Between the 13th and 18th of March, Al-Shabaab’s Politics and Wilaayaat wing responsible for tending to contemporary and strategic affairs organised what it called a “Consultative Forum Regarding the Jihad in East Africa”. As the first of such events to be publicized by Al-Shabaab, the conference was said to have brought together a diverse group of partners including tribal leaders, Islamic scholars, and intellectuals allegedly to discuss the group’s ongoing campaign against the Somali Federal Government (SFG) and the state of affairs affecting Muslims in East Africa including health, education, politics and the economy. However the conference follows intensified airstrikes against the terrorist organisation and factional disputes resulting in demotions, defections and assassinations of its key leaders. Therefore, its likely the forum was mainly set to address challenges faced by the organisation which is by far the worst it’s faced in recent history.
In the midst of a global pandemic, Al-Shabaab’s leadership is currently attempting to portray itself as a unified, capable and legitimate alternative to the SFG, as Somalia currently battles a multifaceted humanitarian crisis involving the influx of migrants from neighboring countries, locusts, flooding and the pre-existing socio-economic conditions which have left 2.6 million displaced persons without access to basic services. The consultative forum forms part of many efforts by its media wing, al-Kataib Media, including exaggerated victories against its targets in recent attacks, to portray its ability to proceed with its agenda in spite of existing challenges. In its communique on the outcomes of the consultative forum, Al-Shabaab further pledged its commitment to upscale its fight against the SFG, foreign military and humanitarian presence and allies of apostate or Crusader governments or organisations.
This commitment follows its own admission that “the coalition of international crusaders who have invaded East Africa have intensified their war against the Muslims and at the forefront of that war is the crusader nation of America, in collaboration with NATO and AMISOM.” This was further confirmed by Bill Riggio’s article for the Long War Journal indicating AFRICOM’s airstrikes surpassing half of 2019 by April. Though airstrikes were only intensified by AFRICOM in 2016, US airstrikes managed to eliminate Al-Shabaab’s former leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane in September 2014. This was arguably the biggest blow to the organisation, as Godane’s ruthless leadership style and militant experience, allowed him to consolidate power and steer Al-Shabaab towards being an increasingly sophisticated and lethal terrorist organisation.
Nonetheless, Godane left behind a formidable organisation which has proven adept at transforming itself into an agile and adaptive guerrilla force making use of sophisticated homemade bombs, including improvised explosive devices. In a New York Times article by Eric Schmitt and Abdi Latif Dahir Somalia’s national security adviser, Abdisaid Muse Ali, stated that “now more than ever, Al Shabab effectively deploys I.E.D.s, complex attacks on both civilian and military targets, blockades to disrupt access, devises sophisticated extortion generating schemes, and utilizes intimidation tactics to afford itself invincibility status aimed at destabilizing Somalia and threatening neighboring countries”. Consequently, AFRICOM Commander, General Townsend stated that the threat “has been higher in the last few months than it was eight months ago when I first got to AFRICOM…that’s exactly why you’ve seen this increase in strike activity.” Ramped up airstrikes have thus severely diminished Al-Shabaab’s capabilities over the past few years, as key figures like Yusuf Nur Sheikh Hassan (Yusuf Jiis), Bashit Qorgab, Yonis Sheikh Dahir and Bashir Mohamed Mahamoud have since been killed as a result. This sustained pressure has admittedly proven challenging according to Al-Shabaab’s own statements, however, the extent to which it will be able to bounce back or achieve any of its short term goals remains to be seen.
However, according to Amnesty International, increased US airstrikes in Somalia has resulted in mounting deaths of innocent civilians which AFRICOM has been reluctant to take accountability for. A senior official of a Somali telecommunications company, Hormuud, where one of its office managers, 53-year-old Mohamud Salad Mohamud, was killed remarked “when I heard the news of his death, I thought he was killed by Al-Shabaab. I have never imagined he would be killed by [the] US or by the Somali government.” Cases where civilians are unable to discern between government security forces and insurgents have time and time again proven important for recruitment by the latter. Civilian casualties by US airstrikes continue to play right into Al-Shabaab’s central narrative, which has for years been to rid Somalia of foreign military presence which it accuses of killing and wounding innocent civilians. Therefore, as Al-Shabaab suffers losses due to ongoing airstrikes, accompanying consequences of US military operations in Somalia may contribute to a resurgence of new fighters and aggrieved community supporters.
On the other hand, Al-Shabaab’s leadership attrition remains a bigger threat to its survival than possibly any other external actors. In early February, Al-Shabaab leader, Ahmad Umar, expelled Mahad Karate (and Bashit Qorgab) from his role as leader of the Amniyat intelligence brigade and possibly from the organisation altogether allegedly over bombings in Mogadishu killing civilians. Former Amniyat Mogadishu Division Leader Muse Moalim also left Al-Shabaab in protest and was later killed by the group’s militants sent to eliminate ex-members. Mounting internal pressures have further resulted in ruthlessness against members accused of spying or compromising operational security. Against mounting airstrikes, Al-Shabaab appears to be destroying itself from the inside out, as the simmering disgruntlement Godane left behind reaches boiling point with Umar evidently becoming paranoid and frustrated by taking matters and roles into his own hands. The current state of Al-Shabaab is unsustainable, which therefore makes it likely that its consultative conference in March was set to address its current challenges, though the organisation itself will never admit this.
Unlike in West Africa, Al-Shabaab retains a monopoly on the jihadi agenda in East Africa. Boko Haram and to a greater extent its Islamic State faction continues to enjoy the benefits of the Sahelian climate and its actors who offer refuge and opportunities for illicit trade in weapons training and cooperation. Alternatively, Al-Shabaab and AFRICOM have essentially rendered the Islamic State in Somalia under Abdul Qadir Mumin incapable in comparison to the former, thus rendering Umar’s detractors nowhere to go. This is an important strategic advantage Umar and his organisation moving forward if used wisely, but that remains to be seen.
For now, Al-Shabaab is in a serious predicament.
Featured Image Source: Inside Al-Shabaab’s ‘Crisis Conference’ Amid US Airstrikes in Somalia by Abuga Makori (2020), https://www.upstreamonline.com/politics/insurgents-hit-second-mozambique-town-as-islamic-state-claims-earlier-attack/2-1-781270