February 01, 2024

Salafi-Jihadi Movement Weekly Update, February 1, 2024: Somalia Aims to Expand Stop-Start Offensive Against al Shabaab

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Data Cutoff: February 1, 2024, at 10 a.m.

Key Takeaway: The Somali Federal Government (SFG) is intensifying operations to clear al Shabaab’s remaining havens in central Somalia with support from international partners, including the United States, and said it will expand its offensive into southern Somalia in the coming months. Degrading al Shabaab’s capabilities is an important US national security interest, as the group has demonstrated its intent to attack the US homeland and its capability to conduct attacks beyond East Africa since 2019. The SFG faces several military and political obstacles to successfully concluding ongoing operations in central Somalia and expanding them south.

The SFG is intensifying operations targeting al Shabaab’s remaining havens in central Somalia and preparing to expand its offensive to the group’s main strongholds in southern parts of the country in the coming months. The SFG has been waging an offensive to clear al Shabaab from central Somalia since August 2022. The United States and other international partners are supporting the offensive, with US officials viewing assistance as a low-cost way to contain and degrade the potential threat al Shabaab poses to the US homeland.[1] The SFG had initial successes in freeing significant amounts of territory, villages, and district capitals in 2022.[2] Al Shabaab has inflicted a series of setbacks since January 2023 that have repeatedly stalled—and in some cases rolled back—the offensive, however.[3] Federal and state officials stated in January 2024 that the SFG intends to clear al Shabaab from its remaining strongholds in central Somalia by February and is making “final preparations” to begin an all-out offensive in the south.[4]

Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud outlined ambitious objectives for a southern offensive throughout 2023. He claimed that the aim is to retake all territory and “eliminate” al Shabaab by the time the African Union forces complete their scheduled withdrawal at the end of 2024.[5] African Union forces have been fighting al Shabaab since 2007 and should support the offensive in the third phase of their planned drawdown, which includes a mandate for “decisive operations” that will set conditions for Somali forces to take sole control of security.[6] US Africa Command Commander Gen. Michael Langley met with President Mohamud, the head of the Somali National Army, African Union military leaders, and US forces in Somalia during a tour of the Horn of Africa from January 22 to January 25.[7] Langley’s meetings underscore the continued US commitment to engaging with and supporting all partners as they prepare for this critical period in the fight against al Shabaab in 2024.

Figure 1. Somali Forces and al Shabaab Contest Central Somalia

Source: Liam Karr.

The SFG plans to conclude its military operations against al Shabaab in central Somalia before expanding the offensive to the group’s strongholds in the south. Somali officials have maintained since the beginning of 2023 that central Somalia operations are a precursor to the larger southern Somalia offensive.[8] SFG officials said that government forces will conclude “phase one” of their offensive north of the Shabelle River that splits central and southern Somalia before initiating the next phase in the south.[9]

SFG forces had mixed results toward that goal in January, however. They spent weeks clearing the area around Caad, a longtime al Shabaab stronghold, with US and likely Turkish-supplied drone support before bloodlessly securing the town on January 3.[10] Al Shabaab launched a large-scale attack involving a suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED) that overran Somali positions in the town on January 24, forcing Somali forces to retreat.[11] Somali forces have since escalated airstrikes targeting al Shabaab’s bombmaking infrastructure in central Somalia.[12]

Degrading al Shabaab’s capabilities is an important US national security interest, as the group has demonstrated its intent to attack the US homeland and its capability to conduct attacks beyond East Africa since 2019. The FBI thwarted an al Shabaab–directed 9/11-style terror plot targeting the US in 2019.[13] A Kenyan national had been training to be a pilot in the Philippines since 2016 and had researched information on how to breach a cockpit and obtain a US visa, and explored potential targets in the US.[14] Investigators tied the plot to a global al Qaeda campaign that the group and its affiliates launched in response to the United States moving its embassy to Jerusalem.[15] Experts have testified to the United States Congress that this plot is one of the first indicators that al Shabaab has “both the capability and intent to strike targets outside of the East Africa region, and likely inside the United States.”[16]

Suspected al Shabaab members also attempted to enter the United States through the US-Mexico border multiple times in 2023, which underlines the risk of US-based al Shabaab attack cells. A suspected al Shabaab member illegally entered the United States at the southern border and lived in Minnesota for nearly a year.[17] US immigration officials corrected an earlier error that let the person stay in the country and arrested the individual in January 2024.[18] Costa Rican security forces arrested two other suspected al Shabaab members attempting to migrate north toward the United States’ southern border in April and November 2023, one of which was the son of an al Shabaab commander.[19]

