August 6, 2011

Predicting Somalia’s Chaotic Winds

Have Mogadishu’s clouds just parted or is the capital merely passing through another eye of an undying storm? That is the question African Union commanders are scrambling to answer after al-Shabaab abruptly vacated its positions in the city. Witnesses on the outskirts of Mogadishu cheered the exit of “at least nine battle wagons full of Al-Shabab fighters” moving out early Saturday morning. Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda, AMISOM’s spokesman would only respond, "We are verifying reports of a withdrawal,” and warned that “it could be a trap.”

Meanwhile Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) pounced on al-Shabaab’s movements as certain retreat. President Sheikh Shairf Sheikh Ahmed attempted to steal the AU’s thunder by welcoming, “the success by the Somali government forces backed by AMISOM who defeated the enemy of Shabab." Declaring the news a “golden victory for the Somali people,” government spokesman Abdirahman Omar Osman attributed this development to “the end of the last phase of clearing al-Shabaab out of Mogadishu.’’

al-Shabaab spokesman Ali Mohamed Rage countered by telling the group’s Andalus radio station that the forces in question are repositioning for a counter-attack. Al Jazeera's Peter Greste added that al-Shabaab officials "insist that this is not a retreat but an adjustment of tactics and they will not abandon Mogadishu.” Sheik Rage vowed in Terminator fashion, “We will be back soon.”

The truth probably lies in the middle of this haze, complicating TFG/AU efforts to seize the opportunity.

AMISOM’s latest assault began last Thursday with the stated intention of preempting al-Shabaab’s Ramadan offensive. Surrounding the Bakaara market on the west, south and east, AU units moved through Hawl Wardag on their way to Wardhigley, where al-Shabaab had fortified Mogadiscio stadium. That AMISOM generated increasing pressure on the insurgency’s remaining positions is evident in its troop movements. Only a year ago al-Shabaab was launching its offensives straight out of Bakaara towards Villa Somalia, whereas the AU has now secured the notorious arms bazaar in addition to Mogadiscio stadium.

However the known facts don’t appear to indicate a pure retreat. Somali Defense Minister Hussein Arab Esse accurately remarked from the stadium, "It is of major significance, but the war is not over yet.” First, the government’s held eight districts still represent the capital’s smaller half; a wide front and al-Shabab’s remaining districts occupy vast expanses of lowly-populated terrain (many Somalis have relocated to TFG territory). Although the open tracks mean a loss of civilian cover, this type of territory can still sustain a prolonged urban battle. Several al-Qaeda strongholds are rumored to be embedded within Abdi Aziz and Karan, on the other side of Mogadishu. al-Shabaab also vacated Huriwa district, to the north, in preemption of oncoming AU forces.

The heavy battles that supposedly drove al-Shabaab from its remaining territory occurred on contested ground, in Bondhere, Hawl Wardag and Wardhigley. Rage explained that al-Shabaab has finally decided to change its “fighting strategy into hit and run attacks, where the mujahideen will attack on the spot wherever government and African Union forces are based.” Referring to Somalis, “Every one of you will feel the change in every corner and every street in Mogadishu. We will defend you and continue the fighting."

Leaving al-Shabaab’s futile “hearts and minds” campaign aside, Rage’s description represents more than a tactical reorganization of units, positions, weapons and maneuvers. In switching from holding territory against numerically superior forces (a violation of guerrilla warfare) to mobile warfare based out of distance, al-Shabaab hopes to undergo a strategic shift in Mogadishu. The strategy enjoys several benefits, including the basic concept of avoiding direct battle with conventional forces. Entrenched positions only offer the appearance of strength to an insurgent, and allowing the AU to converge its forces on sequential positions has robbed al-Shabaab of the all-important initiative.

Ceding its remaining districts before the AU nears them suggests an acceptance of their mistakes; mobile warfare throughout Mogadishu’s 16 districts regains some operational independence, and could thin AMISOM’s forces as it attempts to control the whole capital. One Somali official also downplayed leadership splits to Long War Journal, theorizing that al-Shabaab couldn’t have executed a surprise withdrawal without a functioning hierarchy.

Most importantly, the TFG must now fill al-Shabaab’s vacuum before total lawlessness takes hold. President Ahmed has already declared Somalia’s two enemies - “al-Shabaab and looters” - and police are reportedly moving into the districts. Yet lightly armed units will be no match for al-Shabaab, and the TFG will presumably struggle to expand its authority and services. How the government responds to this event will shape long-term perceptions, for better or worse.

That being said, al-Shabaab will further expose itself while rearranging its forces inside and outside Mogadishu. Losing the capital, even briefly, is a major psychological blow and will propel the TFG/AU’s momentum. al-Shabaab will also lose whatever revenue it was generating in its districts, which may not be substantial if the group is truly low on funds. Mobile warfare also needs bases to operate and unless the insurgency bases itself completely out of Mogadishu (a process complicated by TFG/AU checkpoints), al-Shabaab must take roving shelter inside the city. Cadres should be able to run in cycles but not indefinitely; losing its final ounces of popular support comes with heavy consequences.

“It is time to harvest the fruits of peace,” declared President Ahmed. “I call on the Somali people to help and to support their soldiers and point out any Shabab member hiding in homes."

