 and 10,000 troops, most of whom have recently returned to Mogadishu from training in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Kenya. Hundreds, if not thousands, of small TFG-aligned militias also augment the SNSF. These government-aligned militias are dispersed throughout the country, unlike the TFG forces, which are concentrated primarily in Mogadishu.
General Mohamed Gelle Kahiye currently commands the SNSF, having assumed the post in early December 2009 after the TFG fired the previous commander following a suicide bombing at a university graduation ceremony in Mogadishu. One U.S. official described General Gelle, previously a colonel in Somalia’s army before the collapse of the Siad Barre regime in 1991 and recently an assistant manager at a fast food restaurant in Germany, as Somalia’s “best hope”. Somali war veterans recognize General Gelle as one of the best Somali military officers alive. His troops are organized into battalion-sized formations based loosely on clan affiliation. Yet a lack of organization and an ineffective chain of command plague the SNSF as a whole.
The arsenal of the SNSF appears to consist of tanks, trucks, armored personnel-carriers, pickup trucks armed with cannons in the rear, and a wide-array of small arms. The U.S. has supplied the TFG with at least 80 tons of arms since May 2009, most of which were small arms and ammunition channeled through the African Union’s peacekeeping mission in Mogadishu.
The capability of the SNSF to conduct a successful operation in Mogadishu remains in question. A recent UN Monitoring Group report described the Somali security forces as “ineffective, disorganized, and corrupt – a composite of independent militias loyal to senior government officials and military officers who profit from the business of war and resist their integration under a single command.” The report also pointed out that the security forces failed at making any significant military gains in 2009 and that the enemy had established a front-line only 500 meters from the presidential villa in at least one instance. Al Shabaab fighters quickly defeated TFG security forces in late February 2010, for example, after the TFG attempted to take several villages in Galgudud region, north of Mogadishu.
Recent events, however, have generated reason for cautious optimism. Thousands of SNSF soldiers have recently received training from superior militaries in neighboring countries – an effort partially financed by the U.S. TFG forces also made some modest military gains in mid-March when they took control of some parts of northern Mogadishu by forcing militant Islamists to withdraw. Moreover, the TFG will not conduct the upcoming operation on its own; it will have several important allies on its side assisting in the effort.
The TFG may count on the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) force as its most important ally in the upcoming operation. 5,300 soldiers from Uganda and Burundi make up the AMISOM contingent, and an additional 1,700 AMISOM troops are expected to arrive in Mogadishu in the near future. The AMISOM forces are considered more professional and better trained than their Somali counterparts, in part due to the training that the U.S. military provides for units deploying as part of the AMISOM mission. AMISOM’s specific role in supporting the upcoming operation is ambiguous. AMISOM’s current mandate calls for AMISOM troops to defend key infrastructure to allow the TFG to function and to assist in humanitarian operations. The mandate prohibits AMISOM forces from going on the offensive against militants, which could limit the role played by AMISOM forces in the upcoming operation. The AU forces could have a more direct role, however, if AMISOM considers its involvement necessary for “long-term stabilization, reconstruction, and development in Somalia,” all of which AMISOM is expected to facilitate under the terms of the mandate. Recent reports indicate that AMISOM forces have created bases near enemy strongholds, suggesting that they could play an integral role in the upcoming operation. Additionally, the Ugandan government has lobbied the A.U. to change the mandate to allow AMISOM forces to go on the offensive, thereby reflecting Uganda’s potential willingness to play a more proactive role in the operation.
The Sufi Islamist organization Ahlu Sunna wa al Jama’a (ASWJ) will likely also serve as an important ally for the TFG in the looming battle for Mogadishu. ASWJ, established in 1991, is an umbrella organization for Sufi orders throughout the country that did not engage in armed conflict until July 2008, when al Shabaab prohibited Sufi practices in parts of Somalia. Specifically, al Shabaab’s desecration of the tombs of revered Sufi leaders drove ASWJ to take up arms against the Wahhabism-inspired al Shabaab. Ethiopia identified ASWJ as a potential ally and has provided elements of the organization with arms and training. Currently, ASWJ, which has always been pro-government and pro-Somali unity, has about 2,000 fighters in its ranks. It signed a deal with the TFG on March 15, 2010 that “incorporates” ASWJ fighters into the TFG security forces in return for five cabinet positions. The details on how and when the incorporation of forces will take place and which elements of the ASWJ will be incorporated are not clear. The relatively decentralized militias of ASWJ have proven to be a formidable fighting force, and they may simply continue to operate autonomously but alongside, and in support of, the TFG (especially since several leaders of ASWJ opposed the deal). The group has operated primarily in central Somalia (mainly the Galgudud region) and has a limited presence inside Mogadishu. In late March 2010, however, an ASWJ cleric led hundreds of anti-Shabaab protestors demonstrating in Mogadishu. Still, the manpower of ASWJ inside Mogadishu pales in comparison to that of its adversaries, so the group will likely have to draw upon resources situated in central Somalia if it intends to have a significant impact in the operation.
