Gulf TimesDefeating Somalia’s Al
Qaeda-linked Shebaab militants and preventing cross-border attacks like
the bloody siege at a Nairobi shopping mall will require more than
commando strikes alone, analysts say.
Monday, October 07, 2013
Although killing or capturing senior rebel
leaders in raids or drone strikes would dent the insurgents, the Shebaab
can bounce back from such setbacks thanks to their shadowy command
“Eliminating top-level individuals would be a
strategic blow to the organisation, but of course, the problem is in
finding them,” said one foreign security source who follows the Horn of
“However, it is not a silver bullet alone... it offers a chance to kick them down, but not keep them down.”
According to a recent UN monitoring report,
Shebaab have built up a powerful “Amniyat” secret service which operates
in separate cells “with the intention of surviving any kind of
dissolution” of the group.
In addition, regional Shebaab “franchises”, such
as Kenya’s radical Al-Hijra group thought to have played a key role in
last month’s Westgate shopping centre attack, have the ability to work
with Somali commanders but also on their own when necessary.
It was not known which Shebaab commander was
targeted by elite US forces in their Saturday night raid in the southern
Somali port of Barawe. The wanted militant—described as a “high value”
Shebaab leader—was not captured and it was unclear whether he had been
killed, but a US official said several members of the group had been
Somali experts suggested it would be unlikely
that reclusive Shebaab chief Ahmed Abdi Godane, who carries a $7mn US
bounty on his head, would have been based in as open a place as Barawe.
The Shebaab said yesterday there was “no senior
official” present at a house raided by US forces south of the capital on
“The US claim that a senior Al Shabaab official
was in the house is false. No senior official was in the house,” Sheikh
Abdiasis Abu Musab, Al Shebaab’s military operation spokesman, said.
“Normal fighters lived in the house and they
bravely counter-attacked and chased the attackers. The apostate Somali
government is nothing in Somalia, no one asked them for permission to
carry out the attack.”
Some Shebaab leaders are thought to be based in
the mountains of Puntland in the far northeast, known to some as
“Somalia’s Tora Bora” after the mountainous area of Afghanistan where
Osama bin Laden hid out following the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Negotiation seems doubtful with the Al
Qaeda-linked group, and there seems little sign that the Shebaab—who
want all foreign forces to leave Somalia and have warned Kenya of
“rivers of blood”—would actually want to talk.
This leaves the focus on a military solution and
a long fight for the 17,700-strong UN-mandated African Union force in
Somalia (AMISOM), which has already been battling Shebaab fighters for
almost seven years.
Somalia’s Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon said
yesterday that his country’s co-operation with foreign powers battling
the Shebaab was “not a secret”.
“Al Shebaab is a threat to us and neighbouring
countries,” the premier said. “Al Shebaab is recognised as a terror
group by world countries. Therefore, Al Shebaab is a problem for
Somalia, its neighbours and the world.”
Massive steps forward have been taken in the
past two years after Shebaab fighters fled fixed positions in the
capital Mogadishu and the AU seized a string of key towns.
But stamping out Shebaab for good is a distant goal.
Initial targets could include a push to link up
currently separated AU forces by seizing Barawe, some 180km south of the
One of few ports left in Shebaab hands, it offers both a symbolic and a strategic prize.
“Barawe is a target within reach for the Kenyans,” said Stig Jarle Hansen, author of “Al Shebaab in Somalia”.
Kenyan troops in southern Somalia—along with
forces from Sierra Leone—could push north from the port of Kismayo,
while at the same time Ugandan or Burundian troops could advance south
towards the same target.
But just taking towns will weaken but not eliminate Shebaab forces, analysts said.
“The notion that insurgency can be defeated by
force displays a fundamental misreading of the enemy’s strength,” said
Abdihakim Ainte, an independent analyst.
Amisom itself complains it lacks ground troops
and air power including both transport and attack helicopters to fully
carry out the task.
“We can’t expand anymore... the best we can do
is consolidating and cleaning up the areas which we’re controlling now,”
Ugandan army chief Edward Wamala Katumba said shortly after the
Westgate attack, calling for up to 7,000 more troops.
“The more we stretch, the thinner we become on
the ground and the more exposed we are,” Katumba told reporters, adding
that Shebaab fighters use “the ungoverned space... to perfect their
skills of terrorism”.
Financial restrictions including strangling the
lucrative charcoal trade to Gulf States that the Shebaab still have
interests in could also tighten the noose on the group.
But Cedric Barnes, Horn of Africa project
director at the International Crisis Group think tank, suggested that
while it could hamper Shebaab’s day-to-day operations, it would not stem
the possibility of another Westgate-style attack.
“Attacking sources of funding that are quite
high profile is not necessarily going to hurt the kind of networks that
carried out this kind of attack,” Barnes said.
“This sort of funding (for the attack) would be more ring-fenced.”