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AL-SHABAAB IN 2016: CONTINUITY AND CHANGE
By: Hassan M. Abukar
Last year was another bloody year in Somalia, during which Al-Shabaab increased the number of attacks it had launched in the country over the previous three years. The range and scale of these attacks and killings, particularly in Mogadishu, were astounding. They included bombings in the presidential palace and office (Villa Somalia), major hotels, obscure restaurants, military bases, forces of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), its garrisons and convoys, UN convoys and staff, government buildings, journalists, foreign diplomats, members of the parliament, and dozens of towns and villages. In one attack on AMISOM, Al-Shabaab fighters killed 70 Burundian soldiers.
A War of words
The annals of the group’s violent campaign was best described by the Minister of Information, Mohamed Abdi Hayir, who said Al-Shabaab’s attacks were being launched “about once a month.” To counter Al-Shabaab’s terror campaign, Somali government officials have waged a propaganda war against the organization, which has raised eyebrows. The head of the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA), Abdirahman M. Tuuryare, ordered the media not to call the radical group by its name “Al-Shabaab” (which means “youth” in Arabic) but instead to call the group “UGUS”, a Somali acronym for “the group that massacres the Somali people”. The head of the security agency explained that the new government name will demonize the militant group by calling it what it is: a bunch of murderers. Ironically, Al-Shabaab responded by changing the name attributed to the government to “the group that subjects the Somali people to humiliation”. Another government strategy, since March 2015, has been to refer to Al-Shabaab as an “Al-Qaeda/ISIL” outfit, even though the Somali group is not affiliated with ISIL. In December 2015, the security chief admitted for the first time that Al-Shabaab has not been responsible for most of the political assassinations in Mogadishu, even though the militant group proudly takes credit for these acts.
To Join or not to join ISIL
The tantalizing speculations that Al-Shabaab was considered leaving Al-Qaeda to join ISIL have proved to be exaggerated. Recently, though, a group numbering three to four dozen Al-Shabaab fighters declared their allegiance to ISIL. Al-Shabaab’s reaction was swift and brutal. It fought the group, imprisoned some, and ran them out of the south. The splinter group has settled in the Galgala Mountains in Puntland, several hundred miles away from Mogadishu. The new group is led by Abdulkhadir Mumin, a cleric and former resident of the United Kingdom, best known in Al-Shabaab for his fiery speeches. The group lacks strong leadership, as no heavyweight Al-Shabaab leader has joined it, and the group has yet to attract Al-Shabaab’s foreign fighters. It is not clear if this split in Al-Shabaab—though marginal now—might evolve into a clan warfare because Mumin and his supporters are members of the Darod clan. He is more likely to appeal to his tribesmen in Puntland, and hence the prospect of his recruitment of fighters in the south is very dim.
Inroads in Kenya
Al-Shabaab has clearly shown it has the ability to operate in parts of Kenya at whim. The fact that the majority of Al-Shabaab’s foreign fighters hail from Kenya has given the radical group significant opportunities to kill, maim, and kidnap civilians and police officers. The group’s periodical bombings, while lethal, are overshadowed by another fact: Al-Shabaab’s rapid growth in Kenya’s northeast region is adding muster to the general mayhem it is causing through its campaign of bombings and assassinations. A significant number of fighters are holed up in the dense and scarcely populated Boni Forest bordering Somalia next to the Indian Ocean. Furthermore, Al-Shabaab is heavily recruiting youths in the northeast, manning roadblocks in certain areas and collecting taxes. Isiolo county governor Godana Doyo lamented last April that more than 10 roadblocks manned by foreign armed men were encountered by travelers on the road linking Isiolo and Wajir. Motorists were being charged Sh3, 000 (an equivalent of $29 USD) per car per trip. One county official said that the individuals who had erected the roadblocks were not bandits. “We fear that the money they take is going to fund terrorism,” he added. Apparently, Al-Shabaab has obtained fertile ground in the northeast, a region inhabited mostly by ethnic Somalis, who have been marginalized and neglected by the Kenyan Government in is economic development programs.
The carnage continues
The year 2016 is unlikely to bring change in the nature of Al-Shabaab activities. The periodic and deadly bombings will continue, but they might experience a spike this summer when the process of selecting the country’s national leaders will be finalized in August. There might be some respite after the election, but the attacks will likely resume when the next government is installed in the fall. Al-Shabaab’s possible affiliation to ISIL is unlikely to happen. Reasons for this could be the bloody way in which the pro-ISIL group has been handled, ISIL’s diminishing appeal among Somali jihadists, the African outfit’s opposition to ISIL’s monopoly of an Islamic “caliphate”, and the group’s open recruitment, in contrast to Al-Shabaab’s secretive and plodding process of recruiting fighters. Al-Shabaab knows its standing in global jihad has waned. The group’s loss of territory, its bloody leadership squabble in June 2013, in which two of its founders were killed, the marginalization of foreign fighters and the killings of some of them, such as the American-born Omar Hammami, and the rise of ISIL as a major jihadi phenomenon that has eclipsed Al-Qaeda central have damaged Al-Shabaab’s appeal among global jihadists.
One possible change is the consolidation of power by Ahmed Diriye “Abu Ubaidah”, the emir, who was widely believed to have been a transitional figure. He is benefiting from the growing number of Al-Shabaab leaders who have been killed by American drones or are surrendering to the Somali Government. The late charismatic emir of the group, Ahmed Godane, endorsed Abu Ubaidah as his successor, clearly a huge advantage for Abu Ubaidah.
This year, it is likely Al-Shabaab will continue to pursue the splinter group and attempt to liquidate its members, as it did to Godane’s rivals two years ago. The number of Al-Shabaab ranks inside the country will incrementally decrease, but not to the point of crippling the radical group. But more Kenyans are likely to join the movement, which will translate into more Al-Shabaab activities in that country.
After losing big cities, Al-Shabaab’s coffers are dwindling because not much revenue is being generated from its control of the provinces. Furthermore, the general population is getting tired of the brand name of “Al-Shabaab”. That notwithstanding, Al-Shabaab will continue to be a force inside Somalia. One reason is the weak Somali Federal Government, which is unable to control most of the country. Another reason is the presence of foreign troops in the country, some of whom benefit from the existence of the radical group, which justifies their presence in Somalia for either securing funding from the UN or preventing the emergence of a strong Somali Government (which is a threat to its neighbors). Other factors aiding Al-Shabaab’s continuing presence are the marginalization and alienation of youth, and the prevalence of corruption. As Al-Shabaab confronts the New Year, it is highly likely its strategy of employing hit and run, blocking access to certain government-controlled areas, and harassing AMISOM forces will continue unabated.