The TFG will likely receive limited operational support from international actors apart from AMISOM. TFG President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed has indicated a willingness to accept U.S. air support for the upcoming operation, but has said that he objects to any direct U.S. military involvement in the conflict. The U.S. may provide intelligence support for the operation, some of which may come from unmanned surveillance drones that the Pentagon is reportedly considering deploying. One unnamed U.S. official also said that U.S. Special Forces may conduct targeted strikes on high value targets (HVTs), but the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Jonnie Carson, has made it clear that the U.S. has no plans to direct, coordinate, or provide military support for the upcoming operation.
Somalia’s immediate neighbors (Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti) all support the TFG, but none are likely to play a role in the upcoming offensive, other than by tightening border security. Ethiopia and Kenya have amassed troops along their borders with Somalia, and enemy forces may attempt to antagonize those troops to draw either or both countries into the conflict in order to create the perception of a foreign invasion and thus garner popular support. But any fighting involving Ethiopian or Kenyan troops will likely occur only near the border regions. Kenya, for its part, has conducted operations on its side of the border to arrest and detain young Somalis without proper identification documents, perhaps in an effort to preempt any plots of al Shabaab to instigate a conflict with Kenyan troops. The mission to dislodge al Shabaab positions in Mogadishu will only succeed if the Somali people view the operation as Somali-led and Somali-executed, thus international actors will likely limit their involvement in the operations.
Red Forces (Hostile Insurgents)
The TFG offensive will primarily target the militant Islamist group al Shabaab. Al Shabaab, which seeks to establish an Islamic state in the Horn of Africa and views itself as part of the global jihad led by al Qaeda, controls large parts of southern and central Somalia, including much of Mogadishu. Key locations in Mogadishu under its control include the north and northeast parts of the city, the main stadium, and the city’s main market, the Bakara market.
The total manpower of al Shabaab proves even more difficult to measure than that of the TFG forces. Most estimates place the total number of al Shabaab fighters in the range of 2,500-5,000. The UN Monitoring Group estimates that al Shabaab consists of no more than 2,500 hardcore fighters, including several hundred foreign fighters; “a large number” of local militias aligned with al Shabaab but that are not readily deployable; and irregular “pay-as-you-go” fighters. Al Shabaab’s total manpower is distributed across several Islamic provinces under its control in southern Somalia, making it impossible to determine, or even estimate, the number of al Shabaab fighters in Mogadishu. Moreover, in recent months, numerous witnesses in Mogadishu have reported seeing “hundreds” of al Shabaab fighters pour into the city in preparation for the anticipated offensive.
Al Shabaab has proven adept at conducting armed insurgency against its enemies, namely the TFG and AMISOM forces. The average al Shabaab tactical unit consists of about 30-40 fighters armed with Cold War-era weapons, including assault rifles, PK general purpose machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and P-10 recoilless rifles. They also have trucks armed with machine guns (known as “technicals”), vehicles resembling humvees, and light anti-aircraft weapons adapted for ground combat. The group also uses mortars to attack AMISOM bases and TFG-controlled territory inside Mogadishu, including the presidential villa. Al Shabaab has special operations units, including an explosives brigade and assassinations brigade, to enhance its insurgency. The explosives brigade primarily sets up IED traps, and the assassinations brigade conducts political assassinations. Al Shabaab fighters undergo intense training at training camps in southern Somalia, some of which were set up by or operated by veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Al Shabaab, indeed, has an estimated 800 to 1,100 foreign fighters in its ranks, some of whom have insurgency experience from time spent fighting or training in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Al Shabaab also has a history of using terror tactics, including suicide bombings and car bombings, which it will likely employ in the upcoming battle against the TFG.
Al Shabaab has made several strategic moves in preparation for the upcoming operation. First, it launched a series of attacks on TFG and AMISOM targets in Mogadishu leading to four straight days of fighting, and over 80 deaths, in early March. The effort appeared to be an attempt by al Shabaab to preempt the government’s offensive and draw the TFG into battle before it was fully prepared to fight.
Al Shabaab has also prepared for the offensive by conducting a psychological operations campaign in order to gain popular support and inspire its fighters. On March 8, one of the main spokesmen for al Shabaab, Sheikh Ali Dere, held a press conference in which he stated that al Shabaab would defend Mogadishu from attacks by the TFG and the United States. An al Shabaab regional leader, Sheikh Yussuf Kabo Ku-tu, echoed that same sentiment about ten days later: “America and its close allies, such as Britain, are at length planning to take control of Somalia and [put] their military bases in the country, and this is an absolute conspiracy against the Somali people.” These statements were part of an effort to gain popular support and motivate militants by framing the upcoming offensive as part of a U.S.-led military operation. The emir (or leader) of al Shabaab, Abu Zubair, also made a rare address to local media in anticipation of the operation. On March 15, he told his followers, “I recommend to you to be very alert and be obedient to the commands of your commanders, and by being obedient to your commanders we can overcome the entirety of our foes.” Al Shabaab clearly recognizes the magnitude of the coming offensive and has strived to rally its hardcore supporters.
