Al-Shabaab compensates lost territory by profiting from rivaling foreign countries in Somalia
EDITORIAL – The Al-Qaeda-linked Somalia-based Al-Shabaab, this week completed a decade with yet another deadly attack on civilians; possibly denting recent pronouncements by government officials that the group was fizzling out.
But the incident in which 85 people were killed, and which was followed by another at the Kenyan Coast, showed the group could be profiting from political squabbling within Somalia, probably due to external interference.
Despite the Somali National Army responding by killing more than a dozen militants, key Somali leaders have disagreed on whether Shabaabs acted alone. The Somali intelligence agency (NISA) claimed a foreign country had helped plot the attack.
But critics argue it could be too soon to draw that conclusion.
“NISA’s message was seemingly designed to cover up the truth about the nature of the attack,” said opposition coalition Forum for National Parties [FNP], commenting on a statement by NISA boss Fahad Yasin.
The message was first to submissively please a foreign audience involved in the geopolitical power struggle. The second was to deceptively soothe the Somali public outraged by the death, injuries, and destruction of property resulting from the security agency’s failure to gather intelligence that could prevent the attack,” the coalition charged.
While FNP and other critics argue that Somalia should relook its own security operations to address internal failures, the suggestion of a foreign government sponsoring terror in Somalia was not new.
On July 22, 2019, the New York Times had published a report titled “With Guns, Cash and Terrorism, Gulf States Vie for Power in Somalia” linking Qatar to a bomb attack in Bosaso, Puntland’s commercial city "to advance Doha's interests by driving out its rival, the United Arab Emirates (UAE)".
Qatar has refuted the claims. The bomb blast went off on May 10, 2019, near the main court in downtown Bosaso injuring at least 10 people, according to a Garowe Online report.
And although NISA didn’t mention the actual country this time, speculations were that a rival of Turkey could be the subject NISA was referring to.
Turkey and Qatar have been heavily involved in Somalia’s humanitarian scene. Turkey has built a hospital, delivered relief to the displaced and has been training Somali forces. Together with Qatar, however, they are on the opposite ends of another pair of Gulf nations: the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Yet in most of the recent deadly incidents in Somalia, Al-Shabaab had failed to publicly take credit, ostensibly to avoid antagonizing local populations. Last week’s incident, however, saw them acknowledge the attack just 72 hours later.
“If confirmed, this would suggest al-Shabaab is worried about Turkey training more SNA battalions. In war, you target your main threats,” argued Paul D Williams, a Prof at the Elliot School of International Affairs and a specialist in peace operations and emerging security threats.
Two Turkish nationals were killed and Shabaabs apologized for the massive local civilian casualties but did not say if they were siding with another foreign government.
“Let there be no doubt that (the attack) was carried out by al-Shabaab. We don’t know what “brotherly country” paid for it,” argued Adam Aw Hirsi, Jubaland’s planning minister.
“To find that out, we need to ask ourselves what “brotherly country” wished the Turkish Engineers dead so that there is no more road construction,” he added.
Figures of al-Shabaab’s massacres are often heavily guarded as authorities fight to show the diminishing run of the group. But based on conservative estimates, the group may have felled as many as 1500 people in Somalia, and more in Kenya.
Last week’s attack was on the same day the Somali Lower House passed a crucial electoral bill which could determine how the next election due later this year will be conducted.
The bill suggested some controversial positions especially on the mode of voting, and the Somali Senate would decide exactly how the final law will look like. Yet the actual process to have that election at all could be curtailed by the continual attacks by al-Shabaab.
Is the group stealing a march on the government and its politicians? Simon Mulongo, the Ugandan diplomat and deputy head of the African Union Mission in Somalia suggested al-Shabaab’s recent ambushes were desperate acts.
“2019 will be remembered for achievements in degrading the al-Shabaab and despite challenges, including heinous attacks on our civilian population, we remain resolved to carry on the struggle and 2020 will pass as a historical year,” he observed on his Twitter page on New Year’s Eve.
