Somalia’s new government focused on Al-Shabab threat
The attack on a key hotel in Mogadishu by terror group Al-Shabab last week illustrated the tit for tat that is starting in Somalia under new President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. Mohamud took office in May and declared that eradicating Al-Shabab and bringing an end to Somalia’s 15-year operation against the group was a top priority. The group’s defeat is crucial to securing the Somali state.
The Hayat Hotel attack, in which 20 people died and 117 were injured, came after four different US airstrikes and Somali counterterrorism operations began to chip away at Al-Shabab’s geographical territory in the south of the country. Importantly, the US and Somali efforts were aimed at halting Al-Shabab’s insurgency into Ethiopia. Outgoing US Africa Command leader Gen. Stephen Townsend said the militants had last month penetrated 150 km into Ethiopia. Clearly, this escalatory move across an international border needed to be mitigated.
Al-Shabab has developed a parallel government and controls large swathes of Somali territory. Its governmental structure has various departments for managing its affairs, operations and members. Al-Shabab taxes inhabitants both inside and outside the areas it controls, continuing to behave as a state within a state.
Somalia’s government is trying a new tactic by bringing former Al-Shabab leader Mukhtar Robow, aka Abu Mansur, into the Cabinet as religious affairs minister. As a former militia leader, he will contribute to the fight against Al-Shabab by working with the religious community to challenge extremist ideology and convince the militants that their belief system is wrong and faulty.
In the wake of the hotel attack, Robow condemned Al-Shabab and its religious clerics in a televised speech, telling them “to give up and repent.” Words may have an impact, but kinetic solutions seem to now be in play. The approach — of using countering violent extremism techniques — has about a 50 percent success rate when used in other theaters. But Somalia’s unique clan structures and society make it more challenging, meaning Robow will have his hands full.
Al-Shabab continues to attack at will, firing mortars at the Somali parliament and into the heavily fortified international airport that houses embassies, the UN and foreign troops. Ethiopia, where battles have now resumed between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and Ethiopian/Eritrean forces, has been subjected to more than 200 Al-Shabab attacks since 2020.
The group is also starting to strike out at Kenya, including targeting policemen in the northeast of the country. Somali-Kenyan coordination on the Al-Shabab file is a major policy objective of Mogadishu. This cooperation is beginning to yield new security relations between Somalia and Kenya that focus specifically on the counterterrorism file. International borders are meaningless to those in the group who are organized by clan and see their land rights outside of international jurisdiction.
Last week’s statement by the new Somali president was extremely important, given that his television appearance was his first speech to the nation since taking office. Mohamud declared an “all-out war” against Al-Shabab, using extremely strong language and appealing to the country’s federal leadership and their clans. He said: “Al-Shabab is like a deadly snake in your clothes, there is no solution but to kill it before it kills you.” He stressed that he will do everything possible to weaken the terrorists.
A change in the security architecture for the fight against Al-Shabab is taking place. The African Union Transition Mission in Somalia — a collaboration between the Somali government and the African Union that was launched in February — is taking up arms to reduce the group’s strategic reach and shrink its territorial hold. It replaces the African Union Mission to Somalia after the latter’s 15 years of anti-terrorist operations. This new mission has the precise intention of redoubling efforts in the fight against extremism — the biggest fight Somalia is currently facing.
The maritime environment has changed dramatically for the better, offering a sign that progress is being made on the Somali front and allowing for greater focus on land-based threats. The global shipping industry last week removed the “High Risk Area” tag from the Indian Ocean coast of Somalia, which represents a victory for the international community in stopping Somali piracy. The high-risk area was established in 2010 at the height of the piracy threat. In 2010-2011, Somali pirates attacked merchant ships about every other day on average, with 415 attacks and almost 80 successful hijackings. At any given time, pirates held for ransom dozens of vessels and hundreds of seafarers. This nightmare is now over for Somalia’s fishing ports, except for the mental health of piracy victims.
The maritime environment has changed dramatically for the better, offering a sign that progress is being made.
Dr. Theodore Karasik
Thanks to anti-piracy efforts — such as the increased use of private armed security guards, international naval coalitions and improving conditions ashore — the number of incidents in the Horn of Africa region started to decline rapidly. By 2013, successful hijackings had all but fallen to zero. This activity is now paying off, with the restructuring of security relationships so that counterterrorism operations against Al-Shabab can be more effective in the coming months.
Al-Shabab is a dangerous group with its own government structure and capacity to create instability. Somalia’s new government is facing renewed violence from the group, but Mogadishu’s counterterrorism planning, aided by several regional states, is entering a new phase.
- Dr. Theodore Karasik is a senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics in Washington. Twitter: @tkarasik