The militant Islamist group Hizb al Islam constitutes a secondary target of the TFG in the pending offensive is. Hizb al Islam, structured along clan lines, has achieved relative success against TFG forces in its strongholds throughout central Somalia, including inside Mogadishu. The group uses the same insurgency tactics as al Shabaab, but thus far it has refrained from carrying out (or at least taking credit for) any suicide attacks. The group, which was originally a coalition of four armed opposition groups, is on the brink of disintegration. Two of the four militias that initially comprised Hizb al Islam have split from the group, leaving little more than a skilled militia composed of Hawiye clansmen (the Hawiye is one of the largest clans in Somalia, but not all of its members are supporters or sympathizes of Hizb al Islam). Estimates of Hizb al Islam’s manpower are unknown, but unlike al Shabaab, Hizb al Islam does not have the human resources available to send reinforcements to Mogadishu from other parts of the country.
Hizb al Islam and al Shabaab have worked in cooperation with each other to target TFG and AMISOM forces over the past year. The current state of the relationship, however, appears less amicable than before, making the degree to which they cooperate in the upcoming operation uncertain. Al Shabaab offered the leader of Hizb al Islam, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the opportunity to join al Shabaab in October 2009, but Aweys rejected the offer and opted for Hizb al Islam to remain independent. More recently, on March 9, a Hizb al Islam military leader, Bare ali Bare, an outspoken critic of al Shabaab, was assassinated in Bakara market, one of the al Shabaab strongholds in Mogadishu. Al Shabaab is suspected of having executed the assassination, highlighting the growing animosity between the two former allies. Hizb al Islam will likely play a limited role in determining the battle’s outcome unless it bucks this recent trend and manages to support al Shabaab in the upcoming operation.
The government has warned of the impending offensive for over two months now, and it appears that its launch is imminent. The TFG began to forcibly evict Somalis living in the immediate vicinity of the airport in late March to guarantee security at that strategic location. One unnamed high-ranking TFG official indicated that he expects the operation to start in very early April.
The battle for Mogadishu could be long, bloody, and have a significant human toll once launched. Nearly a year of sporadic fighting between the AMISOM-backed TFG forces and the militant Islamists has already generated hundreds of civilian casualties and thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs). The conflict in Mogadishu has driven over 33,000 Somalis from their homes in February and March 2010 alone. The TFG has asked civilians to leave the city in anticipation of the upcoming operation, but fighting will still likely result in the deaths and displacements of hundreds or thousands. Additionally, a decisive victor may not emerge for weeks or months after the fighting begins. Any significant gains by the TFG could lead al Shabaab to resort to terrorist attacks out of desperation, thereby exacerbating conditions in Mogadishu.
The TFG faces an array of challenges in the upcoming battle, and its operational success or failure will bear significant consequences. A successful operation will enhance the legitimacy of the TFG and provide the Somali people with hope for an alternative to the brutality of al Shabaab. A successful operation would also provide the TFG with room to govern. A secure Mogadishu would allow for a degree of economic normalcy to return to the capital and for humanitarian aid agencies to access those in need. It would also give the TFG a solid stronghold from which it could expand operations into other Islamist-controlled parts of the country.
The TFG suffers from numerous deficiencies that a successful military operation will not remedy, such as corruption, nepotism, and general political ineffectiveness, but these shortfalls can only be improved upon if a secure and stable environment develops in Mogadishu. Political maturation and the emergence of less corrupt, more accountable, and more competent partners will only occur if security allows for the nascent beginnings of local democracy in Mogadishu.
A failed TFG operation will likely result in one of two outcomes. In the better case scenario, the status quo will remain. In the worst case scenario, al Shabaab will drive the TFG out of Somalia and assume control of all of southern Somalia and formally establish the Islamic State of Somalia (currently, al Shabaab has established the Islamic provinces in southern Somalia, but has stopped short of calling its territory an Islamic state). In either case, the provision of humanitarian aid to people in need will remain near impossible and the Somali people will suffer under a radical interpretation of Islamic law. Al Shabaab will also continue to control enough territory for it and its al Qaeda allies to plan for attacks beyond Somalia unchallenged. No single remedy can single-handedly pull Somalia out from years of chaos, violence, and suffering, but a successful TFG operation to take control of Mogadishu will certainly mark a step in the right direction.