November 14, 2011

al-Shabaab Commanders Reported Dead in Afogye Missile Strike

Two weeks ago a large explosion rocked the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) humanitarian camp in Jilib, located in the watershed of Somalia’s southern Jubba River. In addition to at least 45 wounded, somewhere between five civilians and 10 al-Shabaab fighters were reportedly killed in the blast. Kenyan officials disputed local accounts of an errant air-strike, claiming that al-Shabaab drove an exploding technical into the MSF camp.

Although the aftermath remains hazy - Nairobi has yet to release an investigation - several facts emerged from the initial chaos. Military spokesman Emmanuel Chirchir took immediate responsibly for the blast in order to contain its fallout, explaining that intelligence suspected an al-Shabaab meeting in the area. Jilib’s collateral damage also prompted Chirchir to alert locals and residents in eight other towns that they “will be under attack continuously.”

Regardless of al-Shabaab’s disapproval, Kenya cannot afford repeated civilian casualties in southern Somalia.

Chirchir’s warning reverberated throughout Somalia’s geopolitical sphere. Locals report a pervasive fear surrounding Kenya’s uncertain strikes and al-Shabaab’s defensive maneuvers; the group is arming locals and has split into smaller groups to avoid aerial bombardment. Regional observers similarly questioned whether Nairobi’s threat is real and, if so, how far it extends into Somalia. Attacks on Jilib, Baardheere, Baraawe, Baidoa and Afogye would take Kenyan warplanes hundreds of miles beyond the Lower Jubba administration, where ground forces are currently grinding towards Kismayo and Afmadow.

Sunday night’s strike on Afogye, located 20 miles northwest of Mogadishu, answered at least one question: every town on Chirchir’s list does live under the threat of air-strike.

The rest of
Afogye’s details remain clouded by debris and Somalia’s natural hazards. Locals report an explosion at an al-Shabaab meeting near the Tadamun orphanage (upwards of four explosions were recorded in total), and described streaks of light before impact. Anonymous U.S. sources rejected involvement in the raid, while an al-Shabaab official described an off-shore missile attack and no casualties. Chirchir has already denied Kenyan responsibility while Lieutenant Colonel Paddy Ankunda, the AU’s spokesman in Somalia, informed reporters that “we are still trying to gather information."

Confirmed casualties have yet to be released, but local officials and media are reporting the deaths of several al-Shabaab commanders: Moktar Ali “Ahmed Godane” Zubeyr and Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys.

As the situation stands, every available piece of information agrees on a missile strike originating from the Indian Ocean. Since Kenya would presumably take credit for the deaths of two high-ranking figures, that leaves an American or French warship as the missiles’ source. French activity has been reported in the Baraawe area, 100 miles south of Mogadishu, and all the way past Kismayo, so this option cannot be ruled out. Either possibility, though, leads to the same conclusion. If CIA and Special Forces agents operating in Mogadishu didn’t pass the intel onto the French, a U.S. missile strike appears to be the likeliest outcome in Afogye.

The strike itself may not yield an expected bounty either. Senior al-Shabaab leaders have been falsely reported dead in the past - most recently after Kenya’s air-strike on Jilib. Furthermore, the elimination of Zubeyr and Aweys could lead to unexpected results within al-Shabaab’s command. Zubeyr is no longer chief of al-Shabaab, a position he held from late 2008 to December 2010, after being removed by al-Qaeda’s own local leadership. A transnational jihadist born in Somaliland, Zubeyr picked several fights within the group’s national leadership, one with his deputy Sheikh Mukhtar Robow and another with Aweys.

The latter had made several unsuccessful attempts to merge his Hizbul Islam with al-Shabaab, and was finally accepted just as Zubeyr was replaced by Robow’s proxy, Ibrahim "al-Afghani.”

Preexisting animosity between Zubeyr and Aweys suggests multiple outcomes: their meeting could be fabricated, or the ICU veterans of Ethiopia’s invasion decided to cooperate against Kenya’s Operation Linda Nchi. That the Zubeyr and Aweys would meet by themselves seems unlikely, so additional commanders could have been killed in the strike on Afogye. If, however, Zubeyr and Aweys were terminated in isolation, their absence shouldn’t noticeably impact al-Shabaab’s operations. Not only would Zubeyr’s removal boost the group’s nationalist leadership, al-Shabaab retains a bench of commanders to draw on.

If worst comes to worst (al-Qaeda generally saves its Americans), the U.S.-born Omar Shafik Hammami could take the group’s reigns to poke al-Shabaab’s finger in Washington’s eye.

A leadership change isn’t necessarily wanted during a foreign invasion, but Zubeyr replaced the Aweys-schooled Aden Hashi "Ayrow" Farah after he was killed in a U.S. air-strike. The same process will repeat in the event of another “decapitation” strike. While this outcome isn’t reason to avoid high-value raids, al-Shabaab’s ranks cannot be eliminated by air power alone. Nairobi, Mogadishu and Washington need ground troops to secure contested towns like Afogye, Baidoa and Baardheere, otherwise government authority will not be restored.

Changing Somalia’s environment remains the only sustainable policy for reducing and ultimately destroying al-Shabaab’s network.

[Full analysis published ASAP]

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