The SFG has failed to consolidate control over central Somalia, which could undermine the government’s capacity to expand the offensive and create opportunities for al Shabaab. Al Shabaab has repeatedly shown that it can defend its remaining havens in central Somalia from government forces and international partners. The group has continually withdrawn from key towns to avoid conventional engagements with Somali forces before launching large attacks involving SVBIEDs targeting the makeshift Somali bases, often overrunning them, inflicting severe casualties, and forcing Somali forces to withdraw.[20] This tactic has stymied SFG offensives against al Shabaab’s remaining havens in January, April, and August 2023 as well as in Caad in January 2024.[21] The August 2023 attack was so catastrophic that it forced Somali forces to withdraw for several months from a district capital they had captured in January 2023 and other key locations.[22] Such failures severely undermine the local population’s willingness to work with government forces in the future.

Nascent governance and security efforts in liberated villages also remain fragile, which presents opportunities for al Shabaab to re-infiltrate these areas. The SFG has struggled to eliminate violence among different clan militias that participated in the anti–al Shabaab offensive over resources or other vendettas.[23] Somalia experts warned in 2022 that the proliferation of weapons among clan militias participating in the offensive could lead to an uptick in such violence.[24] The SFG has similarly failed to prevent these clan militias from establishing predatory extortionary roadblocks along vital roads in recently secured areas, undermining the SFG’s legitimacy and creating resentment.[25] The SFG has built up medical, educational, and roadway infrastructure in some areas, but there are also unverified reports on social media that the government failed to support communities affected by seasonal flooding in 2023, creating resentment and pro–al Shabaab sentiment.[26]

The SFG will likely face greater military and political challenges in establishing control in southern Somalia due to al Shabaab’s strong position and tense clan politics in the region. Al Shabaab is positioned to put up stronger military resistance to SFG military operations in southern Somalia. Southern Somalia is al Shabaab’s heartland, where the group has strong ties with local clans and bases a significant portion of its economic, governance, and military infrastructure.[27] Al Shabaab has also demonstrated its resolve in what is essentially a secondary theater in central Somalia. The group launched several large-scale attacks in 2023 to disrupt the SFG’s plans to establish bases for operations in southern Somalia, which underscores this challenge.[28] The degradation of the group’s vital havens would advance US interests by weakening al Shabaab’s ability to conduct attacks beyond East Africa and reduce the resources and space it has to plot transnational attacks.

Long-standing clan-based tensions between state and regional governments in southern Somalia will also challenge SFG coalition-building efforts, especially with state-level elections slated in 2024.[29] The Jubbaland State government and Gedo regional government in southwestern Somalia have been at odds since the Jubbaland State president won the most recent state presidential election, in 2019. The federal government installed a regional administration to undermine the state administration in response in 2020.[30]

These fissures align with preexisting clan rivalries between the majority clans in the Gedo and Lower Jubba regions, and Ethiopia and Kenya back opposite sides in the dispute, further complicating domestic and regional coalition-building efforts.[31] The Jubbaland State president has refused to empower clan militias in southern Somalia due to this distrust and accused the Gedo administration of not allowing troops from neighboring countries to enter Somalia in 2023.[32] Liberating al Shabaab–controlled territory would also create the need to broker reconciliation and power-sharing agreements including the clans and subclans living in areas that al Shabaab has controlled since before the SFG was established, in 2012.

The diplomatic dispute over the Ethiopia-Somaliland Red Sea port deal likely will undermine Somali counterinsurgency planning and operations in central and southern Somalia. Ethiopia signed a memorandum of understanding with the de facto independent Somaliland Republic, a breakaway region of Somalia, on January 1 to lease a naval port that gives Ethiopia Red Sea access in exchange for formally recognizing Somaliland. The SFG has rejected the deal as “null and void,” accused it of violating Somali sovereignty and international law. It threatened to retaliate if Ethiopia follows through on the deal.[33]

President Mohamud was crucial in leading efforts to rally local support for the offensive against al Shabaab in 2023 but is now preoccupied with lobbying against the Ethiopia-Somaliland port deal. He worked out of the Galgudud regional capital in central Somalia between September and October—the last time the SFG attempted to renew the offensive against al Shabaab in 2023—and repeatedly traveled to the Bay regional capital in southern Somalia to broker reconciliation deals and attempt to build an anti–al Shabaab coalition in the winter and fall of 2023.[34] Mohamud has spent only one day in central Somalia to generate support for the new offensive and has not announced any plans to visit southern Somalia in advance of the supposedly impending offensive.[35] He instead gave priority to meetings in Egypt, Eritrea, Italy, and Uganda in January to rally support against the port deal in bilateral discussions and multilateral forums.[36]

