Somalia: Al-Shabab may have been weakened but it’s still a potent force

Al-Qaeda linked al-shabab recruits walk down a street on March 5, 2012 in the Deniile district of Somalian capital, Mogadishu, following their graduation. The walls of the former Shebab base in Baidoa, Somalia, are littered with rudimentary drawings of machine guns and tanks, a note reading "Fear God, don't write on these walls" and a sketch of an Al-Qaeda flag, homage to the rebel group's international allies. The crumbling building is now occupied by Ethiopian troops who nearly two weeks ago forced Shebab rebels out of Baidoa, their former Shebab stronghold and Somalia's third-largest city. AFP PHOTO/Mohamed ABDIWAHAB (Photo credit should read Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images) ORG XMIT:

The group is under pressure on many fronts but its semiterritorial presence enables it to survive. Several analysts have highlighted the supposed weakening of the Somali militant group, al-Shabab.

Somali Foreign Minister Abdisalam Hadliyeh Omer claimed recently that the al-Qaeda allied group Al-Shabab controls less than 10% of Somali territories. He also pointed out that Mogadishu hosted the regional heads of state Intergovernmental Authority on Development for an extraordinary summit in September, the first high-level diplomatic meeting in the Somali capital for more than 35 years.

The Somali national army is taking on a larger role in combat operations, becoming both a target for offensives and launching them. The regional states, a crucial part of the new federal structures of Somalia often based around local clans, have also become more involved in the fighting.

The federal arrangement was created to address the distrust between regional factions and Mogadishu. Several of these have launched relatively successful attacks against al-Shabab in areas where the Somali army lacks local support. For example, in recent months the interim South Western administration has launched at least three sizeable, and successful, attacks against al-Shabab.

A United States air strike in September confirmed that the US remains involved and committed to attacking al-Shabab.

And there are rumours about low-scale clashes between al-Shabab fighters loyal to the Islamic State and those loyal to al-Qaeda continued in the more central areas.

Finally, another reason for the new optimism is that the Somali capital is booming. Although there are attacks, assassinations and improvised explosives, investors have not been deterred.

All of these developments signal that al-Shabab is facing stress under increased pressure from the government and the regional states. But it should also be noted that predictions of al-Shabab’s collapse have come and gone since 2007.

Al-Shabab has transformed into a semiterritorial organisation. The transformation has not been without losses. By losing territories, it has lost prestige, many of its foreign fighters have returned home and it has lost leaders. But it has survived the transformation.

In one sense it signals a precedent for the future of Islamic State. It is possible to survive a transformation from holding territories to a semiterritorial presence. There is “life” after territorial collapses, especially if your enemies neglect rural security.

It seems al-Shabab is doing just that, albeit in a weakened state. The future does hold potential trouble for the organisation if the national army and the forces of the regional states manage to protect regional villages.

Al-Shabab remains potent partly because it is a relatively low cost organisation. The current situation in Somalia allows it to live off the land.

The assertion that al-Shabab controls only 10% of Somalia is itself debatable. It is true that the areas where al-Shabab has permanent territorial control are probably less than 10% of Somali territory. But it has launched attacks in all parts of Somalia except for Somaliland, the former British colony that seceded in 1991 and has been at peace since. Yet Somaliland hosts al-Shabab cells and has been used as a staging ground for attacks against Djibouti and Ethiopia.

Their fronts are relatively stable in central Somalia. Al-Shabab still holds on to areas it has administered for years without being challenged. The last offensive to deprive the group of its last territorial holdings have yet to emerge. This is despite the forces of the African Union being vastly superior in numbers, training and equipment.

Outside these areas, al-Shabab has established a semi-territorial presence. Events in mid-2016 are a clear example of this. According to United Nations sources, the forces of the South Western state successfully attacked al-Shabab in the Bulo Fur village on June 21. Al-Shabab in the end withdrew. But the forces of the South Western state also withdrew to their base in Qansax-Dheere district, according to the UN sources. This pattern has been repeated across central Somalia for years.

Locals expect al-Shabab to come back after the withdrawal of its enemies. In this way, villages are left at the mercy of al-Shabab. This means the group can still put pressure on locals to support them. It can sanction government supporters in these small villages and it can also tax locals, gain recruits and food. Villagers have to hedge their bets by accommodating al-Shabab.

The result is a form of semiterritorial presence that ensures:

  • Income and recruits that can enable the organisation to exist for many years;
  • A stream of support for cells in Mogadishu, Somaliland and inside neighbouring countries; and
  • Mogadishu business people who operate outside of the city have a big incentive to pay al-Shabab to prevent disruption.

These factors are seldom highlighted in the media, who would rather focus on more spectacular but less strategically important terror attacks in Mogadishu. –