Somalia's 'one-legged' Shebab still far from defeat

Report
from Agence France-Presse
Published on 07 Nov 2013

11/07/2013 02:50 GMT

MOGADISHU, November 7, 2013 (AFP) - With reinforcements expected, Somali and African forces fighting Shebab extremists speak confidently of victory, but analysts warn of tough battles ahead and say that military campaigns alone will not bring peace.

The Al-Qaeda linked Shebab have fled a string of towns in the past two years ahead of the advancing African Union force in Somalia (AMISOM) -- fighting alongside Somalia's rag-tag army, various aligned militia forces and Ethiopian troops -- and commanders brag that the Islamists are on the back foot.

"Al-Shebab is standing on one leg, and we are doing our best to hack off that leg and liberate the small areas they still control," Somalia's Minister of Defence Abdihakim Haji Mohamud Fiqi told AFP.

"Their military strength is weakened, they are now launching just desperate attacks."

United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said last month that AMISOM advances had "ground to a halt" because it lacked a sufficient number of troops.

Diplomats say the UN Security Council is expected to soon authorise 4,000 more troops for the African Union force in Somalia, boosting the five-nation fighting force by a quarter to some 22,000 strong.

But even as the extremists have lost ground, Shebab commanders have increasingly developed the force's capability to carry out guerrilla attacks, regular events inside Somalia including storming a UN compound in June.

But they have also showed their ability to stage attacks in neighbouring Kenya, with the September massacre of shoppers and staff in Nairobi's upmarket Westgate mall in which at least 67 people were killed.

Repeatedly retreating ahead of advancing AU forces, choosing later to stage hit-and-run attacks, the Shebab face a shrinking space to operate in openly, with key towns left in southern Somalia including the port of Barawe in Lower Shabelle, and the bastion of Badhere, in Gedo region.

Commanders are hunted by US drones, with a missile strike last month killing a top suicide bomb-maker.

Elusive Shebab cells

But according to a recent UN monitoring report, Shebab have built up a powerful "Amniyat" secret service, under strict command of the insurgent's chief Ahmed Abdi Godane, a secretive and ruthless leader who Washington have offered a $7 million bounty for.

"Even if international efforts to dismantle the group's fighting forces succeed, the chances that the cells under the leadership of Godane will continue operating is high," said Andrews Atta-Asamoah, of the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS).

"The ongoing military operation against the group might face a long fight."

In many frontline zones, territory patrolled during the day by AMISOM is controlled at night by Shebab.

"AMISOM reinforcements -- especially if air capability is increased such as helicopter gunships -- will allow the force to take further towns," said a security expert working on Somalia.

"But the more territory they take, the more supply lines will be stretched... the Shebab continue to control rural areas in between."

In coming months, renewed AMISOM-led offensives against Shebab's positions in southern Somalia will likely intensify, with the force optimistic extra troops can help it advance again.

AMISOM, announced a fresh push last month in southern Somalia to "deny Al-Shebab freedom of movement" and "reduce their ability" to carry out attacks.

"Given additional troops... and given 'force multipliers' like helicopters and armoured vehicles, we shall be in position to defeat the Shebab," said AMISOM spokesman Captain Deo Akiiki.

Long-term targets include seizing Barawe -- a reputed suicide commando training centre for the extremists -- some 180 kilometres (110 miles) south of the capital Mogadishu.

Taking Barawe would help cut coastal resupply routes and link up AU forces physically split between Mogadishu and the far south of Somalia.

"Making the Shebab lose access to sea is crucial, because at the moment they use Barawe as a supply route," Akiiki added, adding that capturing Barawe would "cut their veins".

At the same time, Somalia's central government is trying to improve collaboration with breakaway regions, notably the southern Jubaland zone, controlled by a warlord previously opposed to the rule of central government but who is also battling the Shebab.

"Taking territory from the Shebab and targeting commanders is key, but that won't stop the hard core of the Shebab continuing terrorist attacks," the security expert added.

Others warn that alongside military assaults must be an attempt to talk to less radical elements.

"Radical elements within the leadership can be contained through the ongoing military solution," Atta-Asamoah added, but arguing that what is "really missing in the search for a solution is the question of opening dialogue" with those Shebab who might switch sides.

str-pjm/sas/jmm

© 1994-2013 Agence France-Presse

Agence France-Presse:

©AFP: The information provided in this product is for personal use only. None of it may be reproduced in any form whatsoever without the express permission of Agence France-Presse.