July 9, 2011

al-Shabab Regroups Under UN Umbrella

Earlier this week a slight drizzle descended on the Somali people from an unlikely source.

"We have now decided to welcome all Muslim and non-Muslim aid agencies to assist the drought-stricken Somalis in our areas," said Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, spokesman for al-Shabab. "All aid agencies whose objective is only humanitarian relief are free to operate in our area. We are standing by to provide any assistance they need if their exact desire is helping the droughts affected people.”

Until recently the group had blocked humanitarian aid from reaching people inside its southern territory. Either Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) was using aid groups to spy on their movements, or the aid groups themselves were spying for Western capitals. Neither accusation is more than an exaggerated threat to maintain influence, but with al-Shabab’s fortunes trending downward after a relatively successful 2010, it appears to have decided that blocking aid constitutes a more immediate threat. Now Somalis, the UN and Washington must dissect al-Shabab’s sincerity and ascertain the realistic impact of an aid influx.

The answer is likely to mirror the results of al-Shabab’s strategic balancing act. Consider its motivation for opening up its territory: to take advantage of this aid for themselves, to halt a migration to government territory, to counter the TFG and African Union (AU) burgeoning success in Mogadishu, and preemptively block a campaign into the south. Its first objective may automatically jeopardize the others if pursued to the extreme, as Mark Bowden warned against interfering in the UN’s operations.

“I welcome the suspension of restrictions on aid agencies and I am happy to cooperate with anybody who can help to alleviate the current crisis and save hundreds of Somali lives,” said the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia. “We stand ready to scale up assistance in southern Somalia but need guarantees that humanitarian workers can operate safely in the area and will not be targeted or agencies taxed.”
Thus al-Shabab may procure only a nominal amount of aid for its own ranks.

While keeping Somalis within its own territory could see more tangible results, this task is extraordinarily daunting. A historic drought has yielded a deathly level of food production - boosting the overall cost of food by 50% - and the UN estimates that number of malnourished children increased from 376,000 to 476,000 in the first half of 2011. Southern areas under Al-Shabaab control are pegged near 80%. The number of people in urgent need of humanitarian assistance also increased to 2.85 million people in the first half of 2011, a yearly increase of nearly 850,000.

“The current situation in southern Somalia is the worst it has been in the last decade and if humanitarian interventions do not occur immediately, thousands of people will die,” warned the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). “The suspension of some humanitarian activities in southern areas has affected millions of people in southern Somalia for the last two years. Now, the situation has become unbearable because of the drought and a catastrophic rise in food prices meaning that many families can no longer afford a daily meal.”

The scale of Somalia’s humanitarian disaster means that al-Shabab’s respite came too late. Some Somalis will remain in its territory because they have no way of moving. Others will be stopped from relocating. A sizable portion, though, may find their way north to Mogadishu. al-Shabab fears this possibility most.

Releasing humanitarian aid is ultimately intended to counter the TFG and AU’s recent military success, starting with the halt of displaced Somalis. By finally bowing to local needs, al-Shabab must expect a modest boost in popularity. In the last six months the TFG has made a notable effort to reconnect with Somalis, and al-Shabab must realize that the government is no longer as unpopular or as weak as before. The decision appears to have caused a new rift inside the group’s leadership, but allowing foreign aid was one of the few options to countering the government’s growing appeal.

Ahmed Abdi Godane, al-Shabab’s former chief, recently admitted that the group is suffering from high level casualties and a government spy ring. As Godane was cast out of leadership in December 2010, his statements must be viewed with a degree of skepticism. However a kernel truth does lie within his candid propaganda, whether or not al-Shabab's second-in-command was killed by a U.S. air-strike. (Godane was evicted by Mukhtar (Abu Mansur) Robow, al-Shabab's deputy in command, who subsequenty replaced Godane with Ibrahim al Afghani.)

The need to work with aid agencies might also be exploited against incoming government operations. While Mogadishu is far from secure, the AU and TFG have seized a number of neighborhoods and districts from al-Shabab. Along the group’s western front, TFG forces backed by Ethiopian armor and Ahlu Sunna Waljama'a, a Somali paramilitary group tentatively allied with the TFG and funded by Ethiopia, have obstructed al-Shabab from sending reinforcements north. With the AU now consolidating its gains and the TFG preparing new units in Kenya and Uganda, the TFG’s defense ministry has openly declared a looming operation into al-Shabab’s Gedo and Lower Jubba regions.
The group might be thinking that humanitarian aid could blunt this operation.

To return to the overriding question, then, al-Shabab is likely to experience partial military success at best. The UN has voiced its intent to proceed cautiously and won’t rush into battle only to become human shields. The scale of Somalia's humanitarian disaster already exceeds the UN's basic capabilities, and a sluggish response will increase the starving and displaced. Nor will all Somalis trust al-Shabab’s word, and the group cannot afford to lose more of its population to government territory. Conversely, its ploy may slow the TFG and AU’s military gears while al-Shabab’s offering is verified and tested. At least one of its objectives has been temporarily achieved: confuse the enemy.

Yet the group’s leadership needs months, not weeks, to regroup, and even then the balance of power may have shifted beyond al-Shabab’s control. It won’t be surprising if al-Shabab toys with the UN for as long as possible, until it comes up with a new strategy to regain lost ground.

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