Two fronts are steadily converging on each other. Sporadic clashes erupt where individual pockets compete over terrain, both sides feverishly forming their battle plans and arrangements. The crackle of gunfire can be heard everywhere, mortars periodically piercing the sky.
An RPG whizzes through an alley, followed by another. Bullets are returned. Then, as if directed by sorcerers, more missiles fly overhead. Phantom weapons, their payload a headline: New Somalia government offensive against Al Shabab.
Or Al-Shabab reinforcements pour into Mogadishu.
Most explosions can be distinguished by their origin; the first is Western made, the second of African production. And mimicking the civilians caught in the middle of true warfare, those caught in a propaganda battle must bear the burden and try to pick up the pieces.
Is al-Shabab launching an offensive or responding to one by Somalia’s transitional government? And does it ultimately matter? Either way President Obama is in trouble.
Almost everyone has a motive to exaggerate in war, lying being as much an attack as firing a gun. Upon discovering government plans for an offensive, the first thing al-Shabab would do is plan its own offensive and attempt to flip the government onto the defensive. This would provide a double swing, stealing the government’s thunder while creating its own.
At the same time al-Shabab has been pushing its center of mass towards Mogadishu for the last year and gradually encircling the city - a Battle of Mogadishu already took placed in 2009. And al-Shabab is after more than the government. Shortly after claiming victory in October, al-Shabab and Hizbul Islam fell out over control of Kismayo resulting in the latter’s eviction. Hibzul Islam regrouped in the capital. Consolidation would also aid in confronting Ahlu Sunna Waljama'a to the north.
Both the government and al-Shabab have been preparing for months to launch a large scale confrontation.
Sheikh Hussen Abdi Gedi, Al-Shabaab's second in command in Kismayo told Al-Shabaab's Andalus radio, "Kenya has prepared troops that comprise of Kenyans and Somalis, who are trained to attack and take over the regions. They are planning to attack us on the land, sea and air. We are urging people to be ready and defend our land.”
Though al-Shabab denied reports that it declared jihad on Kenya in January, Hussen now warns that any intervention will be resisted and used to justify jihad into Kenya. Knowing that it has teamed with Western forces to train Somali paramilitaries and police, which Kenya denies, al-Shabab is also trying to beat these recruits to Mogadishu.
al-Shabab’s collective activity is tangible and likely the real offensive, meaning the government is trying to reverse perceptions by launching its own offensive.
Now an actual resolution to any battle for Mogadishu is unlikely since either side appears incapable of completely dislodging the other, but stalemate usually gives insurgents the advantage. Holding al-Shabab at bay might pass for victory considering the low expectations, yet only a dominating performance will halt the government’s slide into potential oblivion.
Somali President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed has promised to oust al-Shabab from Mogadishu, but al-Shabab is crashing on the city. It may end up defeated on the battlefield, but right now it has all the momentum.
“The arrival of this battalion known as Khalid Bin Walid who has recently accomplished their military training is to boost and partake the fighting against the infidels and their followers who have invaded in our country,” said Sheikh Ali Dere, spokesman of Al-Shabab.
Whether or not this battalion is real or already in Mogadishu is unknown, but an eyewitness said hundreds of military vehicles carrying Al Shabab militia crossed the Afgooye bridge, some 25 kilometres west of Mogadishu, during the evening and entered the city by last night. “It took them 30 minutes to cross the bridge, they were too many,” said the witness.
Abdullahi Mohamed, a local, told reporters, "Eighteen trucks - big trucks - packed with Shabab militants drove through Lafole. I saw hundreds of new Shabab militants deployed around Hodan and KPP (Casa Populare) districts this morning... They are heavily armed with machine guns and anti-aircraft weapons."
al-Shabab also recently gained the allegiance of the Ras Kamboni Brigade, allowing it to maintain control of Kismayo and concentrate its own forces on Mogadishu. Estimates of about 500 or more foreigners boost al-Shabab's ranks, including 150-300 al-Qaeda operatives.
In control of a vast armory is at least 6,000 well trained insurgents, many with bomb making/IED expertise.
America is entering a dangerous phase of its shadow war. US policy in Somalia isn’t the product of President Obama and so blame cannot be attributed to him, but the consequences still fall on him. What happens in Somalia doesn’t stay in Somalia.
The best and worst news for America might lie in the same spot. Fragmentation in the group’s leadership has supposedly resulted from a battle between local and international commanders (similar to Afghanistan and Pakistan). Part of al-Shabab wishes to stay localized while another section wants to turn the state into an international jihad center.
Targets would include Kenya, Ethiopia, Yemen, and patron America.
Conspiracies abound that al-Qaeda is a CIA creation, shepherded to various conflicts in order to justify America military expansion. It’s hard to make a call on the totality of such a claim, but Somalia doesn’t seem to be an active conspiracy. al-Qaeda’s plan all along has been to diversify its bases. Somalia is finally blossoming.
Eclipsing Yemen as an al-Qaeda sanctuary, its operatives don’t enjoy nearly the same freedom as in southern Somalia. This gives al-Qaeda commanders lots of time to do whatever they please, and there aren’t enough Special Activities Division units hiding among Ethiopian forces to disrupt them all.
For so long the question has been what America will do about, or with, Somalia. A more urgent question might be what America will do if attacked by an al-Qaeda cell in Somalia within the next 18 months?
This problem really does seem to have no solution.
America has created the perception that it must attack if attacked back. A fizzled bomb and cooperative government held back US brigades in Yemen, but there is no government to work with after a successful attack emits from Somalia. An al-Shabab/al-Qaeda takeover in the Horn of Africa scuttles the full force of 30,000 more troops in Afghanistan - unless more invasions are planned - except this is what al-Qaeda desires most.
America has the most to gain or lose out of everyone in the latest Battle for Mogadishu, outside the civilians caught in the fire. And SAD, JSOC, and Blackwater teams won’t do any good for either. Avoiding this trap calls for real strategy. Defeating al-Shabab militarily demands US troops.
Judgment day on Somalia is slowly approaching Washington.