Shabaab Somalia: In the footsteps of Taliban

Ahmed Askar, Tuesday 31 Jan 2023

Ahmed Askar keeps up with the latest in the beleaguered country

Shabaab Somalia: In the footsteps of Taliban


The Somalia-based jihadist group, Harakat Al-Shabaab Al-Mujahideen (HSM), has recently begun to escalate terrorist operations in Somalia and neighbouring Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda. Meanwhile the Somali army and the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS, which replaced the African Union Mission in Somalia) have stepped up counterterrorist operations in response to Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamed’s declaration of all-out war against Al-Shabaab when he came to power in May 2022. US forces also resumed strikes against HSM strongholds in central and southern Somalia after Washington decided to return to the counterterrorist battlefront in Somalia last year. The mounting terrorist activity aggravates the security dilemma in the country, threatening the future of the state and casting a shadow over security and stability in the Horn of Africa.

The Global Terrorism Index 2022 ranked Somalia the country most impacted by terrorism in Africa in light of Al-Shabaab’s activities. The organisation’s attacks and bombings ranged across a broad area in southern and central Somalia, including such towns as Jowhaar, Beledweyne, Merca and Baidoa. It has resulted in the killing of dozens of civilians and officials. Some    operations appear specifically intended to sow doubt about the government’s ability to protect its own institutions. On 29 July 2022, the Minister of Justice of the Southwestern Somali State Hassan Ibrahim Lugbur, was killed in a terrorist bombing in Baidoa. On 7 August 2022, HSM fighters armed with mortar rifles, attacked the presidential compound in the capital, Mogadishu. A similar attack was carried out in the capital in January this year.

Al-Shabaab have also stepped up attacks against African Union forces in Somalia, in an attempt to intimidate the African countries taking part in ATMIS. In May 2022, HSM fighters attacked the Burundi forces’ base in northern Mogadishu, killing ten Burundi soldiers and wounding around 30. They also attacked the Ugandan base in the Wanlaweyn district in the Lower Shabelle region in southern Somalia. Kenyan forces taking part in ATMIS have come under attack in various parts of the country.

The terrorist movement has increasingly focused on soft targets. A salient example is the attack on Hayat Hotel in Mogadishu on 21 August, killing at least 22 civilians and injuring 30. Soft targets present opportunities for more frequent and more lethal strikes as they tend to be less protected and more populated. Also, the diversification makes it harder to predict where the terrorists will strike next.

HSM attacks outside Somalia have included an incursion into Ethiopia on 20 July 2022. Some 400 Al-Shabaab fighters infiltrated the Ethiopian Somali Region in an attempt to gain a foothold in that area. Ethiopian authorities claim they defeated the attackers. The jihadist organisation has also increased attacks across the Somali border with Kenya. On 2 August 2022 they launched a mortar attack against a Kenyan army base in the Konton area near Mandera in the North East region of Kenya, wounding several Kenyan soldiers. The assault followed two similar attacks, in June and July, against Kenyan military targets in Mandera and Garissa, which is also in the North East region.

On 19 January 2023, the Somali government announced plans to expand military operations in cooperation with some pro-government tribal militias as part of drive to contain the terrorist threat in southern and central Somalia. The army’s efforts will continue to be backed by US airstrikes against HSM strongholds in those areas. However, they are clearly up against a relentless adversary, determined to continue with attacks against Somali government as well as regional and international targets, sending a message to the international community that it has the ability to recover, readjust and sustain its operations until it attains its long-term objective of staging a Somali iteration of the Taliban experience in Afghanistan.

The HSM’s main goal is to overthrow the government in Mogadishu in preparation for establishing rule by Sharia Law as they interpret it. Escalation has the immediate tactical aim of wreaking attrition on the Somali army in the hope of curbing the frequency and intensity of    the government’s military operations against their strongholds in the south and centre of the country. Another purpose is to hamper the development of the Somali army and security forces which threaten the movement’s influence in the areas it controls.

The HSM has also set its crosshairs on the Somalian army’s foreign supporters. Al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Diriye, also known as Abu Ubaidah, has vowed to defeat ATMIS troops and drive them out of Somalia before the end of their mandate in 2024. The surge in attacks against African forces are also intended to dissuade other African countries from sending troops to Somalia. In response to HMS threats, US Ambassador to Somalia Larry André has stated that Al-Shabaab would never gain control of Somalia and that the Taliban experience would not be repeated in the Horn of Africa.

In order to sustain itself and its operations, the HSM has sought to gain control over natural resources in the area, such as the oil and gas reserves in eastern Ethiopia. It also runs smuggling operations dealing in, for example, Somali coal and weapons from Yemen. Its revenues from such lucrative trade are reflected in the growth of its own armament capacities as well as its ability to recruit supporters, compounding the threat it poses to Somalia and international interests in the region.

Al-Shabaab’s ambitions go beyond Somalia and, amid the shifting regional security situation, it hopes to raise its profile as a force to be reckoned with regionally. According to US intelligence sources, the HSM has between 7,000 and 12,000 fighters and spends about $24 million a year, about a quarter of its budget, on arms, explosives and drones. Not only is this growing force meant to signal to the international community that the movement is strong enough to spread to other countries in the area but it has also strengthened its influence within Al-Qaeda whose leadership cadres have been in flux since the death of Ayman Al-Zawahiri.

The organisation’s incursion into Ethiopia suggests that it plans to develop a larger regional terrorist network. Most likely, it was searching for allies within Ethiopia to strengthen its influence there, building strongholds in southeastern Ethiopia from which to launch strikes deeper into the Ethiopian interior. Establishing a foothold in Ethiopia could also give Al-Shabaab other staging grounds for  attacks at Kenya and perhaps Uganda and South Sudan. The threat to security in the Horn of Africa is clear, which is exactly what Al-Shabaab wants. Destabilisation spreads fear and helps disseminate the message that others in the region are within the movement’s reach.

HSM is likely to try to escalate further both domestically and regionally in the coming period, with the aim of bolstering its bid to establish itself as the leader of all jihadist movements in East Africa, thereby strengthening its position within Al-Qaeda’s hierarchy. At the same time, it will continue its drive to weaken Somali and ATMIS forces. The growing threat to regional stability and security that Al-Shabaab poses jeopardises international strategic interests in the Horn of Africa, not least the international maritime routes and trade in the Red Sea.

Should the danger mount, it may necessitate an international intervention.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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