While al-Shabaab has chosen a strategy that it should have reverted to months ago, a down-grade occurred by definition. al-Shabaab had reached the final phases of insurgency, relatively speaking, by massing in the capital and nearly toppling the TFG. Insurgencies make or break themselves at this point and al-Shabaab broke, necessitating a de-evolution to reorganize its structure. The group can only stall for time now; defeating the government is no longer possible. Soon another 3,000 AU troops may land in Mogadishu, pushing AMISOM’s total to 12,000, and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni is eager to deploy more so long as the West wires the cash. Mogadishu can still engulf a force of 15,000, however al-Shabaab would likely face too much resistance to operate effectively.

"We need more troops now than ever before,” Ankunda said. “The area has become too big for the force to cover.”

Conversely, al-Shabaab’s strategic shift extrapolates to its entire territory. Once Mogadishu is lost, the TFG and AU will almost certainly encounter mobile warfare in al-Shabaab’s southern regions - and loads of al-Qaeda manufactured IED’s. Rage insisted that no similar pullout has taken place in the group’s other cities, when the inverse may be occurring: cede Mogadishu in order to maintain control of the south. As the TFG, Ethiopian troops and Ahlu Sunna have pinned down al-Shabaab's rear to free up Mogadishu, the insurgency could shift to diversionary measures in the capital to obstruct an invasion into the south.

Both Ahmed and Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali have already cast their gaze on “the rest of the country,” which “will soon be liberated too.” The New York Times mentions the 2006 retreat all the way to Kenya’s jungles, and locals report al-Shabaab movements towards Merka, nearly 65 miles south of Mogadishu, and Brava another 80 miles down the road. Troops were also reported in Afgoye, 20 miles west of Mogadishu, and to the northern Middle Shabele could be setting up a new line of defense in these outlying towns.

The above distances also provide a relative impression of the vast territory under al-Shabaab’s de facto control. Kismayo, the group’s main southern stronghold and port, lies 250 miles from Brava and and Kenya 125 miles in the distance. Doolow, a border town on the western flank, runs a 300 mile gauntlet back to Mogadishu, while al-Shabaab continues to operate as far north as Galguduud region. These dimensions multiply to 100,000+ square miles. Due to rising popularity the TFG and AU possess an opportunity to restore a semblance of order, but their task isn’t much easier than al-Shabaab’s. Rural warfare outside of the capital will be brutal.

As for the opportunity in Mogadishu and its surrounding area, where IDP camps continue to struggling with feeding the starving masses, military expansion continues to hover in AU minds. Major General Nathan Mugisha, AMISOM’s former commander, recently offered the AU’s protection to aid organizations, manifesting the AU’s previous claim of opening aid routes through Mogadishu. In reality the AU used this pretext to sweep through Bakaara, but guarding aid routes would provide a foothold as AMISOM expands beyond the capital.

The immediate problem is that political affiliation increases the risk of approving and distributing aid in al-Shabaab territory. Mark Bowden, the U.N.'s top official in charge of humanitarian aid in Somalia, quickly shot down the idea: "Humanitarian responses in Somalia must be civilian-led. In the highly politicized context of south-central Somalia, relying on military assistance will not be effective. It is important that aid is seen as being impartial and independent of all political action.”

Despite the TFG’s supportive position on military intervention, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also ruled out the possibility during a meeting with Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird. Attempting to place Somalia and al-Shabaab “in the broader context,” the Secretary told reporters that “millions of people are suffering, and those millions of people are in Ethiopia and Kenya; they are in parts of Somalia that are not controlled by al-Shabaab. So there is more than enough work for the international community to do to help save lives without even having to worry about the al-Shabaab controlled areas.”

While this statement is true enough, it would not be surprising to see a few well-placed air-strikes attempt to find al-Shabaab’s weak points.

In the end, though, al-Shabaab wasn’t run out of Mogadishu by drones and the loss of senior leadership. The TFG’s attempts to change its image and behavior, coupled with the AU’s conventional force, applied sufficient pressure to al-Shabaab’s weaknesses. Traces of genuine COIN, not single-minded counter-terrorism, are responsible for any tangible gains, thus failure to institute authority will erode them.

This is the real lesson from Mogadishu’s battlefield.


  1. The sheer scale of the emergency has forced Al-Shabab's hand, imo. It banned the World Food Program (WFP) and other international aid organizations from operating in its territory in February 2010. The movement’s local administrations have distributed food, water, medicines, and zakat, the annual charitable donation required of financially capable Muslims, to the poor. They have also conducted campaigns to vaccinate livestock and improve irrigation and farming. Last year they also accused the aid organizations of undercutting local farmers, distributing expired food leading to the spread of disease, and of having “covert political objectives”. In early July a spokesman, Ali Rage, announced that the ban was lifted and the movement was willing to allow in both Muslim and non-Muslim aid organizations to assist the population. Administrators from the WFP and other organizations quickly said that they were willing to work with insurgent leaders in facilitating the distribution of aid to millions of Somalis. However, after the UN declared famine in two districts, Bakool and Lower Shabelle, which are both under Al-Shabab control, A-S backtracked on their original call for international famine assistance. In a July press conference in Mogadishu, Rage accused the UN of having “external political motives” and of politicizing the famine as well as exaggerating its extent. He said the WFP was still banned. Chaos indeed.

  2. The drought and famine left al-Shabaab little choice except to concentrate on its own territory, which is becoming increasingly unstable. Now Mogadishu becomes a giant diversion. We could learn more of al-Shabaab's leadership once its aid policy reacts to Mogadishu's developments. I'm not expecting a unified decision any time soon, however the group does need to allow aid into its region to have any hope of counter-attacking in Mogadishu.