The port deal has also amplified anti-Ethiopian sentiment in Somalia, energizing al Shabaab and allowing them to recruit more militants. Somalia’s international partners warned on January 18 that the port deal was strengthening al Shabaab and that there are “troubling indicators” that al Shabaab is using the agreement to recruit new fighters.[37] Al Shabaab’s spokesperson spoke out against the agreement as “invalid” on January 2 and threatened to retaliate.[38] CTP previously assessed that al Shabaab would capitalize on the increased anti-Ethiopian sentiment to boost its support, as the group has regularly done throughout its history.[39]

The port deal has also fractured and degraded the effectiveness of Ethiopian-Somali counterterrorism cooperation. The SFG had planned to use at least 1,000 troops from each neighboring country as part of the offensive in southern Somalia in 2023 to compensate for the lack of local support in some areas, although this support never materialized.[40] The SFG has since refused to hold any discussions with Ethiopian officials until Ethiopia withdraws from the port deal.[41] Ethiopian forces have remained in most of their positions in Somalia, but the diplomatic standoff prevents military coordination. The increase in anti-Ethiopian sentiment also makes the use of Ethiopian African Union forces politically unpopular and potentially counterproductive, as it would undermine the government’s legitimacy and further boost local support for al Shabaab.

Correction: This article has been updated to qualify the statement that a member of al Shabaab had been arrested by US immigration officials in January 2024 in the state of Minnesota after having illegally entered the United States at the southern border last year and that Costa Rican security forces had arrested two al Shabaab members in April and November of last year. In both cases, the individuals concerned were only reported to be on terrorist watch lists, which does not mean that they were in fact terrorists or members of al Shabaab. We apologize for the oversight.

[1] https://www.crisisgroup.org/content/us-containment-strategy-somalia

[2] https://www.criticalthreats.org/briefs/africa-file/africa-file-clan-uprising-bolsters-anti-al-shabaab-offensive-in-central-somalia; https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/horn-africa/somalia/b187-sustaining-gains-somalias-offensive-against-al-shabaab; https://www.hudson.org/terrorism/faltering-lion-analyzing-progress-setbacks-somalia-war-against-al-shabaab-james-barnett

[3] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/salafi-jihadi-movement-weekly-update-october-4-2023#SOM20231004; https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/salafi-jihadi-movement-weekly-update-april-27-2023#Somalia20230427; https://www.hudson.org/terrorism/faltering-lion-analyzing-progress-setbacks-somalia-war-against-al-shabaab-james-barnett

[4] https://shabellemedia dot com/jubaland-ready-to-final-push-against-al-shabaab-says-security-minister; https://www.hudson.org/terrorism/faltering-lion-analyzing-progress-setbacks-somalia-war-against-al-shabaab-james-barnett; https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/salafi-jihadi-movement-weekly-update-april-12-2023#Somalia20230412; https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/salafi-jihadi-movement-weekly-update-june-14-2023#SOM20230614

[5] https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/somalia-has-year-eliminate-al-shabaab-militants-president-2023-11-21; https://www.hudson.org/terrorism/faltering-lion-analyzing-progress-setbacks-somalia-war-against-al-shabaab-james-barnett; https://amisom-au.org/amisom-background

[6] https://atmis-au.org/the-transition-process/#

[7] https://www.africom.mil/pressrelease/35394/usafricom-commander-and-senior-enlisted-leader-visit-kenya-somalia-and-djibouti

[8] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/salafi-jihadi-movement-weekly-update-march-8-2023

[9] https://thesomalidigest dot com/hirshabelle-and-galmudug-liberated-by-february-nsa

[10] https://en.goobjoog dot com/somali-u-s-forces-conduct-ground-air-offensives-against-al-shabaab-in-central-somalia; https://kaabtv dot com/taliska-cidianka-lugta-soomaaliya-oo-sheegay-in-80-alsabaab-ah-lagu-dilay-dagaalkii-ka-dhacay-caad; https://x.com/sntvnews1/status/1741520112237072858?s=20; https://shabellemedia dot com/at-least-46-militants-killed-in-fresh-airstrike-in-central-somalia; https://x.com/MoDSomaliya/status/1742563861343924626?s=20; https://kaabtv dot com/deg-deg-dagaal-iyo-duqeymo-ka-socda-gobolka-mudug

