Kenya, along with a number of African Union countries operating under the umbrella of AMISOM (African Union Mission in Somalia), moved into southern Somalia in 2012 in order to contain al-Shabaab’s movements following a series of attacks by the group in northern Kenya. The AMISOM mission was able to expel the Al-Qaeda (AQ) affiliated group from the majority of the main population areas of southern Somalia, though al-Shabaab maintained its military strength in many rural areas.
Since January 2016, al-Shabaab has begun to regain some of the ground lost to AMISOM in the last four years. A key event was a major al-Shabaab attack in mid-January against an AMISOM base in El Ade, south-western Somalia, near the Kenyan border. During the attack by dozens of al-Shabaab fighters, over 60 Kenyan Defence Force (KDF) troops were killed and substantial numbers of weapons were taken by the attackers. The KDF were reticent about a final casualty figure, finally admitting that around 60 KDF soldiers died, contradicting al-Shabaab’s claim to have killed around 100 individuals. This attack, and a subsequent threat against Kenya by the local Kenyan al-Shabaab branch leader, has led AMISOM to slowly withdraw from towns in southern Somalia. Since mid-January of this year, al-Shabaab has claimed back El Ade, Badhadhe and Marka, which is just 45 km from Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital. More recently, al-Shabaab captured the port of Garad, in the semi-autonomous Puntland region, on 15 March. A number of KDF troops have also been pulled back to reinforce the Kenyan border, leading AMISOM to cede further ground in the South, in large part because the KDF provides much of the leadership and professional force for the AU mission. Other AU troops have struggled to operate without the KDF and have therefore pulled troops back to the main Somali cities, opening the way for al-Shabaab to re-take ground that it lost in 2012.
Al-Shabaab’s renewed confidence has led to a new strategy by the group in recent weeks – attacks against civilians. These are likely to have security implications for locally employed and international INGO and United Nations (UN) staff. On 21 January 2016, over 25 people were killed at a beach popular with local Somalis near Mogadishu when five al-Shabaab militants attacked. On 12 February 2016, al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for a bomb that went off on a Somali airliner departing Mogadishu, smuggled on by a militant using his laptop as the bomb. He had originally intended to fly on a Turkish airline, but was transferred at the last minute. Both attacks suggest a new, more aggressive strategy for al-Shabaab as they look to consolidate their latest gains into geographical successes and to disrupt government and infrastructure services in Somalia, especially in the main cities. These shifts likely also explain the Washington’s 5-6 March strike against al-Shabaab’s “Raso” training camp, 200km north Mogadishu, which used both unmanned drones and manned aircraft and led the Pentagon to claim that around 150 fighters had been killed.
Although al-Shabaab has not recently threatened INGOs and UN working within Somalia, they are likely to be seen as a target once more as the group’s strategy shifts. The last attack against an INGO or UN organisation was mid-April 2015, when al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for a bomb against an UNICEF vehicle travelling in the autonomous Puntland region. During this attack, four UNICEF members were killed and five wounded. However, as al-Shabaab’s strategy shifts to a more aggressive advance within Somalia, it is likely that civilians, particularly locally employed INGO or UN staff members, will be targeted. The reason for this targeting is two-fold; firstly, it will put pressure on the government by attacking those involved in supporting the country’s infrastructure, thereby making it a no-go zone for high profile INGOs and UN departments. Secondly, there is a possibility that staff members could be kidnapped as a lucrative source of revenue for al-Shabaab in order to fund their geographical expansion.
So why the change in tactics by al-Shabaab? One reason is linked to the move by Daesh (also known as Islamic State – IS) to move into al-Shabaab and East African territory. Despite a hard push by Daesh through social media, few al-Shabaab leaders or fighters have been willing to change their allegiance from al-Qaeda to Daesh (the only exception is Abdiqadir Mumin, a Shabaab leader in Puntland). Indeed, many of the senior members of al-Shabaab continue to express their loyalty to Ayman al-Zawahiri (AQ’s leader), as they did a few days after the death of al-Shabaab’s leader Ahmed Abdi Godane in September 2014. In turn, al-Zawahiri has been careful to engage with al-Shabaab, especially when new leader Shaykh Abu Ubaydah Ahmad Umar was announced as Emir. In a message to Ahmad Umar released in January as part of the AQ’s leader’s ‘Islamic Spring’ series, al-Zawahiri praised al-Shabaab, Godane and offered new advice to Umar. Al-Shabaab leaders are consequently unlikely to look towards Daesh as an alternative for now.
Even though Daesh has failed to move substantially into al-Shabaab’s territory, the group still need to keep their eye on their competitors. Whilst the al-Shabaab leaders still appear to show loyalty towards AQ, Daesh’s demographics indicate that some younger members of al-Shabaab are likely to be persuaded by their aggressive recruitment tactics. It is possible that the al-Shabaab leadership are looking to contain this, not just through silencing tactics (Voice of America reports of a memo produced by al-Shabaab silencing dissent) including the assassination of dissenters, but also by moving to a more aggressive modus operandi in their attacks. The bomb attack on the Jazeera hotel in which killed ten people in Mogadishu on 26 July 2015 is a prime example of this more aggressive type of attack.
Al-Shabaab, a group previously under pressure, is now regaining the lost ground that AMISOM had fought so hard for. It may well regain further ground, though it is unlikely that large cities such as Mogadishu will succumb to their advances. It is consequently increasingly possible that Somalia will see a rise in attacks against civilians, as well as the usual government and military targets, and with this, INGOs and UN personnel will be seen as legitimate targets by the group, both as victims and kidnap prizes.