As al-Shabaab continues to lose leaders to U.S. airstrikes and territory to troops with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), analysts have contemplated the possible defeat of the Somalia-based militant group. Indeed, Somali President Mohammed Abdullahi Farmajo stressed this possibility at a conference in London last May, saying that with international support and better military equipment, the terrorist group could be defeated in just two years (Jamhuri News, May 11, 2017).
In October, however, a massive bomb blast in the Somali capital of Mogadishu killed more than 300 people (The Star, October 16, 2017). Meanwhile, the group has carried out a series of smaller attacks, terrorizing civilians and assassinating public figures, in an attempt to undermine the UN-backed government, even as the better armed U.S.-backed AMISOM troops’ pound its strongholds.
In neighboring Kenya, the al-Qaeda affiliate has also stepped up its operations, forcing Nairobi to redoubled efforts to tackle militants in the Boni Forest, the thick expanse of coastal forest in Lamu, by the border with Somalia. The resurgence pours cold water on predictions of al-Shabaab’s possible defeat, prompting security experts to call for new strategies to combat the militant group (Daily Nation, January 23).
Increase in Attacks
In January, the militants bombed a telecommunications tower in the town of Elwak, in Mandera County, on the Kenyan border. The downing of the tower, owned by Somalia’s Hormuud Telcom, disrupted communications within the town and the surrounding area. Local residents said the destruction was intended to cut off communications between local people and the Kenyan and Somalia security forces. The militants reportedly suspected locals were spying for AMISOM troops, who were gathering information and planned to build a medical camp in the area (Daily Nation, January 20).
Ahead of the attack, increased militant activity had been reported in the area. On January 6, the militants destroyed a telecommunications tower belonging to Safaricom, Kenya’s leading mobile phone service provider, in Katulo area in Wajir. The militants used Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) to down the tower, before engaging security officers at a facility nearby (The Star, January 7; The Standard, January 7).
Days earlier, five security officers were killed in the area while on patrol along the Elwak- Katulo Road. In the attack, a lorry belonging to the paramilitary General Service Unit (GSU) was set on fire (Mediamax, January 3).
In December 2017, the militants destroyed an important water well that had been drilled by the Kenyan army in Lafey town, Mandera County, leaving hundreds of resident without water (Kulan Post, January 25).
Resurgence in Boni Forest
In another significant development, analysts fear the militants have regained a foothold in Boni Forest in Kenya. The militants have been building their presence on the Kenyan side of the forest since 2012, according to intelligence sources. It is from these bases they are believed to be executing the current attacks on the Kenyan military, the police and local villagers.
In mid-January, heavily armed militants attacked and briefly occupied Ishakani police station, before fleeing to Somalia (The Standard, January 15). Earlier, the militants had rounded up villagers and forced them into a mosque, where they popularized their ideology. Local people said the militants had informed them that their target was the security agencies, and that civilians would not be harmed.
Terrorist activity in Lamu is being orchestrated by Jaysh al-Ayman, a faction within al-Shabaab named after its top leader Maalim Ayman (a.k.a. Abdiaziz Dobow Ali). Its fighters are largely Kenyans from the coastal region and some international jihadists. Ayman, who is thought to be a Kenyan Somali, founded the group in 2009.
The group began by carrying out small grenade and Improved Explosive Devices (IED) attacks in Kenyan towns and villages in Lamu, and staged its first major attack in June 2015, when nearly 50 heavily armed militants targeted Mpeketoni town, killing 60 people. Since then, the faction has continued to carry out attacks in the Kenyan coastal region (Daily Nation, January 23).
The same year as the Mpeketoni attack, the Kenyan government launched Operation Linda Boni, a multi-security agency operation aimed at countering militants’ operation in the forest. More than two years since the launch of the operation, however, militants continue to carry out attacks across the coastal region (The Star, July 12, 2017).
While clashes with the military have resulted in casualties on both sides, the security forces have yet to capture any al-Shabaab fighters or their leaders, raising concerns that local residents may be helping hide the militants and offering them support (Daily Nation, January 23).
Joseph Kanyiri, the Operation Linda Boni commander, made that plain in comments on January 22, accusing local residents of helping fighters avoid capture. The security agencies are also reportedly investigating whether local dispensaries and health centers are treating injured al-Shabaab fighters or providing them with medicine (Intelligence Brief, January 22).
A ‘Faceless’ Enemy
Although al-Shabaab is weakened militarily, financially and politically in Boni, it has been acting to boost its forces through the conscription and recruitment of locals, including children.
The group is allegedly using women as spies, who gather intelligence even from the security forces (Daily Nation, December 18, 2017). Kenyan security forces deployed to the area complain they are dealing with unknown fifth columnists, unlike Somalia where they can be more certain about the identity of their enemies.
A further development, one that began in mid-2017, has been the aggressive recruitment of child soldiers. Reports in January told of forcible child abductions and of reprisals against communities that refuse to hand their children over to militants (Daily Nation, January 27).
