ISS: Al-Shabaab on the defensive – is it time to celebrate?

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Three months after reclaiming the presidential office, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud resolved to root out al-Shabaab from Somalia. The new administration formed a unified front comprising local players, federal member states, religious leaders and external actors to confront al-Shabaab on military, religious and financial grounds.

This coalition put al-Shabaab on the defensive, as recent tactical successes show. This isn’t the first time the group has been defeated militarily. In 2011 it re-emerged from military defeat and extended its grip on the country.

While the state has tried to reach agreement on how to deal with the group, a local revolt against al-Shabaab in Hiiraan, Hirshabelle State, has emerged due to the group’s increasingly harsh governance. Drought has further weakened community resilience.

Militarily the state has supported the uprising. Local militias have received military backing from the government, in turn providing information to state forces. This suggests that the many forces opposing the terror group have aligned their goals and efforts, which is critical for the government’s success.

The joint military offensive has moved to more areas in Galmudug, South West and Jubaland states, further maintaining the government’s momentum.

The state has also embarked on religious and financial efforts to weaken al-Shabaab. On the religious front Mukhtar Robow, a former top al-Shabaab official whom the government appointed as religious affairs minister, is in talks with scholars and religious authorities about how to counter al-Shabaab’s extremist ideology. The government also says it’s frozen 250 bank accounts used by the extremists to restrict their financial sources.

Other partners like the United States (US) and Turkey have backed the operation by providing air support and military hardware. Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya, Somalia’s neighbours, agreed in February to cooperate with the country on a unified security plan.

International partners have also expressed their support in improving the coordination of global security and stabilisation assistance to recently liberated areas. These include Qatar, Somalia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the US.

The multi-directional offensive carried out during the past six months shows that, unlike the previous administration, the government is committed to weakening al-Shabaab to give Somalians a safer future.

However, the group is fighting back. Attacks on security personnel, military installations and government buildings have increased. Two car bombs exploded in October 2022 at the Education Ministry, killing at least 121 people and wounding over 300.

During the 2011 fight against al-Shabaab by the African Union Mission to Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia, the group was weakened but it revived in the following years. During the previous administration, the group became even stronger, with capabilities for advanced governance and infiltration of the state security apparatus.

So what can be done to ensure progress continues now without al-Shabaab re-emerging? The current offensive must be expanded to other al-Shabaab-controlled spaces, and liberated areas must be stabilised. If this isn’t properly managed, it could regroup and retake territory.

Ultimately, al-Shabaab forces must be weakened militarily, and its philosophy and operational efficiency undermined. This can be done by compromising its governance capacity through crippling its judicial decisions and tax collections.

Although the government continues to pursue its campaign against the terrorist organisation, managing its allies and military victories may be a challenge. This limits the operation’s ability to spread to other al-Shabaab-controlled areas.

The government offensive started in and expanded to places where there was localised resistance against al-Shabaab. This restricts offensives in regions with light local resistance. The inconsistent offence could give al-Shabaab room to reduce local resistance and repel government efforts.

The locally-coordinated effort, which has played a significant role in the successes achieved to date, may also be short-lived due to inconsistent strategy and capacity of local allies. Using clan militia may be beyond the control of both federal and local governance structures, leading to inconsistent strategy.

The 2011 defeat of al-Shabaab regressed due to gaps in Somalia’s government that caused it to divide its attention. This weakened its strategy, allowing the insurgents to exploit these gaps and return to power.

The scheduled exit of the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) – the country’s current peace support mission – raises concerns about its support for the operation. ATMIS is mandated to eliminate the al-Shabaab threat, hand responsibility to Somalia’s national security forces, and end its mission in December 2024. There will be a phased reduction in troops. The mission’s support for the operation is ambiguous because its attention is divided between carrying out its exit strategy and supporting the process of Somalia’s ownership of security.

The government and its partners need a proper plan to stabilise liberated areas
The other challenge concerns the state’s capacity to establish governance structures to replace existing al-Shabaab structures and maintain stability in freed areas.

Government troops and local militias have been recapturing areas from the militants, including ports, that are sources of revenue and weapons for the insurgents. These liberated areas need state capacity for proper governance. This is crucial in transforming the operation’s military successes into durable political solutions.

In this context, it’s important to prioritise quick-impact plans that create visible government presence and launch the process of reconstructing state legitimacy. Mobilising resources for humanitarian needs in these liberated areas is also essential.

The government’s capacity may be divided in the medium term due to tensions related to the upcoming federal member state elections this and next year. Political unrest associated with the federal state and national polls during former president Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s administration hijacked governance, security and the battle against al-Shabaab.

Contentious elections are likely as several unresolved political issues continue between the federal government and member states. There are already signs of stress, such as the conflict between the centre and Puntland over the reform of the Constitution and the tension in the South West over the extension of the president’s term. The crisis in Las Anod that is pitting Somaliland and the Dhulbahante supported by Puntland could create another opportunity for insurgents to have a foothold.

Political disagreements and associated tensions will intensify as the elections approach, diverting the government’s and international allies’ focus from stabilisation and the larger goal of combating al-Shabaab.

To succeed, the government’s battle against the group needs coordination between local and government forces and among external partners. And a proper plan to stabilise liberated areas is essential. Without this, al-Shabaab could regain control, re-establish its governance tactics and resurface with even more power.

Written by Selam Tadesse Demissie, Research Officer, Horn of Africa Security Analysis, ISS Addis Ababa.

Republished with permission from ISS Africa. The original article can be found here.