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On October 14, a terrorist bombing shook Somalia, one of the deadliest since its civil war in 1991. Hundreds were killed and wounded after a suicide bomber detonated an explosives-laden truck along a main road between Mogadishu’s K4 and K5 districts. It was but one such attack that day. The others had failed. Two weeks later, a second major attack rocked the capital on October 28, targeting the popular Naso-Hablod Hotel and killing several senior government and military officials. The gunmen who carried out the attack used uniforms and identity cards from the country’s National Intelligence and Security Agency to infiltrate the building.
After the first attack, Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo” Mohamed called for three days of national mourning and thousands of Mogadishu residents rallied to condemn al Shabaab, an al Qaeda affiliate presumed to have carried out the bombing. (It has yet to admit or deny responsibility most likely because it does not want to be seen as having killed civilians.) The group did claim the second attack, however, and it continues to wage a bitter insurgency against the federal government, regional Somali state administrations, and the 22,000-strong African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Despite the new signs of public unity across Somalia’s divided society, the question remains: Is this violent episode a signal of a resurgent al Shabaab or will it finally trigger a fundamental and lasting change in the country’s ongoing insurgency and political situation?
Just weeks before the attacks, the federal government had withdrawn its forces from two districts in the Lower and Middle Shabelle regions south of Mogadishu because of their limited ability to permanently secure the countryside. But in late September, al Shabaab insurgents overran a government military base in the town of Bariire in the Lower Shabelle region, killing eight soldiers before occupying it two weeks later once government forces left. The attacks also came amid mounting political unrest caused by increasing dissatisfaction with the Somali cabinet and tensions between the federal government and the administrations of regional Somali states over a number of issues, including whether or not to remain neutral in the ongoing feud between Qatar and the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates. Moreover, there is ongoing fury over the division of power between the central and regional governments. This political infighting has enabled al Shabaab to recalibrate. It has now rejuvenated its military capability, secured more territory than at any time since 2010, and established increasingly sophisticated and resilient media capabilities. These developments put in doubt claims from Somali and Kenyan government intelligence officials that al Shabaab is on its last legs and on the verge of collapse.
There is no question that al Shabaab has lost substantial territory since its “golden days” in 2009 and 2010. At that time, it had captured nearly all of Mogadishu. But in spring 2011, the group began to suffer a series of battlefield setbacks after AMISOM and the federal government, backed by anti-insurgent militias, launched a series of new offensives that forced the militants to withdraw from Mogadishu and most of the urban centers they held. Ethiopia’s and Kenya’s military interventions in western and southern Somalia further eroded al Shabaab’s territorial hold between late 2011 and 2014. The insurgent group eventually abandoned the lucrative port city of Kismaayo and the town of Baraawe, its last maritime stronghold.
During the course of this international campaign against al Shabaab, the group faced internal divisions. Between 2012 and 2013, the group’s then emir, Ahmed Godane, and his loyalists fought against his critics within the group, which included a number of its popular and influential founding leaders, such as Mukhtar “Abu Mansur” Robow, Ibrahim al-Afghani, and Mu’allim Burhan, and the American Omar Hammami, the group’s public face for its Western fighters. Robow and a few other insurgent officials eventually left the group, enabling Godane and his loyalists to retain control of the organization. Relatively few of its rank-and-file fighters deserted, and all of its shadow regional governors stayed on. By September 2013, al Shabaab had tracked down its remaining opposition figures—Afghani, Burhan, and Hammami—and had them killed.
But Godane was eventually taken down by a U.S. drone strike, and this August, after four years of being effectively out of al Shabaab, Robow turned himself in to government forces. Although this was an important symbolic victory for the government, al Shabaab remains a largely unified organization under its new leader, Ahmed “Abu Ubaidah” Umar. Despite its setbacks between 2011 and 2014, it began to restructure itself and adjust its operational and political strategy in line with changes on the ground. By 2015, the insurgent group began to launch successful attacks on the technologically superior AMISOM forces, overrunning Ugandan and Kenyan military bases at Janaale, El Adde, and Kulbiyow and ambushing reinforcements along pre-scouted travel routes. These attacks led AMISOM and government forces to curtail their patrols in the countryside and instead hunker down inside their operating bases. This effectively gave the insurgents the freedom to expand their territory. Al Shabaab has also faced down the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and its loyalists in the northern semiautonomous region of Puntland by dramatically reasserting itself in June and launching a deadly surprise attack on a government military camp in the region. ISIS defectors have also been effectively tracked down and arrested or killed by al Shabaab’s internal security apparatus, the Amniyat.
During this time, the group reasserted its control over local residents, most of whom are unable to seek the protection of AMISOM and government forces. Even in Mogadishu, merchants continue to pay “protection money” to al Shabaab and locals are increasingly seeking dispute resolution at its sharia courts outside of the city because of their distrust of the government. Al Shabaab also continues to hold public events such as communal prayers and celebrations marking the Islamic holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. In Jilib and other towns across southern, western, and central Somalia still under its control, the group also enforces the rulings of its sharia courts. This involves public floggings, amputations, and executions.
This is not to say the group’s credibility is not at stake. It is possible that al Shabaab has remained silent about the recent bombing because there has been such widespread public condemnation of the violence. The group may fear that claiming responsibility for the incident will backfire. In December 2009, for example, a suicide bomber, presumed to have been dispatched by the group, attacked a graduation ceremony in Mogadishu for Benadir University medical students, killing many of them and wounding scores more. At first al Shabaab took credit for the attack, but after the strong condemnation that followed, the group retracted its claim. This may mean that al Shabaab recognizes the potential long-lasting damage posed by its continued killing of Somali civilians.
Al Shabaab, despite the ongoing military and economic pressure that has been placed on it, is not on the verge of collapsing, and it is a mistake to see the recent attacks in Mogadishu as a last-ditch effort by a disintegrating organization. Neither, however, is it a sign of victory for the group, since the balance of forces remains unchanged, with AMISOM enjoying vast numerical and technological superiority over the insurgents. The most likely scenario is that Somalia is facing a stalemate. This is serious in itself, because it enables al Shabaab to take advantage of the government’s internal bickering as well as its mistakes, such as its failure to pay members of the security forces on time and its alienation of local clans. This allows the terrorist group to strengthen itself locally and regionally in the lead-up to the start of AMISOM’s withdrawal next year. In short, al Shabaab’s relative stability rests primarily on Somali’s domestic and regional dynamics, such as continuing political infighting and corruption.
Going forward, this means that dialogue between the Somalian federal government and regional administrations will be a key factor in determining the group’s resurgence. In neighboring Kenya, too, al Shabaab’s ability to establish and operate underground recruitment networks and cells draws significantly upon the feelings of alienation and anger felt by many of the country’s Muslim youth. Al Shabaab is at its most capable when exploiting such sentiments. Only through sustained political cooperation and reforms between the federal and regional state governments can the group ultimately be defeated.