In late September, al-Shabaab commanders ordered elders, teachers in Islamic schools and communities in rural areas to hand over hundreds of young children or face attack. The groups have also warned parents against sending their children to secular schools, demanding they attend Islamic ones that the group controls (Somali Press Online, April 21, 2017).
In the past decade, al-Shabaab has recruited thousands of children for indoctrination and as frontline fighters (KassFM, January 15). Since 2015, the group has opened large Islamic schools teaching its own curriculum in areas under its control, strengthening indoctrination and facilitating recruitment.
Potential for Larger Attack
Reports last year that al-Shabaab was on the back foot, while pleasing government officials and Somalia’s international backers, appear to have been premature. Forecasts of the group’s defeat may need to be tempered by the fact it has proven its resilience time and again.
Kenyan analysts warn that the increased rate of small attacks in Lamu may be an attempt to divert the attention of security forces from Somalia, where the militants have been forced out of their bases and need time to regroup. They warn too that this increase maybe intended as a diversion while the militants plan a potentially much larger attack (The Standard, January 15).
Diplomatic leaks: UAE dissatisfied with Saudi policies
AL JAZEERA — Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) is working on breaking up Saudi Arabia, leaked documents obtained by Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar revealed.
Al Akhbar said that the leaked documents contained secret diplomatic briefings sent by UAE and Jordanian ambassadors in Beirut to their respective governments.
One of the documents, issued on September 20, 2017, disclosed the outcome of a meeting between Jordan’s ambassador to Lebanon Nabil Masarwa and his Kuwaiti counterpart Abdel-Al al-Qenaie.
“The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed is working on breaking up the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” the Jordanian envoy quoted the Kuwait ambassador as saying.
A second document, issued on September 28, 2017, reveals meeting minutes between the Jordanian ambassador and his UAE counterpart Hamad bin Saeed al-Shamsi.
The document said the Jordanian ambassador informed his government that UAE believes that “Saudi policies are failing both domestically and abroad, especially in Lebanon”.
“The UAE is dissatisfied with Saudi policies,” the Jordanian envoy said.
The Qatar vote
According to the leaks, UAE ambassador claims that Lebanon voted for Qatar’s Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari in his bid to become head of UNESCO in October 2017.
“[Lebanese Prime Minister Saad] Hariri knew Lebanon was voting for Qatar,” the UAE ambassador said in a cable sent to his government on October 18, 2017.
In November last year, Hariri announced his shock resignation from the Saudi capital Riyadh.
He later deferred his decision, blaming Iran and its Lebanese ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah, for his initial resignation. He also said he feared an assassination attempt.
Officials in Lebanon alleged that Hariri was held hostage by Saudi authorities, an allegation Hariri denied in his first public statement following his resignation speech.
Somalia’s Puntland region asks UAE to stay as Gulf split deepens
BOSASO, Somalia (Reuters) – Somalia’s semi-autonomous Puntland region urged the United Arab Emirates not to close its security operations in the country after a dispute with the central government, saying the Gulf power was a key ally in the fight against Islamist militants.
The dispute goes to the heart of an increasingly troubled relationship between Gulf states – divided by their own disputes – and fractured Somalia, whose coastline sits close to key shipping routes and across the water from Yemen.
Analysts have said the complex standoff risks exacerbating an already explosive security situation on both sides of the Gulf of Aden, where militant groups launch regular attacks.
The central Somali government said on Wednesday it was taking over a military training program run by the UAE.
Days later the UAE announced it was pulling out, accusing Mogadishu of seizing millions of dollars from a plane, money it said was meant to pay soldiers.
“We ask our UAE friends, not only to stay, but to redouble their efforts in helping Somalia stand on its feet,” said the office of the president of Puntland, a territory that sits on the tip of the Horn of Africa looking out over the Gulf of Aden.
Ending UAE support, “will only help our enemy, particularly Al Shabaab and ISIS (Islamic State),” it added late on Monday.
Watch this presser. pic.twitter.com/wEH19WsG7t
— Abdisalam Aato (@AbdisalamAato) April 16, 2018
The UAE is one of a number of Gulf powers that have opened bases along the coast of the Horn of Africa and promised investment and donations as they compete for influence in the insecure but strategically important region.
That competition has been exacerbated by a diplomatic rift between Qatar and a bloc including the UAE. In turn, those splits have worsened divisions in Somalia.
Puntland, which has said it wants independence, has sought to woo the UAE which runs an anti-piracy training center there and is developing the main port. The central government in Mogadishu last year criticized Puntland for taking sides in the Gulf dispute. Qatar’s ally Turkey is one of Somalia’s biggest investors.
One Somali government official said last week Mogadishu had decided to take over the UAE operation because the Gulf state’s contract to run it had expired. Another official said the government was investigating the money taken from the plane.
The competition among Gulf states in Somalia has fueled accusations of foreign interference and resentment in many corners of Somali society.
The loss of the UAE program could have a destabilizing effect, said one security analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The value of the UAE trained forces was two-fold – they were relatively well trained but, most importantly, they were paid on time,” unlike other parts of the security forces, the analyst told Reuters.
Somalia has been mired in conflict since 1991.