[11] https://radiorisaala dot com/alshabaab-oo-weerar-qaraxyo-ku-bilowday-ka-fulisay-gobolka-mudug; https://shabellemedia dot com/heavy-gunfight-followed-car-blast-reported-in-newly-liberated-somali-town; SITE Intelligence Group, “Shabaab Video Documents Major Military Operation, Aftermath in Mudug Leaving 191 Dead,” January 29, 2024, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com; https://x.com/HussienM12/status/1750893221629026737?s=20; https://thesomalidigest dot com/al-shabab-seizes-caad-casualties-reported

[12] https://x.com/HSNQ_NISA/status/1752987113115603436?s=20; https://en.goobjoog dot com/20-al-shabaab-militants-killed-in-galgaduud-region

[13] https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/kenyan-national-indicted-conspiring-hijack-aircraft-behalf-al-qaeda-affiliated-terrorist

[14] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-55340294

[15] https://thesoufancenter.org/intelbrief-2020-december-21

[16] https://www.usip.org/publications/2023/09/future-homeland-security-addressing-rise-terrorism-africa

[17] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OAxXhHXS3R8; https://www.foxnews.com/politics/terrorist-crossed-border-allowed-roam-us-nearly-year-arrested-only-after-ice-became-aware

[18] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OAxXhHXS3R8; https://www.foxnews.com/politics/terrorist-crossed-border-allowed-roam-us-nearly-year-arrested-only-after-ice-became-aware

[19] https://ticotimes dot net/2023/12/07/costa-rica-nabs-al-shabab-suspect-at-border; https://ticotimes dot net/2023/04/09/son-of-al-shabaab-leader-arrested-and-deported-from-costa-rica

[20] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/salafi-jihadi-movement-weekly-update-october-4-2023#SOM20231004; https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/salafi-jihadi-movement-weekly-update-april-27-2023#Somalia20230427

[21] https://www.caasimada dot net/al-shabab-launches-surprise-attack-on-somali-military-base; SITE Intelligence Group, “Shabaab Claims over 159 Killed in Raid on Danab Special Forces Base in Galguduud,” January 20, 2023, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com; SITE Intelligence Group, “Shabaab Video Documents Aftermath of Major Operation in Budbud Inflicting 50+ Casualties,” April 24, 2023, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com; https://www.voanews.com/a/7245333.html; https://x.com/HussienM12/status/1750893221629026737?s=20; https://thesomalidigest dot com/al-shabab-seizes-caad-casualties-reported

[22] https://www.voanews.com/a/7245333.html

[23] https://www.radiodalsan dot com/wararka-idaacadda/ciidanka-dowladda-oo-kala-dhex-galay-maleeshiyo-beeleed-ku-dagaalamay-sh-dhexe; https://kaabtv dot com/dagaal-beeleed-khasaare-geystay-oo-hada-ka-socda-xadka-hiiraan-iyo-shabeellaha-dhexe; https://kaabtv dot com/shadows-on-the-shabelle-rural-communities-plunged-into-the-grip-of-oppressive-militia; https://www.caasimada dot net/dagaal-culus-oo-ka-qarxay-gobolka-galgaduud-iyo-wararkii-ugu-dambeeyay

[24] https://ctc.westpoint.edu/the-2022-somali-offensive-against-al-shabaab-making-enduring-gains-will-require-learning-from-previous-failures

[25] https://kaabtv.com/shadows-on-the-shabelle-rural-communities-plunged-into-the-grip-of-oppressive-militia; https://x.com/KaabTV/status/1738967086146228670?s=20

[26] https://www.voanews.com/a/somalia-fights-back-against-al-shabab-attack-on-education-sector-/6837584.html; https://sonna dot so/en/alshabaabs-reign-of-terror-leaves-local-communities-in-dire-need-of-assistance; https://www.caasimada dot net/daawo-df-oo-ka-jawaabtay-baahi-daran-oo-ka-jirtay-degmada-aadan-yabaal; https://fb.watch/pUZuldPMjr; https://fb.watch/pUZwt3u-TB; https://x.com/sntvnews1/status/1747188456307015913?s=20; https://twitter.com/HarunMaruf/status/1665634695571296256?s=20; https://x.com/GuledWiliq/status/1750228566648979601?s=20; https://fb.watch/pUZvak5Jyk

