January 16, 2011

Anticipating al-Shabab’s Diversions

al-Shabab hears the chatter out of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), the rattling of the African Union's (AU) saber, and the echo from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. It knows what’s coming.

“The increasing troop strength (from 8,000 to 12,000) will provide AMISOM with much needed additional strength... to gain full control of Mogadishu,” Augustine Mahiga, the UN’s Special Representative for Somalia, told the Security Council as Prime Minister Mohammed Abdullahi Mohammed met with Ki-moon in New York.

With the TFG and AU's mandates expiring in August and September, officials have vowed to seize the entire capital and work their way south from there. So how will al-Shabab react?

Having merged with Hizbul-Islam in December, al-Qaeda’s Somali leadership reportedly sorted out al-Shabab’s power struggle by booting chief Moktar Ali Zubeyr “Godane,” who opposed Hizbul-Islam chief Hassan Aweys. These matters settled for the time being, the group naturally responded with a new call to arms. al-Qaeda supposedly replaced Zubeyr with Kismayo governor Ibrahim Haji Jama Mee'aad "al-Afghani,” and his spokesman Hassan Yaqub Ali was the first to exhort al-Shabab fighters towards Mogadishu.

The nationalistic Mukhtar “Abu Mansur” Robow, al-Shabab’s deputy and victor over the transnationalist Zubeyr, then issued his own call to battle from Baidoa, the regional capital of Bay. It seems safe to say that al-Shabab is organizing a new counteroffensive to take back lost sections of Mogadishu, and contain the AU’s reinforcements from advancing south.

Another strategy could also be in play though. In the aftermath of al-Shabab and al-Qaeda’s July 11th bombings of two Kampala establishments, the UN quickly raised the force limit to allow for Ugandan reinforcements. al-Shabab responded with its “Ramadan offensive,” but other militants began to come online around the same time. It was during this early August vacuum between Kampala and Ramadan that Puntland’s leading militant, Mohamed Said Atom, burst onto the scene.

Although the two groups both deny cooperating, they also drop periodic hints of fighting the same war.

The ensuing skirmishes didn’t fundamentally alter Somalia’s tactical situation. However, the lingering security tensions between Puntland and Somaliland have given rise to occasional accusations that each covertly supports al-Shabab or various clans. Puntland officials have accused Somaliland’s administration of sheltering al-Shabab militants in the Sanaag region, an allegation it strongly denies. The resulting ambiguity has also lead to numerous security deployments by Somaliland, which Puntland routinely opposes.

The former wishes to declare independence, the latter to remain part of a national Somalia.

Last Tuesday, Puntland Fisheries Minister Mohamed Farah Aden issued a press release condemning Somaliland’s “militarist land expansion,” and demanded that 300 troops withdraw from the disputed Ayn region. Deployed in November as Puntland cabinet officials mediated a clan conflict, Aden accused Somaliland of supporting the Isaaq clan of Somaliland over Puntland’s Harti clan.

Now, with a new report claiming that Somaliland forces arrested five al-Shabab agents in Burao, another diversion may lie in store for the TFG and AU. According to local sources, one suspect was identified as residing in Somaliland, while the other four “came from Mogadishu.” al-Shabab has reportedly maintained cells in Burao, Somaliland’s second largest city of about 400,000, since the group rose to prominence in 2007.

“I assure you that the detained men are all from al-Shabab faction, and they are combined of natives of Somaliland and some others from Somalia,” said a resident witness. “Lately we have been hearing gossips that al-Shabab are grouping themselves here in Burco, we have also been hearing that operations will soon be conducted, and it has now come.”

Adding to the confusion, local witnesses spoke of the presence of “foreign fighters," telling Garowe, “an unidentified aircraft flew overhead Burao several times and landed at the town's small airstrip ahead of the police raid. It was unclear what country the foreign soldiers came from, but witnesses described the soldiers and the military equipment as British or another Western country.”

Given the many “witnesses” and the local government’s silence, what exactly is unfolding in Somaliland remains a mystery. It may be that one al-Shabab cell was simply raided. Yet militants in these territories appear to make noise in response to AU military activity in Mogadishu. Physical altercations serve to drive a political wedge between Somalia’s regional construct, and cloud the West’s position as well.

Or maybe Zubeyr, a Somaliland native who opposes the region's aspirations for independence, is plotting his own designs.

In any event, al-Shabab will likely create diversionary maneuvers to accompany its reinforcements to Mogadishu. These could emerge in the northern Galguduud region, or to the far north. Anything to drain the time remaining on the TFG’s mandate, and to draw attention away from its southern stronghold.

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