December 29, 2012

Al-Shabaab Staying Mobile To Survive

Somalia's next non-battle is headed for Bulo Burde, a minor town strategically placed along the highway from Mogadishu to Ethiopia's border. Progressively jettisoned from its territory by a combined force of Somali and African Union soldiers - Beledweyne to Baidoa, Merka, Kismayo and recently Jowhar - al-Shabaab is running out of places to run to. Ahmed Abdullahi, a local security official in Bulo Burde's Hiiran region, says that he's received information on the incoming movements of senior al-Shabaab commanders, citing eyewitnesses and government intelligence.

"According to what we have been told by Bulo Burde residents, some al-Shabaab leaders such as Yusuf Sheikh Isse, who is in charge of the Middle Shabelle region, and other leaders have been coming to this town," Abdullahi told Sabahi. "Since the allied forces took over the city of Jowhar, field commanders of the group have been relocating from areas of Middle Shabelle to eastern Hiran."

Local Al-Qaeda boss Muktar "Ahmed Godane" Zubeyr is also rumored to be traveling in the Hiran and neighboring Bakool, although this information is obviously less reliable than al-Shabaab's presence in Hiran.

Somali and AMISOM forces plan to change the battlefield's dynamics by slicing through Hiran and cutting al-Shabaab's logistics between the north and south. The group lost a large portion of its southern territory over 2012 and has reportedly shifted northward towards Puntland to compensate, leading AMISOM in the same direction. By pushing al-Shabaab out of Bulo Burde and clearing a path from Mogadishu to Beledweyne, Somali and AU commanders intend to block al-Shabaab's migration and contain the insurgency to the central regions, where its remaining forces can be attacked from all sides.

General Abdullahi Ali Anood of Somalia's First Battalion explained to Sabahi, "We are preparing for a bloody battle against al-Shabaab to prevent it from rebuilding its infrastructure and regrouping, and [its fighters] will be unable to find a safe haven in which to hide."

However al-Shabaab is more likely to follow its current trend and move out of Bulo Burde before major fighting develops. Mined roads, ambushes and skirmishes usually precede a swift withdrawal into outlying areas, and al-Shabaab lacks the necessary manpower to mount a counteroffensive against hundreds of armored troops. Even an unconventional defense will exceed their available resources and the town isn't worth so much as to risk much. Said Mohamed Ali Mohamed, a retired captain in the Somali National Security Service, told Sabahi that he expects the insurgents to melt away into the surrounding forests.

"As we have seen in previous months, al-Shabaab fighters have been retreating from all the towns without any resistance as soon as allied forces approach."

The insurgency now has little to do except play cat and mouse with AMISOM. With few towns left to rally around, one of them being Bardera, al-Shabaab must keep moving through rural terrain and stay on the urban defensive at the same time. The group must also find a way to replenish its financial and military resources after losing its grip on Mogadishu and Kismayo, as Ali Mohamed notes: "it will not be able to obtain the necessary funding to reorganize itself and fund its military operations."

"Al-Shabaab's withdrawal from strategic cities to rural areas does not mean that they have chosen to disengage from direct combat in order to avoid heavy losses," he said. "What it means is that the group is unable to withstand the attacks and defend the areas it controls so its members are fleeing to rural areas for protection."

This conclusion is true to a point - many analysts have left al-Shabaab for dead - but the two outcomes aren't mutually exclusive. While the difference between offensive and defensive avoidance is significant, only foolish or suicidal guerrillas would make a desperation stand and forget to fight another day. Al-Shabaab has certainly regressed from its peak strength in 2009 after AMISOM proportionally increased its own, and now assumes a rudimentary form of insurgency. Worse still for the group, rural warfare works best when fueled by popular support, not carried out in continually hostile areas. The fundamental problem is that insurgencies evolve and devolve over long periods of time (al-Shabaab being a 20-year continuation of Operation Gothic Serpent), and their demise or resurrection often depends on specific conditions of the environment. 

Loss of irreplaceable leadership is one of many, and al-Shabaab's commanders have managed to keep themselves alive with multi-million dollar bounties on their heads. Changing this factor could alter the group for better or worse depending on the target's faction.

Al-Shabaab also lacks foreign sanctuary to take shelter and the foreign cash to survive, so they must make do with Puntland's mountains and Kenya's porous border. The insurgency has run low on options due to their leadership disputes, lack of unit cohesion between nationalists and foreigners, and harsh treatment of Somalis, forcing the group to ride out hard times or endure disintegration. The most realistic strategy is to wait and hope: hope the new Somali government falters (possibly in Kismayo), hope Uganda or another African state loses Western funding due to internal disputes, and hope that survival gains a new respect from potential recruits.

Al-Shabaab must reorganize over time, shed dead weight and rebrand itself with a nationalist agenda, thus these moves should be expected by African and Western governments in 2013.

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