With Somalia’s security forces disorganized and riddled with corruption, and deepening suspicion between central and regional governments, the Oct. 14 blast highlights the Al-Qaeda-aligned Al-Shabab’s ability to exploit state weakness and prosecute asymmetric war to deadly effect.
Militarily, the situation has been largely static in recent months.
Evicted from the capital in 2011, the Al-Shabab has maintained its control in many rural parts of central and southern Somalia. “There have been no recent strategic gains” on either side, says Roland Marchal, a researcher at Sciences Po in Paris — neither for the Al-Shabab nor the Somali army, backed by African Union troops and an increasingly active US military.
“On the surface at least, what we see is stagnation,” says Matt Bryden, founder of the Nairobi-based Sahan Research think-tank, who points out that the Al-Shabab has proven resilient, able to replace commanders and fighters killed by US airstrikes.
The International Crisis Group (ICG), however, said Friday that Al-Shabab has recently regained control of several areas outside Mogadishu, including Barire, a strategically significant town on a major road 45 km from the capital.
“Averting attacks in Mogadishu is ever harder when surrounding districts revert back to Al-Shabab control,” the ICG says.
The Al-Shabab’s intelligence network allows it to exploit flaws and weakness in the security apparatus.
For example, the recent Al-Shabab gains around Mogadishu were, the ICG says, permitted by the withdrawal of government forces in a row over unpaid salaries.
Attempts to establish new security checkpoints at the city’s gateways have also been subverted, as happened last Saturday, when the truck, though packed with explosives, was waved through by officers.
“We know from past experience that they’ve been able to infiltrate security forces, or to put their own people in government uniforms,” says Bryden.
Also significant: The bombing last weekend came days after both the country’s defense minister and army chief resigned, without explanation. The simultaneous departure weakened President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, a situation used by Al-Shabab to its advantage.
“It is not that the Al-Shabab is very strong, it is that the others are really weak,” Marchal says.
Federalism in Somalia has existed on paper since 2004, but only began to take shape five years ago. There are now five federal regional states, not including Somaliland, which claims independence and does not recognize the central government.
Relations between Mogadishu and the regions are fraught, as each struggles for a greater share of power and seeks foreign allies.
Security stakes are high because if the embryonic national army is only deployed in and around the capital, and the 22,000 AU troops secure outlying urban centers, then it is left to regional militias to fight the Al-Shabab in the bulk of the country.
Recently, the diplomatic crisis pitting the UAE and Saudi Arabia against Qatar “has aggravated such friction,” says ICG.
Some federal regional states have taken sides with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to the dismay of Mogadishu, which has sought to remain neutral in a bid to maintain the substantial it receives from both sides.
Marchal deplores the “chaos brought by the Gulf crisis, where any federal president, under the pretext of receiving funding, makes ill-judged foreign policy declarations.”
“Unless the government shifts its posture and engages with the federal member states so they become partners in fighting Al-Shabab, instead of trying to fight both Al-Shabab and the federal member states, I don’t think we’re going to see very much progress,” says Bryden.
ICG says political opponents could seek to take advantage of the latest crisis to bring down the president. It urges him to “work quickly to improve relations with federal states” and resolve quarrels over distribution of resources. Otherwise, analysts warn, the only winner will be the Al-Shabab. The worsening violence has prompted some UN officials to raise alarm over “early warning signs of genocide” in CAR, as did former UN aid chief Stephen O’Brien in late August.
Adama Dieng — the UN’s special adviser for the prevention of genocide who visited the country in early October — denied the country was in a “pre-genocide situation” but said the situation there is “serious.”
There are still “indicators” that could result “in crimes of genocide” if they are not tackled, he said.
Touadera, whose election with the full support of the UN and France sparked a wave of hope, also pushed back on the warnings, saying “talk about genocide at this stage... is not justified.”
Guterres previously said there was “ethnic cleansing” in many parts of the country, but he will invariably be asked to comment about genocide.
To the displaced population, a visit from Guterres is a welcome relief.
“The peacekeepers must help us more and be more visible,” said Regis, who was forced to flee from the east of the country to Bangui. “It is imperative that the UN chief make them understand that.”