In truth, Al-Shabaab has been heavily beaten down in the past three years, losing crucial territory inside Somalia. The US Africa Command, Amisom, and Somali forces have used aerial and ground means to target masterminds, as well as shared intelligence to foil more attacks than the group has actually launched them.
Yet the group changed tactics to survive, experts say. For example, it reduced direct combat and instead focused on suicide missions and car bombs near civilian areas, using locally assembled explosives, according to a November report by the UN Panel of Experts on Somalia.
In fact, in Somalia’s case, the group has sought to endear itself to local communities by providing services like judicial adjudication in property cases, and in turn charging ‘taxes’, the report said, which could explain the ‘apology.’ In fact, Mogadishu residents held a public protest on Thursday.
William Gayler, the US Maj-Gen admitted this week that Al-Shabaab has continually killed people to sustain their relevance and will continue to do so. “They are a global menace and their sights are set on exporting violence regionally and eventually attacking the US homeland,” he said in a statement issued by AFRICOM after US forces killed Al-Shabaab leaders in aerial attacks in response to the Mogadishu killings.
In fairness, NISA said it was only presenting a preliminary report, which indicates its improved form of communication. But some experts say Shabaabs are taking notice rivalry among foreign powers, as well as in local politics and could steal a march on the government.
“Anybody can use al-Shabaab these days for their gain. It is not new. So they could be taking advantage of the proxy wars,” argued Dr. Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad, head of Nairobi’s think-tank Southlink Consultants. According to him, the continual contest between Qatar and Turkey on one side, and UAE and Saudi Arabia on the other has placed Somalia as the stage for their proxy wars.
Some critics say President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo did not follow through his pledge to remain neutral in the Middle East blockade on Qatar and has since continued to favor Doha over Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, something which allowed Qatar to increase influence on Mogadishu.
Al-Shabaab has joined the fray, seeking to work as thugs for either side, depending on how it suits them.
“This is clear cooperation with al-Shabaab,” argued Abdishakur Abdirahman, the leader of the Wadajir Party, criticizing the conclusion an unnamed foreign country was involved.
“[It] doesn’t only mislead the public, it covers up its failure,” he added.
Somali Senator Ilyas Hassan told Garowe Online he will not rush to dispute the possibility of foreign agents aiding Al-Shabaab but argued Somalia’s security forces should first look at how Al-Shabaab had infiltrated the government, which he said was the first challenge to deal with.
“[It] shows how desperate they are to divert the blame from their mishandling and manipulation of security in Mogadishu,” he said.
With Somalia now the theatre of proxy wars, some experts argue the solution should be for Turkey, and possibly Qatar, to follow through their rising humanitarian support of Somalia with military support, and to strengthen the Somali National Army.
“It's about time Turkey committed limited ground forces and equipment into the peacemaking process,” said Kenya’s former lawmaker Farah Maalim, now a lecturer at the University of Nairobi.
“They [should] begin with a rapid drawdown of troops from frontline states and allow SNA/Turkey/Burundi forces to smoke out al-Shabaab.” He was referring to the neighboring countries, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti, who have sent troops to AMISOM.
Some of the countries have previously been accused of playing proxy wars in Somalia, even as they serve to fight al-Shabaab. Maalim thinks the perception against AMISOM can change with a tweak on operations.
“One golden rule all neighbors of Somalia need to internalize and register in their memory is that Somalis fight among them until an intruder joins the fray. They will then postpone the internal conflict, join forces, expel the intruder first then negotiate their conflict.”
AMISOM’s drawdown plan is actually supposed to kick off starting next month with a contingent of 1000 AMISOM troops will be pulled out.
Francisco Madeira, Mozambican diplomat and head of AMISOM said in a video message on Tuesday night that while AMISOM will continue to fight Al-Shabaab, the goal now is to transfer duties to local forces.
“We are making preliminary plans for AMISOM to support the Somali security forces to create a secure environment for a peaceful electoral process,” he said referring to the planned election.
“As AMISOM, we are ready and prepared to be part of this process of ensuring the success of this landmark election.” The problem though is who will hire or pay Al-Shabaab to launch another attack.