Al Shabaab Persists in Somalia
By Katherine Zimmerman, Emily Estelle, and Matthew Cassidy.
February 9 marks the sixth anniversary of al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri’s formal recognition of al Shabaab as an al Qaeda affiliate. The announcement that al Shabaab is al Qaeda put to bed the policy debate over whether the United States should include the -based organization in its counterterrorism efforts against al Qaeda. The tempo of U.S. counterterrorism operations against al Shabaab is high after policy changes under the Trump administration, building on an increased investment toward the end of the Obama administration. Yet, al Shabaab remains a viable threat as it reverses military gains against it in southern Somalia and competes against the -based government for popular support.
Al Shabaab retains the military capabilities to contest recent Somali National Security Forces (SNSF) and African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces’ gains against it in south-central Somalia. It continues to raid poorly defended military bases, a signature tactic developed in late 2015. The raids serve the dual purpose of degrading the morale of Somali and AMISOM troops and restocking al Shabaab’s arms supply. The group struck military bases in the region on December 25, 2017 and January 15, 2018 and in the region on January 16-17, 2018. A recent SNSF-led offensive to seize control of al Shabaab’s strongholds in the , Bay, and Lower Shabelle regions stalled in December 2017. Al Shabaab forces disrupted ground supply lines and drove security forces from rural areas in the region to regain momentum against the SNSF and AMISOM. Enduring support zones in south-central Somalia, mapped by the Critical Threats Project in October, provide al Shabaab with the space to train new recruits and plan its military maneuvers.
Security in Mogadishu has improved dramatically since al Shabaab withdrew from the city in 2011, but al Shabaab has continued an assassination campaign against prominent Somali officials and its explosive attacks continue to penetrate government targets in the capital. An al Shabaab member recently detailed guidance for how to kill officials and parliamentarians, calling for an explosive device only if a small arms attack was not feasible. More dangerously, al Shabaab’s explosives expertise has improved, and its vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) attacks have become more effective. Al Shabaab’s deadliest attack to-date, an October 14, 2017 truck bombing, killed over 500 people when the bomb detonated prematurely adjacent to a fuel tanker. Al Shabaab most likely runs at least one VBIED factory on Mogadishu’s periphery that supports its spectacular attacks in the city.
The group’s ability to deliver governance is critical to its continued popular support. Al Shabaab continues to operate courts, resolve disputes, and collect taxes in areas that it controls. Somalis accept the harsh punishments meted out in exchange for a fair verdict, especially compared against the absence of an alternative system in the Somali hinterlands. Coercion through fear helps protect al Shabaab’s support—beheadings continue of alleged government spies and the punishment for desertion is death. Internal friction resurfaced again this year with the defection of former deputy leader Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, who carries clan support in central and south-central Somalia and now cooperates with the SNSF, but al Shabaab has adapted to such challenges in the path and survived.
The U.S. strategy in Somalia seeks to pressure al Shabaab militarily through direct action operations and support to local and regional partners to create “time and space” for Somalia’s political and security institutions to develop. Domestic challenges and regional crises place the success of this strategy at risk, however. The Somali Federal Government continues to face contest from clans, and the central government’s influence dwindles rapidly outside of the capital. The U.S. halted support to Somali units due to corruption in late fall 2017, and the SNSF do not seem to be on track to backfill the AMISOM forces’ planned withdrawal by 2020. AMISOM strength could diminish more rapidly than planned as crisis strikes Kenya and unrest continues in Ethiopia. The U.S. military, the SNSF, and AMISOM have achieved tactical victories against al Shabaab, but larger political dynamics—both within Somalia and throughout East Africa—underpin the success or failure of a counterterrorism strategy against al Shabaab.
Additional takeaways for the week:
Internationally recognized Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi may reshuffle his cabinet to placate opposition from southerners. The Transitional Political Council of the South (STC), which led the armed resistance against Hadi’s government in Aden at the end of January, is in negotiations with the Hadi government.
Iranian political factions are attempting to use the post-protest political space to maximize their political capital. Reformist, secularist, and anti-establishment hardliner factions have used their requests for protest permits from the Rouhani administration to highlight their political platforms. Pro-establishment hardliners continue to pressure the Rouhani administration to improve Iran’s economic situation.
The Kenyan government cracked down on media outlets and opposition leaders after the opposition party held a protest inauguration in a challenge to President Uhuru Kenyatta. The ongoing political crisis is worsening political and ethnic polarization that risks destabilizing a key regional power and driving radicalization in marginalized populations.