Several days ago Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys gave an interview with an al-Shabaab-run radio station. Only after passing through severe foreign interference did his explanation of the group’s withdrawal from Mogadishu reach Western media, front-loaded with analysis that the group is increasingly split between northerner and southerner, nationalist and al-Qaeda. al-Shabaab may be experiencing its latest leadership dispute in reacting to Somalia’s historic drought, but one must look beyond its commanders for evidence.
“The differences are that brought of the nature of the humans,” Aweys explained. “If there is a division among us I can say it is not bothering one but it is only correcting one... We could not stand to resist the armored tanks which AMISOM uses so we had to invent new tactics of guerrilla war.”
Officials from Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the African Union (AU) have attempted to downplay impressions that al-Shabaab fighters tactically withdrew from the capital. Understandably unnerved by the potential loss of credibility, regional officials have highlighted good governance and counterinsurgency as the keys to success. AMISOM Force Commander Maj. Gen. Fred Mugisha recently told reporters, “They did not abandon Mogadishu of their own free will.”
“The Al Shabaab propaganda has gone into high gear, telling the world that the militants’ sudden withdrawal from Mogadishu was a strategic and tactical maneuver,” Opiyo Oloya writes in Uganda’s New Vision. “The reality on the ground, however, tells a different story. The simple fact is that Al Shabaab could not match the deliberate but steady advance of the AMISOM forces.”
Oloya’s reporting is solid despite the propaganda of his own sponsored visit with AMISOM, but this apparent paradox isn’t mutually exclusive. African Union (AU) troops have brought enormous pressure onto the group - civilians too - and employed Vegetius’s Golden Bridge (a maxim of Scipio) to smoke al-Shabaab out of Bakaara market. According to Uganda’s contingent commander Col. Paul Lokech, the plan always called for encircling the market and “leaving a corridor for the defeated militants to leave town.” AU troops shelled Bakaara with greater frequency than Oloya admits in his praise for AMISOM troops, yet they deserve credit for methodically clearing the city.
The battle for Bakaara could have been far bloodier.
However al-Shabaab’s withdrawal from held districts in Mogadishu and a declared switch to guerrilla tactics appear to be sources of stability during a turbulent period. The group’s fighters, though tenacious, should never have attempted to match AMISOM’s superior armed and trained forces. Relative strength allowed for trench warfare and permanent bases, but mobility and initiative was sacrificed in the process of drawing battle-lines. Only now has Mogadishu’s balance tipped against the group, necessitating a de-evolution in guerrilla structure from semi-conventional warfare. This tactical adaptation is the only available option to preserve strength and morale.
Aweys’s message doesn’t diverge from any previous statements from the group, which delivers a secondary message coming from the former Hizbul-Islam chief. The group merged with al-Shabaab in 2010 after another round of infighting ejected its leader, the transnationalist Moktar (Godane) Ali Zubeyr. Awey and Ali Zubeyr’s personal feud had spawned numerous disputes since 2009.
Were al-Shabaab fighters to sit in their holes and await AMISOM’s advance, they would be eliminated peace-meal at great cost to the insurgency’s psyche - exactly as the AU wants, of course. Enough time has passed to suggest that a military realignment is no mirage. Whether al-Shabaab succeeds or fails to implement its new tactics and strategy, the group is already roving the outskirts of Mogadishu and rearranging its forces around the capital. Pockets of insurgents remain burrowed in the outlying Heliwa and Daynile districts, to the north, with gun battles still occurring south towards Mogadiscio stadium. Squads will likely be sent deeper into government territory, each trying to penetrate further to Villa Somalia or an AU base. Although a web of sandbagged checkpoints won’t make this plan easy, al-Shabaab should have resorted to another style of warfare months ago.
Avoiding tanks, artillery, numerical superiority and static lines of defense don’t represent mere tactical “shifts,” but an overdue strategic adaptation.
The sudden withdrawal from Mogadishu - a complete turnaround from al-Shabaab’s planned Ramadan offensive - has also taken the AU off of the offensive and shifted its priority to filling space. By vacating so much uninhabited territory, the government might have a difficult time finding al-Shabaab at any given moment. Resettling Mogadishu’s displaced population is crucial to restoring the government’s authority in these “ghost districts,” which cover over a dozen square miles. Otherwise the TFG and AU could consume its military and police strength in trying to defend all points at once, a standard guerrilla objective.
In the best case scenario, Mogadishu’s constant violence and battle-lines would devolve into Kabul or Baghdad’s sporadic carnage, a situation that has proven sustainable even for unpopular groups. al-Qaeda is surviving in Iraq with minimal local or financial support, and al-Shabaab may be able to replicate this “feat.” For their part TFG and AU officials realize the pressure has shifted to them more than any other time during AMISOM’s deployment. After receiving one final blessing from Uganda President Yoweri Museveni, the TFG and AU are now under even greater pressure to restore order to Mogadishu by the time their mandate expires in August 2012.
The worst case scenario would be failure to close the present vacuum. Said Mugisha, “We need to move quickly if we are to help expand government administration and help Somalis. History will judge us for the lives we protect, not those we destroy.”
Whether consciously or unconsciously, al-Shabaab could be encouraging a power vacuum across Mogadishu, followed by re-infiltration in the softest districts. This shifts all the pressure onto the TFG to govern, potentially over-stressing its capabilities. Fresh AU troops will arrive shortly to expand the security bubble, a necessary move forward. Lt Col Paddy Ankunda, the AMISOM Force spokesperson, warned, “The pressures on the African Union AMISOM force remain incredibly high. Large areas of the city have to be cleared of these types of weapons stores and secured in the longer term so that the city can return to some semblance of normality and to do this we need more troops.”
Yet more territory to cover means more areas to govern. Many Somalis fear this scenario.
At the wider strategic level, al-Shabaab’s repositioning in Mogadishu may serve two functions to obstruct the AU forces. Now that seizing Villa Somalia is no longer feasible, the group appears to be using Mogadishu as a diversion from the south. With the AU eager to expand its presence into rural Somalia under the umbrella of humanitarian aid, al-Shabaab could be reflecting the TFG’s strategy to free up its own forces. Whereas TFG, Kenyan and Ethiopian troops (along with the proxy Ahlu Sunna militia) diverted al-Shabaab’s attention away from Mogadishu by assaulting its southwestern flank, al-Shabaab may use Mogadishu as a diversion from the south, expending limited resources to maintain a protracted harassing campaign.
Conversely, al-Shabaab might attempt to lure the AU out of Mogadishu’s relative comfort, operating under the impression that it can surprise and outmaneuver military convoys. al-Shabaab has been repositioning its forces in Bay, Lower and Middle Shabelle regions, possibly anticipating the AU's aid protection runs.
If one is looking for divisions within al-Shabaab, a switch in tactics doesn’t appear to be an optimistic starting point. National and transnational ideology, clan representation and economics remain the drivers of inner conflict, changeless from 2009 or 2010. Losing the Bakaara market is a blow, but al-Shabaab has lost a wider revenue stream to the drought, which interrupted taxation on agriculture and businesses. When coupled with its minimal popularity, the group is operating in a weaker state than the past two years, a positive sign that cannot be denied.
Except broke insurgencies can last longer than two years, even in a country with a semblance of governance. Clearing and holding are the notoriously “easy” phases of COIN. al-Shabaab appears to doubt that the TFG and AU can build - not the most irrational perspective in Somalia.