Connect with us

Briefing Room

This is why al-Shabab won’t be going away anytime soon

Published

on

On June 14, the terrorist group al-Shabab — an al-Qaeda affiliate — attacked a pizza restaurant in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, by detonating a car bomb and sending in assailants.
More than 30 people were killed. Earlier in June, al-Shabab overran a military base in the semiautonomous area of Puntland, killing dozens. The group recently surpassed Boko Haram as the deadliest terrorist organization in Africa.

But it’s not the violence that’s attracting followers. My recent field research in Kenya and Somalia, the two East African countries where al-Shabab is most active, suggests that al-Shabab is thriving because it’s still offering a comparatively attractive alternative to the Somali government. It capitalizes on grievances, keeps areas secure and settles disputes, with relatively little corruption. That’s especially attractive in undeveloped or remote areas that the fledgling government has neglected.

As a result, al-Shabab is becoming a shadow government, positioning itself as Somalia’s champion of disenfranchised and marginalized clans.

The United States has been increasing its military presence and expanding its rules of engagement in Somalia to counter al-Shabab. On June 11, the United States conducted its first strike under these new rules, destroying an al-Shabab training and command center, and then conducted a second strike on July 2, with still a third one on July 4. In March, at the urging of the Defense Department, the Trump administration designated Somalia as an “area of active hostilities,” which allows the United States to conduct offensive strikes that do not require interagency vetting.

How strong is al-Shabab?

To some, al-Shabab looks weakened. It no longer controls major cities or ports. Nor does it have the capacity to militarily recapture them. With those losses went ways to get resources. In addition, international action has reduced al-Shabab’s profit from commodities such as charcoal. Once flush with fighters from all over the world, al-Shabab now recruits foreign fighters primarily from the region; foreign fighters no longer figure in the group’s senior ranks. Al-Shabab has not launched a major terrorist attack outside Somalia since 2015.

Though looking to relinquish responsibility to Somali security forces, African Union forces (known as the African Union Mission in Somalia, or AMISOM) are there to support Somalia’s new government, which won a national election in February.

But al-Shabab has shown an impressive ability to adapt — and is positioned to not only survive, but to thrive. It has been territorially constrained by AMISOM — but it has overrun AMISOM forward operating bases (FOB), killing and injuring scores of troops and seizing arms, military vehicles and heavy weaponry. The group’s forces are highly decentralized, but it can mass various units to launch an attack.

Further, al-Shabab’s intelligence apparatus, the Amniyat, has been disrupting life in the Somali capital with bombings, assassinations and targeted attacks.

How common is such violence? So common that one person I interviewed in Mogadishu shrugged off a bombing earlier that day as “Somali music.”

What about the group’s presence in Kenya? It’s true that al-Shabab has not carried out an attack in Kenya as large as its attacks on the Westgate mall or Garissa University since 2015. But in the past month, the group has launched IED attacks in Kenya’s northeast and coastal areas. It’s trying to stoke insecurity and widen communal fissures just weeks before the Kenyan elections, a time when tensions are high and there are heightened concerns about potential election-related violence.

Al-Shabab functions as an effective local government

Al-Shabab has deftly managed clan dynamics and provided basic services in ways that have brought it political power and influence throughout southern Somalia, especially the rural areas, where residents are wary of the still-fragile government. That’s what I found as I conducted interviews in Kenya and Somalia in January and in May and June this year.

Security. Al-Shabab offers services that the government still does not, particularly to populations distrustful or excluded from the still-fragile political process. Al-Shabab offers a modicum of security in areas under its influence. It operates courts, including mobile courts, to punish crime and resolve disputes.
That’s especially important in an area rife with local conflicts, especially land disputes, and few effective ways to settle them, except violence. While media reports focus on al-Shabab’s harsh sharia punishments, some Somalis seek out al-Shabab courts, knowing that they will deliver a relatively thorough verdict and will enforce resolution.

Taxation. Al-Shabab has a remarkably effective taxation system that few dare to defy, even those living, as one person I interviewed put it, “a stone’s throw from an AMISOM FOB.” That brings in a steady stream of revenue. What’s more, al-Shabab is relatively uncorrupt and efficient. You can see that clearly on the roads that it controls, where it operates checkpoints that require set payments, offer a receipt to passengers, and keep the roads relatively safe.

That contrasts sharply with how others, including government forces, manage roads, which are rife with predation and repeated extortion, which has both safety and economic repercussions — as I heard repeatedly from citizens, businesspeople and aid workers alike.

Decentralized and embedded. Al-Shabab positions itself as a defender of disenfranchised and marginalized clans, expertly manipulating and capitalizing on local and clan grievances to gain support — including gathering the support of anti-government leaders and militias. This has caused the group to become more decentralized, integrating into local communities and permeating Somali society in a way that will make it increasingly difficult to distinguish civilians from combatants.

This dispersed but relatively well-organized structure includes compartmentalized military, terrorism and intelligence apparatuses. Most of those captured can provide little intelligence beyond their narrow range of responsibilities. And everyone is aware that al-Shabab ruthlessly targets defectors and kills suspected spies.

