Hailed as a counter-terrorism triumph of global importance, the killing in Somalia of a top al Qaeda plotter will do nothing in the short-term to stabilise the world’s most profoundly failed state.
The government forces who shot Fazul Mohammed at a roadblock in Mogadishu on Tuesday delighted Western officials by removing a notoriously accomplished bomber from al Qaeda’s ranks and netting a haul of intelligence on his mobile phones and laptops.
That information will be studied by Western spies seeking to raise pressure on al Qaeda after the death of Osama bin Laden, Reuters reports.
Nick Pratt, a terrorism expert at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, said the death of any al Qaeda commander would threaten the group’s resilience.
“In the end, leaders are less able to lead, and the group’s cohesion and strategic direction suffer,” he said. ”
“This is why you pursue them to the ends of the earth.”
But viewed from a Somali perspective, Mohammed’s death is an event of much less immediate significance. Of more relevance is the fact that the Somali soldiers who killed him serve an administration that is a government in name only.
The government holds just a few districts of the capital and faces a resourceful foe in al Qaeda-allied al Shabaab rebels, some of whose leaders he is believed to have trained.
For that reason, the loss of one opponent, no matter how gifted, will do little to restore to the Horn of Africa country the central administration it has lacked for 20 years.
As a result, Somalia experts say the country will likely continue to destabilise its neighbours, provide a haven to al Qaeda and host an increasingly bold community of pirates who stalk shipping lanes vital to world energy security.
Al Shabaab, an extremist organisation that began to take shape in 2003, has in recent years attracted an influx of aspiring militants from regions including the United States, Europe, the Gulf and south Asia.
Its conflict with the government, with African peacekeeping troops, and at one point with occupying Ethiopian forces, has inspired “homegrown” militants based in the West.
Set against this sombre backdrop, some analysts see the death of Mohammed, also known as Harun, as of minor importance.
“I do not believe this event will alter the trajectory of the Somali conflict, although its long term impact has yet to be seen,” Jabril Ibrahim Abdulle, director of the Somali Center for Research and Dialogue, told Reuters.
To make matters worse, froom the perspective of Somalia’s neighbours, President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed’s government is riven with power struggles, diluting what little authority it enjoys.
“The central weakness of the effort to drive al Shabaab out is the rot in Villa Somalia and that rot remains for now,” said Somali expert Abdi Samatar, referring to the seat of the presidency and what he sees as its ineffective actions.
Its infighting has proven immune to mediation by foreign governments, in part because they themselves are divided on how to fix Somalia’s chaos — an indicator suggesting that Somalia’s chaos might survive an eventual victory against al Shabaab.
Regional rivals Ethiopia and Eritrea back competing political forces, while other states with their own pressing priorities include Kenya and Sudan, said Natznet Tesfay, head of Africa forecasting at Exclusive Analysis.
For their part, Western countries, perhaps demoralised by two decades of failed Somali peace efforts and preoccupied with security crises in south Asia and the Arab world, seem exhausted by the complexities of Somalia’s clan politics. Some Western states pay close attention only on counter-terrorism issues, said Rashid Abdi, an analyst at the International Crisis Group.
The most recent indicator of the government’s vulnerability emerged within days of Mohammed’s death, when Ahmed’s Interior Minister, Abdi Shakur Sheikh Hassan, was killed by a veiled female suicide bomber in his house in Mogadishu on Friday.
Some security experts say it is unlikely that that attack was revenge for Mohammed’s death, if only because such bombings require time-consuming planning.
But the group is widely expected to start planning a bombing to mark his death in order to show that it is not intimiated by his loss, and to raise the morale of its own fighters.
The group is not without its own weaknesses, including rifts over whether it should focus on Somalia or engage fully in al Qaeda’s global anti-Western campaign.
Nevertheless it holds some powerful cards. It controls several ports, airports and inland checkpoints from which it raises trade revenue, and some members may have ad hoc revenue sharing deals with some pirates.
And while al Shabaab’s generally rules by coercion and is not popular, the brutal form of order that it imposes has won grudging acceptance from some businessmen who prefer its predictability to the chaos that endures in other areas.
Richard Barrett, who monitors al Qaeda and the Taliban for the United Nations, said Mohammed’s death would make it harder for al Shabaab to use foreign fighters to strike overseas because if anyone could help it attain that goal “it was Fazul Harun.”
“His death will make this more difficult and with luck keep al Shabab operations local and small scale,” he told Reuters.
“In Somalia, al Shabaab can be defeated, but if it develops a global capability, it will be much harder to do so.”