March 9, 2010

Somalia Awaits US Spark

They knew before we did. Armed with weapons siphoned from the Somalia government, they’ve seen the helicopters and drones for themselves, watched the cargo planes fly in and warships cruise the coast, all bearing US flags.

A recent New York Times report outlining America’s increasing operations in Somalia didn’t tell al-Shabab anything they didn’t already know. It did however boost their spirits.

"This decision will not affect al-Shabab movement,” said spokesman Ali Mahmoud Rajhi. “Actually, it makes us more certain that we are on the right path; the path that was chosen for us by God. We also become more certain that we have to keep going despite the animosity of the disbelieving nations. The Americans want to scare us. But, we are not afraid.”

Somalia has cyclically burned for decades. Last year an estimated 1,700 Somalis were killed in the war, meaning the conflict has actually dipped. Elman Peace and Human Rights group (EHRO), who tracks the statistics, reported 8,636 deaths in 2007 and 7,574 in 2008. But these years saw a large scale battle between Ethiopian and Somali insurgents.

The lower death toll isn’t evidence of increasing security so much as a lesser degree of conflict. After Ethiopian troops withdrew Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) was forced to consolidate in Mogadishu with the AU and leave the countryside to al-Shabab, who proceeded to recapture southern Somalia.

Now, as the two sides face off in Mogadishu, the conflict is poised to explode once again. Drought, food shortages, and controversy over UN humanitarian aid have fanned the fire. Yet the conflict could also go nuclear, so to speak, with the right spark.

Though the TFG’s counterattack involving AU and Kenyan paramilitary troops - and possibly US Special Forces - remains in its final preparation stage, this will soon change.

So what will happen when the full energy of all these elements is released? Can the TFG and AU take back Mogadishu by itself? Can they hold the city? How far could they go beyond the city? How stiff a resistance will al-Shabab mount? How much US military support will be necessary and, more importantly, for how long?

While Somalia’s government is in better shape than recent years, it’s hard to believe it could land a definitive blow on al-Shabab by itself.

“Our forces have prepared well and can do the job of securing the areas," President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed said the other day in London. "If the US government provides us with support, air support, it will help the situation."

The tactical need for US air support and Special Forces is apparent, in some cases already in motion, but one developing situation has the potential to tilt the conflict further - shifting insurgent alliances. Hizbul Islam, one of al-Shabab’s former allies, might be the victim of infighting.

The two groups fell out over territorial disputes, particularly the port city of Kismayo, in October 2009. Hizbul Islam was eventually forced out by its own ally, the Ras Kamboni brigade, when its leader Hassan Turki defected to al-Shabab’s umbrella. Hizbul Islam took refuge in Mogadishu where some hoped the group would swing its support to the TFG.

Several attempts were made at a ceasefire and though they failed to produce a concrete agreement, Hizbul Islam has engaged in running battles with al-Shabab ever since.

Now, according to Voice of America, Hizbul Islam’s military commander Bare Ali Bare has been shot dead while walking alone in Mogadishu's notorious Bakara market. Bare had opposed the defection of Hassan Turki to al-Shabab, which is considered the lead suspect in the assassination.

Why he was alone remains a mystery when a week earlier Sheikh Ahmed Madobe, a senior Hizbul Islam official, had called Al-Shabaab his number one enemy.

“We will fight them everywhere including Mogadishu,” he promised. “They want to obliterate our religion. We will target Al-Shabaab officials with explosions and bullets to wipe them out of the country.”

But many things in Somalia ricochet back on America.

Like al-Shabab, Hizbul Islam reads the New York Times and is acquainted with US military activity in the country. Yesterday Sheikh Ibrahim Bare Mohammed, Hizbul Islam’s deputy commander in the Banadar region (Mogadishu), gave a different vision from Madobe.

"We are controlling many parts of Mogadishu,” Mohammed warned. “We will defend... we can't accept our enemy to handle this region and we are not afraid of American government. God is with us... we will defeat any attack from the Somali government.”

As Ali Bare’s death came one day after Mohammed’s statements, the possibility exists that Ali Bare, an outspoken critic of al-Shabab, was liquidated and replaced with someone friendlier. Though the TFG could provide sanctuary and arms, it would not be unusual if the US military’s specter reunites al-Shabab and Hizbul Islam rather than divides them.

Such a prospect begs the return of America to a land it dreads, and it has good reason based on 2010, not 1993.

"If they come to Somalia," Rajhi said, "they need to know that those who fought them in 1993 and dragged their bodies in the streets of Mogadishu are still present and ready to drag their dead bodies again."

That’s not enough for al-Shabab’s chief spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamoud Rage.

“It was sometimes this week that the so called government of America has declared to join war with the so called Somali government to fight against our movement... America can do nothing to us. It will face something worse than in 1992.”

While we appreciate the information, we cannot deny that whoever leaked to the New York Times made a huge error. Though al-Shabab is well aware of US activity a heads up is always helpful in planning. More importantly, a US military presence is a morale booster. America has finally been dragged back into the war, a sign of al-Shabab’s power.

It’s worthy of the mighty American empire - and will try to fight up to standard.

This isn’t to say al-Shabab won’t feel the pain of their wish. Casualties will run high as they barely compete with Special-Forces, although to underestimate a Somali insurgent is inadvisable. Capturing a Special Forces soldier on the ground is no easy feat despite al-Shabab’s self-proclaimed experience. Special Forces might not even take a casualty if used for only three or four targets over the course of several months.

But all it takes is one captured - or dead - US soldier being dragged around in the international media.

al-Shabab could set up a trap using its own commanders as bait. A more plausible threat seems to be in the air, like 1993, if America uses helicopters to launch raids. War planes are unlikely to be shot down while running air-strikes, unless al-Shabab has something up its sleeve, but the Mogadishu airport will continue to be targeted.

“I assure you that they will be losers,” Sheikh Ali Mohamoud Rage predicted. “They said that they boost the so called government of Somalia on the side war planes I am telling you that you will see several planes with the USA logos burning in the Somali soil, we have total confidence to defeat the tow joint forces.”

In any event, the first American casualty or POW will blow the conflict wide open for increased US military activity.

Then not only would it have new targets, but al-Shabab’s morale is less likely to suffer if defeated by a US-backed TFG army. Setbacks can be excused and, assuming America lingers in the country, a counteroffensive will be more easily rallied. One more cost of entering the conflict.

America is about to get dirty in Somalia. Forget the teetering capital for a moment and take a look who apparently just arrived on the battlefield - Ahmed al Fazul. The supposed replacement for al-Qaeda commander Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, al Fazul has been on the run for years and could be back in the country according to Kenyan intelligence.

He’s also alleged to have assumed control of al-Shabab.

If the rumor is anywhere close to true America will be lured like a moth to flame - like flame to dynamite. So much for Afghanistan being the war on al-Qaeda.

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