Al-Shabab finds ways to exploit the vacuum left by the state, tapping into a deep reservoir of grievances. It has both conventional military strength and terrorist abilities as well as political and ideological influence that goes beyond its territorial holdings. It has become the main alternative to the government. It will not be defeated by military means alone, and the fitful progress by the Somali government may come too little, too late.

Briefing Room

Somalia illegally surrendered citizen to Ethiopia – parliamentary report

Published

on

Somalia’s parliament, the House of the People, says the government’s formal handover of a Somali national to neighbouring Ethiopia was illegal.

The parliamentary body set up to probe the circumstances surrounding the transfer of Mr. Abdikarin Sheikh Muse of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) presented its report with the conclusion that the government of President Farmaajo was wrong in the matter.

The team of 15 legislators – from both houses of the parliament – was constituted on September 18, 2017 from the office of the Speaker of the House with the sole objective of reporting back on the circumstances surrounding the handover.

Mogadishu’s detention and subsequent transfer of the ONLF leader to Ethiopia in August 2017 sparked outrage in the country. The action was described as a breach of Somali and international laws – which decries refoulement.

The parliament was on recess at the time the action took place, most lawmakers had gone on the annual pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. The Upper House met but deferred to the Lower Chamber to deal with the matter first. The current decision is one issued by the two houses, reports indicate.

The ONLF group in a statement confirming the handover of its top official expressed worry about the possible mistreatment that Sheikh Muse was likely to face.

“The Somali government has forcefully transferred a political refugee to Ethiopia which is known to torture and humiliate its opponents. It has been intimated that Mr. Abdikarin was sacrificed in order ti get political support from the Ethiopian regime,” their statement in August read.

It condemned the Somali regime and called for the release of Muse – who Ethiopia insists holds an Ethiopian passport and opted to return voluntarily. That claim has been roundly rejected by the family and the group which he belonged to.

ONLF describes itself as “a national liberation organisation that struggles for the rights of the Somali people in Ogaden and has no involvement whatsoever in Somalia’s multifaceted conflict at all.”

Continue Reading

Briefing Room

U.S. military builds up in land of ‘Black Hawk Down’ disaster

Published

on

The Pentagon now has its largest military presence in war-torn Somalia since the deadly battle in 1993.

WESLEY MORGAN

The number of U.S. military forces in Somalia has more than doubled this year to over 500 people as the Pentagon has quietly posted hundreds of additional special operations personnel to advise local forces in pockets of Islamic militants around the country, according to current and former senior military officials.

It is the largest American military contingent in the war-torn nation since the the infamous 1993 “Black Hawk Down” battle when 18 U.S. soldiers died. It is is also the latest example of how the Pentagon’s operations in Africa have expanded with greater authority provided to field commanders.

The growing Somalia mission, coming more fully to light after four American troops were killed in an ambush in Niger last month, also includes two new military headquarters in the capital of Mogadishu and stepped-up airstrikes. It’s driven by a major shift in strategy from primarily relying on targeted strikes against terrorists to advising and supporting Somali troops in the field, the officials said.

The new operations also come as a peacekeeping mission spearheaded by the African Union is winding down. That is putting more pressure on the fledgling Somali security forces to confront al-Shabab, a terrorist army allied with Al Qaeda that plays the role of a quasi-government in significant parts of the country.

“We had to put more small teams on the ground to partner in a regional way with the Somali government,” retired Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, who commanded American special operations forces in Africa until June, said in an interview. “So we changed our strategy and we changed our operational approach. That’s why the footprint went up.”

The expansion, which was also outlined by officials at U.S. Africa Command, includes deploying Green Berets and Navy SEALs to far-flung outposts to target the al-Shabab insurgency and a group of militants in the northern region of Puntland who last year pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. The deployment of a special operations adviser team to Puntland alongside Somali troops has served as a model for the broader expansion of the mission.
“Puntland was the example we used,” Bolduc said. “We said, ‘We can do this in the other areas.’ So we changed our strategy and we changed our operational approach.”

Also, in a move not previously reported, a SEAL headquarters unit has deployed to Mogadishu from Germany to coordinate the adviser teams that are spread across the country. And in a separate move, trainers from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division spent the summer working with Somali troops at the fortified airport complex in Mogadishu. That deployment has since ended, but troops from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division twill perform a similar mission next year, a spokesman for the headquarters overseeing Army activities in Africa said.

To oversee the expanded operation, the Pentagon has also sent a general for the first time: Army Brig. Gen. Miguel Castellanos, a veteran of the 1990s peacekeeping mission in Somali who took charge in June of a unit called the Mogadishu Coordination Cell.

At the same time, more airstrikes are being conducted than ever before to kill militant leaders and to defend the American advisers and their African allies. Those include one conducted Saturday 250 miles from Mogadishu that Africa Command said killed a militant after he attacked a convoy of U.S. and Somali troops.

Some of the strikes have been conducted under new authorities that the Trump administration approved in March. It declared parts of Somalia a zone of “active hostilities” akin to Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, and delegated the authority to approve airstrikes further down the chain of command.