[27] https://www.africom.mil/what-we-do/airstrikes/2020-airstrikes; https://hiraalinstitute.so/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/Al-Shabaabs-Arsenal-From-Taxes-to-Terror-Web.pdf; https://www.caasimada dot net/sawirro-al-shabaab-oo-isbitaal-weyn-ka-furtay-jilib; https://www.hudson.org/terrorism/faltering-lion-analyzing-progress-setbacks-somalia-war-against-al-shabaab-james-barnett

[28] https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/somalias-al-shabaab-recaptures-base-it-lost-military-offensive-2023-03-07; SITE Intelligence Group, “Shabaab Provides Extensive Photo Documentation for Aftermath of Offensive Leaving 89 Killed,” March 8, 2023, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com; https://radiorisaala dot com/faah-faahin-al-shabaab-oo-weeraray-saldhig-kuyaalla-jubbada-hoose-khasaaro-ka-dhashay; SITE Intelligence Group, “UPDATE: Shabaab Claims 110+ Casualties in Suicide Bombings, Major Offensives on Multiple Bases in Southern Somalia,” February 11, 2023, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com

[29] https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/horn-africa/somalia/somalia-making-the-most-out-of-the-eu-somalia-joint-roadmap

[30] https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/horn-africa/somalia/b158-ending-dangerous-standoff-southern-somalia

[31] https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/horn-africa/somalia/b158-ending-dangerous-standoff-southern-somalia; https://www.voanews.com/a/somalia-s-neighbors-to-send-additional-troops-to-fight-al-shabab-/6986748.html; https://www.hudson.org/terrorism/faltering-lion-analyzing-progress-setbacks-somalia-war-against-al-shabaab-james-barnett

[32] https://www.garoweonline dot com/en/news/somalia/somalia-jubaland-rejects-use-of-clan-militia-in-al-shabaab-war; https://twitter.com/GaroweOnline/status/1670903430947241993?s=20

[33] https://www.voanews.com/a/somalia-rejects-ethiopia-sea-access-deal-with-somaliland-/7421519.html

[34] https://somaliguardian dot com/news/somalia-news/somalias-president-moves-out-of-galmudug-presidential-palace-in-dhusamareb; https://www.garoweonline dot com/en/news/somalia/hassan-sheikh-returns-to-central-somalia-as-clans-mobilize-against-al-shabaab; https://somaliguardian dot com/news/somalia-news/somalias-president-arrives-in-baidoa-after-regional-leader-declared-offensive-against-militants; https://www.garoweonline dot com/en/news/somalia/hassan-sheikh-brokers-deal-in-southwest-s-political-conflict; https://somaliguardian dot com/news/somalia-news/somalias-president-to-travel-to-baidoa-amid-escalating-rift

[35] https://en.goobjoog dot com/president-mohamud-in-galmudug-to-oversee-war-on-al-shabaab

[36] https://shabellemedia dot com/somali-president-touches-down-in-asmara-for-two-day-eritrea-visit; https://thesomalidigest dot com/president-mohamuds-egypt-visit; https://mustaqbalmedia dot net/en/somalia-ethiopia-tensions-escalate-as-president-warns-nam-against-impending-invasion; https://www.garoweonline dot com/en/news/somalia/somalia-what-president-hassan-sheikh-discussed-in-italy

[37] https://apnews.com/article/sudan-war-somalia-ethiopia-somaliland-f42d4926b56ef9fdb30cead4da377797; https://x.com/HarunMaruf/status/1748210757236297832?s=20

[38] SITE Intelligence Group, “Shabaab Spokesman Threatens to Make ‘Nightmare’ of Alleged Ethiopian Dream of Foothold in Red Sea,” January 3, 2024, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com

[39] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/304987134_Al_Shabaab_in_Somalia_Between_Clan_and_Faith; https://extremism.gwu.edu/sites/g/files/zaxdzs5746/files/Al-Shabaab-IMEP_Bacon_March-2022.pdf

[40] https://www.voanews.com/a/somalia-s-neighbors-to-send-additional-troops-to-fight-al-shabab-/6986748.html; https://www.garoweonline dot com/en/news/somalia/ethiopia-sends-non-atmis-troops-to-somalia-in-fight-against-al-shabaab; https://shabellemedia dot com/ethiopia-deployed-non-atmis-troops-to-somalia; https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/salafi-jihadi-movement-weekly-update-april-12-2023#Somalia20230412; https://www.hudson.org/terrorism/faltering-lion-analyzing-progress-setbacks-somalia-war-against-al-shabaab-james-barnett

[41] https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/somalia-rejects-mediation-efforts-with-ethiopia-over-port-deal-2024-01-18

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