The most lethal African affiliate of Al-Qaeda has been thriving in Somalia, an East African nation, where for the past 15 years, it has waged an armed insurgency against the democratically-led government. The civilian government has also been characterized by rising political squabbling and a highly tense political environment, which the armed group has been utilizing to seize a sizable portion of the nation.
In the midst of the country’s tense political crisis, the newly elected president of Somalia, Sheikh Mohamud has prioritized the complete eradication of Al-Shabaab. However, the country is currently experiencing its worst drought, a weak military that depends on international support, and a divided nation along ethnic/clan lines, raising concerns about the difficulties that lie ahead of this crackdown on the jihadist group.
President’s Pledge & Strategy
President Mohamed Farmaajo conceded defeat when the long-overdue election was held, ending a protracted political impasse. This allowed President Sheikh Mohamud to take office in Somalia (for the second time), promising an end to the country’s long-running conflict with the armed group, Al-Shabaab.
Al-Shabaab staged an attack on a hotel in the capital and imposed a 30-hour siege in response to the president’s unequivocal pledge. This was done to signal their never-ending presence in Somalia, prompting the president to declare “an all-out war” on Al-Shabaab and lay out a plan to effectively rid the country of the Islamist group in his counter-terrorism approach.
President Sheikh Mohamud adopted a triad approach of military, counter-ideology, and strained financial resources to weaken the growing strength of Al-Shabaab in Somalia. In his military strategy to weaken the group, the authorization of the United States’ military drone strike was the first point of call.
The redeployment of a few US troops back to Somalia to assist the Somali National Army in training has given the government an edge over the group. The US has also offered a $10 million award for information on top Al-Shabaab leaders.
In a bid to counter the rapid spread of the group’s ideology, the Somali government has led an awareness campaign to educate the public against its ideology, spearheading a crackdown on online news media and websites affiliated with or being sympathetic to the group, with heightened restriction of media houses.
The former deputy leader of Al-Shabaab, Mukhtar Robow, who defected from the group in 2013, was appointed as the Minister of Religious Affairs as part of the government’s effort to combat the group’s pervasive violent ideology. This was a strategic move held to challenge the group’s interpretation of Islam, facilitate the process of members leaving the group, and also encourage religious leaders to speak out against the group’s ideology.
The sophisticated weapons, military operations, and the provision of welfare/social services to the territory under the control of Al-Shabaab are due to its huge financial resources; being the wealthiest al-Qaeda affiliate, the armed group is reported to generate about $15 million dollars monthly from multiple financial streams.
The group has been able to expand its financial resources through the taxation of locals, businesses, livestock, and imported goods coming into the Al-Shabaab territory. To dislocate this huge financial network, the government has passed a law forbidding businesses and individuals in the country to pay taxes to the armed group.
The combined military offensive of the Somali National Army, the allied clan militias, African mission forces, and the United States’ air support has led to significant success being gained on the battlefield against Al-Shabaab. Several stronghold towns in the central and southern regions of Somalia have been liberated as a result of the ongoing military offensive against Al-Shabaab.
The first operation in the Hiran region resulted in the dislodging of Al-Shabaab fighters from about 40 towns, including the nearby Galguduud region. According to government officials, this intensive military operation has resulted in the deaths of about 200 Al-Shabaab fighters in the Hiran region. This military assault has since spread to the southern region, where there have been impressive gains as well as the liberation of towns from Al-Shabaab, including El Gorof and Wabho, the group’s stronghold that had been controlled for about a decade.
The US Africa Command confirmed the killing of Al-Shabaab’s prominent leader Abdullahi Nadir and successor to the present leader in a drone strike in October 2022. The US’s drone strikes have been essential to the ongoing military effort because they offered air assistance in areas where ground forces were outnumbered or unable to operate.
The brutal setback to Al-Shabaab has strengthened the morale of clan militias and Somali forces alike. It has also increased the public’s trust in the Mogadishu-based government.
Al-Shabaab has demonstrated resilience in the face of setbacks inflicted on it by the military alliance, with an alarming spike in the group’s attacks against the government. As a result, these frontline wins against Al-Shabaab have come at a costly price. Al-Shabaab has been launching attacks on government buildings, public areas, and military installations throughout the capital and other regions.
The worst of these attacks in retaliation was in October last year when a car exploded in Mogadishu at the education ministry, which left over 100 people dead and more than 300 injured. More recently, a twin bomb explosion at a military facility in the Hiran region killed 10 people. These attacks show how overwhelmed the group has been with the current offensive and how it is still trying to maintain its presence in the face of heavy military loss.
While President Mohamud is winning battles, Al-Shabaab is venting its resentment at these losses by escalating its attacks on the civilians in Somalia. However, some obstacles remain in the fight against Al-Shabaab that, if not resolved, could undo the advances that have already been made. For the current offensive, the government should widely deploy all manpower at its disposal in holding ground at the captured territory.
Somalia is a multi-ethnic/clan society that is highly polarized, and the different clans have been at war with each other for decades. Hence, providing arms support for clan militias might lead to the rise of clan/ethnic war. During the ongoing offensive, an inter-clan conflict was reported in the town of Adale which left 37 people dead.
Lastly, the previous administration of President Farmaajo was characterized by political rivalry among regional governments which derailed earlier offensives and rendered them ineffective. Now, in the face of the current offensive, both the central government and regional governments must unite against the common enemy, Al-Shabaab, as a lack of cooperation could hinder the current efforts made in the offensive.
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