In all, according to Africa Command, the U.S. has conducted 28 airstrikes in Somalia this year, nine of them this month. That’s compared to 13 airstrikes and ground raids that the Pentagon announced last year and just five strikes and raids in 2015, according to numbers compiled by the New America Foundation.

The more expansive military effort contrasts with the tiny and secretive U.S. military mission over the last decade headed by the classified Joint Special Operations Command, the military’s main counter-terrorism force. JSOC drone strikes reportedly began in Somalia in 2011, and two-dozen special operations troops started working as advisers in late 2013.

But the small American contingent was confined mostly to Mogadishu and the Baledogle military airfield in southern Somalia — except during short-duration missions farther afield.

“It was something like 100 people on the ground essentially being the intel and targeting apparatus” for counter-terrorism strikes, said an active-duty special operations officer who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity while discussing sensitive operations.

Officially, the Pentagon disputes that the recent increase in troops constitutes a major buildup of forces.

“I would not associate that with a buildup, as you’re calling it,” said Lt. Gen. Frank McKenzie, director of the Joint Staff in the Pentagon, referring to the troop increase. “I think it’s just the flow of forces in and out as different organizations come in that might be sized a little differently, and I certainly don’t think there’s a ramp-up of attacks.”

A spokesperson for Africa Command, Robyn Mack, told POLITICO that the U.S. presence has increased from around 200 to more than 500 this year.

The larger “advise and assist mission,” she explained, is now “the most significant element of our partnership” in Somalia.

The increased presence has not been without controversy inside national security circles, according to multiple people who have been directly involved in the decisions.

Prominent in the discussions has been the recent history of Somalia, which has been wracked by a series of civil wars over the past quarter-century. But the legacy of JSOC’s ill-fated man-hunting mission in support of the U.N. peacekeepers in 1993 — in which two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down and a pilot captured — has long made American and Somali officials wary of deeper U.S. military involvement.

“Everybody defaults to ‘Black Hawk Down’ and what happened in Somalia in 1993,” said Bolduc, the former commander of special operations forces in Africa.

“That was a real concern when I was working on Somalia policy at the Pentagon and the White House,” added Luke Hartig, who worked on counter-terrorism operations at the National Security Council in the Obama administration. “Some military people would say, ‘We’ve evolved a lot as a force, we’ve done these raids every night in Iraq and Afghanistan and can mitigate risk in a way we couldn’t in 1993.’ But it is still one of the real catastrophes of U.S. military operations in the past couple decades.”

Nonetheless, most military and counter-terrorism officials agreed that air and drones strikes and other pinpoint operations were deemed insufficient to prevent Somalia from becoming a terrorist haven.

“We came to the realization that trying to handle the threat in Somalia just kinetically was not going to work,” Bolduc said. “Taking out high-value targets is necessary, but it’s not going to lead you to strategic success, and it’s not going to build capability and capacity in our partners to secure themselves. So we provided a plan that complemented the kinetic strikes” with a larger military advisory effort.

The arrival of the Trump administration also gave the military an opportunity to make its case to a more receptive audience, the active-duty special operations officer, who had knowledge of the strategy review told POLITICO.

“It wasn’t, ‘Oh thank God, new president, new party, now we can go kick ass,’ but there were opportunities with the change in the political situation,” he said.

An equally important factor, Bolduc said, was the Obama administration’s appointment last year of Stephen Schwartz as ambassador in Mogadishu. Schwartz is the first U.S. ambassador to Somalia since before the Black Hawk Down battle and is credited with laying the groundwork with the Somali government, he explained.

But with the stepped-up U.S. military effort also comes grater risk. A member of SEAL Team 6 was killed during one such mission in May.

“Do we get into contact with the enemy? Yes, we do — our partners do and we’re there to support it, and sometimes we come into contact by virtue of how the enemy attacked them,” Bolduc said. “The benchmark that we used in our planning was that U.S. forces coming into contact with the enemy was unlikely. We met that standard most of the time.”

However, Hartig, the former counter-terrorism official who also helped craft the new strategy, says he worries about special operations troops getting involved too deeply in rural regions with complex tribal politics. That’s a problem that has plagued U.S. counter-terrorism efforts in Afghanistan.

“Somalia’s incredibly complex human terrain, and you want to be sure you know what you’re getting into,” he said. “Some of the special operations guys do know a lot about Somalia, but we haven’t previously had people on the ground out in the communities.”

Continue Reading

Briefing Room

Egypt Warns Ethiopia Nile dam Dispute ‘Life or Death’

Published

on

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, for the second time in as many days, has delivered a stern warning to Ethiopia over a dam it is building after the two countries along with Sudan failed to approve a study on its potential effects.

Ethiopia is finalizing construction of Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile. Egypt fears that will cut into its water supply.

Cairo said last week that the three countries had failed to approve an initial study by a consultancy firm on the dam’s potential effects on Egypt and Sudan.

Ethiopia has repeatedly reassured Egypt, but Cairo’s efforts to engage in closer coordination have made little headway.

El-Sissi sought to reassure Egyptians in televised comments Saturday, but stressed that “water is a matter of life or death.”

Continue Reading
Advertisement

TRENDING