Small Wars Journal

Al Shabaab Resurgence

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Al Shabaab Resurgence

Arnold Hammari

In 2012 the militant Islamist group Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahidin, commonly known as al Shabaab, was at its peak of power.  It had just declared allegiance to al Qaeda, controlled the majority of Somalia, and was institutionalized as a government collecting taxes, adjudicating legal cases, and implementing sharia law.  Al Shabaab enjoyed robust support from abroad with new technologically savvy recruits, funding from Islamic charities, and remittances from individuals.  Their success on the battlefield and exploitation of jihad videos online brought in more influence, power, and funding. 

When al Shabaab first began to operate in Somalia as the former youth wing of the Islamic Courts Union, it fought using guerilla tactics such as suicide bombers, ambushes, and small unit operations.  Its leadership was trained in Afghanistan and Pakistan and adapted the tactics used against Soviet troops to fight the Transitional Government troops in Somalia.  As the group swelled in membership and it assumed the governance of regions, al Shabaab changed its tactics to fight as a more conventional force using formations, dug in fortifications, and heavy weaponry.  This change in tactics led to the downfall of al Shabaab.

Rise of AMISOM

The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) was created in February 2007 and finally started to gain some traction in 2011 when it gained control of the Mogadishu International Airport and established a beach-head for the inflow of additional troops, supporting equipment, and materials.  Slowly the United Nations backed AMISOM troops expanded their areas of control to control Mogadishu.  Western powers provided advisors, intelligence, and air strikes to assist the AMISOM troops in finding and destroying al Shabaab conventional forces.  Western security assistance programs also provided air power with attack helicopters and jets to the AMISOM troop contributing countries and this air superiority decimated large al Shabaab military formations.

AMISOM launched Operation Indian Ocean in 2014 that liberated the remaining towns in Somalia from al Shabaab.  The remains of al Shabaab displaced to northern Kenya, Puntland, and Somaliland to reorganize.  As al Shabaab was portrayed as defeated in the international press many international jihad recruits chose to join other organizations that were enjoying success such as the Islamic State, Boko Haram, or other groups fighting in Syria.  Donors also shifted their resources to other groups and with the loss of the ports and taxes the financial resources of al Shabaab were drying up.

Failure of the Somali Government

Success on the battlefield was supposed to provide space for the Somali people to develop a government that could control the conquered territories.  The Transitional Federal Government gave way to the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) in August 2012, however, the new government continued to be plagued by problems of clan politics and corruption. 

Multiple international donors worked to create the Somali National Army (SNA) which is still largely composed of units operating independently as clan-based militias with questionable loyalty to the FGS.  The Somali National Army is not able to stand on its own against a resurgent al Shabaab and SNA leadership does not have effective control over units with different clan leadership.  Often SNA units from rival clans are seen by the local population more as invading forces than as a liberating or protecting force, lessening their effectiveness.

The glacial political progress in the FGS and persistent conflicts with local governments and clan elders as well as the ineffective SNA have caused stagnation on the battlefield and given an opportunity for al Shabaab to regroup and re-attack.  Survivors of the al Shabaab leadership returned to their guerilla tactics and began to quietly reassume power in remote areas not under the control of the FGS. 

Operation Indian Ocean also culminated the AMISOM forces and stagnated the battlefield.  AMISOM troops were reluctant to leave their secure outposts in southern Somalia and grew complacent in their security.  The African Union did not authorize an increase in the AMISOM force cap and the AMISOM troops were obliged to police large areas that were without a SNA or SFG presence.  As the American troops in Iraq learned with the 2007 Surge, an occupation army requires more troops than an invading army.   AMISOM was unable to effectively police their areas of responsibility with their limited numbers of troops, which allowed al Shabaab to fill the power vacuum.

International Support Failures

AMISOM leadership was consumed with political infighting among the troops contributing countries with Ethiopian and Kenyan military and political leaders trying to position themselves to take advantage of the Somali regions that bordered their own countries.  The United Nations Support Office for AMISOM (UNSOA) has been unable to fulfill its mandate to provide support, movement, and payment to the troop contributing countries.  The failure of UNSOA has resulted in delayed payment of troop salaries, lack of transportation for troops into Somalia during troop rotation, and the degradation of AMISOM vehicles and equipment as replacement parts were slow to arrive.

International donors sponsored multiple conference abroad to try to unify the SFG and pledged millions to the government but with weak results.  As in the former days of the TFG, Somali delegates were willing to attend the conference, eat the food, and absorb the per diem but made little progress.

Rebirth of al Shabaab

Al Shabaab conducted devastating attacks in Kenya in 2013-14, the most famous being the killing of 67 civilians at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in September 2013 and 37 Christian workers in December 2014 near Koromey in northern Kenya.  In April 2015, al Shabaab killed 147 students at Garissa University College in northern Kenya.

In Somalia, the rising crescendo of attacks included frequent attacks in Mogadishu on fortified hotels and compounds.  Al Shabaab mounted a coordinated attacks on the Presidential Compound, Villa Somalia in February and June 2014. In 2015 hotels in Mogadishu were subject to sophisticated al Shabaab attacks in February 2015 killing 40 civilians including the Somali Ambassador to Switzerland, March 2015 killing six civilians, and a coordinated attack on two separate hotels June 2015 killed ten more civilians.

Al Shabaab has also started taking the fight to AMISOM troops in their fortified compounds.  On Christmas day in 2014 al Shabaab troops raided the African Union military compound at the Mogadishu International Airport, killing 14.  On 26 June 2015, between 500-1500 al Shabaab troops overran the AMISOM base in Leego, Somalia.  AMISOM reinforcement troops took over 48 hours to respond to the attack and the al Shabaab fighters escaped with additional weapons, uniforms, and equipment.  AMISOM has also withdrawn from nine towns in southern Somalia and is consolidating its presence in larger bases in order to protect against further al Shabaab attacks.

Future of Somalia

Unless the Federal Government of Somalia is able to arrive at a political solution and consolidate control of the country future military victories on the battlefield will accomplish little.  The Somali National Army needs to gain control of all units and develop a clan-integrated force in order for it to serve as an effective fighting force.  The international community that is already suffering from donor fatigue will be reluctant to continue to fund a Somali government and military that are not working towards consolidating control in the near future. 

The failure of support institutions such as UNSOA to resupply, transport, and pay AMISOM troops will result in the weakening of the force and troop contributing countries to withdraw their forces.  AMISOM forces will continue to be stretched too thin to effectively police southern Somalia unless the African Union increases the size of the overall force.  Further AMISOM losses will lower morale among AMISOM troops and further decrease their effectiveness, providing greater opportunities from al Shabaab to regain power and reestablish itself in southern Somalia.

About the Author(s)

MAJ Arnold Hammari is a U.S. Army Foreign Area Officer currently serving as a political-military affairs officer at U.S. Africa Command.  He has served at the U.S. Embassies in  Chad, Uganda, and Senegal as well as at CJTF-HOA in Djibouti.  Arnold follows regional security issues in the Sahel and throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.