Al-Shabab: Between the battlefield & the famine

Despite its military setbacks and pressures from the famine, Al-Shabab remains a formidable and adaptive force and insurgents continue to control most of central and southern Somalia.

Since mid-February the Somali Islamist insurgent movement Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen has faced mounting battlefield setbacks due to a series of offensives by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG), and a loosely organized group of Sufi Islamist militias that call themselves Ahlu-Sunnah Wal Jamaacah (Followers of the Prophetic Tradition, ASWJ). AMISOM’s 9,000 soldiers, backed by TFG forces, pushed Al-Shabab from most of its previous strongholds in Mogadishu, including the Bakaara Market, once a lucrative taxation area for Al-Shabab. ASWJ has made inroads against Al-Shabab-held regions along Somalia’s western borders with Ethiopia and Kenya.

The U.S. government has also recently increased its drone surveillance and missile strikes over the country, launched from bases in the region including a new base on the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean. Al-Shabab’s military pressures have been compounded by the increasing severity of the drought gripping the Horn of Africa, reportedly the worst in a generation. Insurgent leaders are currently attempting to counter criticisms of their handling of the famine by the careful staging of famine relief in regions under their control. Their fighters also remain capable of striking inside Mogadishu, despite the significant gains made by AMISOM and TFG in the capital.

In mid-August, Al-Shabab leaders pulled most of their frontline fighters from most of Mogadishu in response to AMISOM and TFG offensives that sought to seize control of the Bakaara Market and other insurgent strongholds. Insurgent leaders said that their withdrawal was tactical and that they would continue to employ guerilla warfare in the capital against the technologically and numerically superior AMISOM forces. However, Al-Shabab fighters remained in parts of Mogadishu’s outer districts and suburbs, though AMISOM claimed on October 10 that it had captured the last insurgent strongholds in the capital. This announcement followed a devastating Al-Shabab suicide truck bombing near the TFG Ministry of Education that killed over 100 people on October 4 and was followed by a second suicide bombing on October 18 near the former foreign ministry building. After claiming responsibility for this attack, Al-Shabab’s spokesman, Ali Mahamoud Rage, warned Somalis to stay away from AMISOM and TFG buildings because more attacks were planned. A video produced by Al-Shabab’s media office, the Al-Kata’ib (The Brigades) Media Foundation and released online on September 2 shows insurgent snipers killing and wounding AMISOM and TFG soldiers in Mogadishu. Although insurgent forces have been forced out of or have withdrawn from most of the capital, they remain capable of launching attacks inside Mogadishu over eight months since the launch of the AMISOM and TFG offensive against them.

In response to the famine and mounting criticism of their harsh taxation and treatment of residents in territories under their control, Al-Shabab leaders established a refugee camp, Al-Yasir, which is currently at the center of their public relations and propaganda efforts. Delegations from Turkey and Egypt have visited the camp in the Lower Shabelle region south of Banaadir, the region where Mogadishu is located. Al-Shabab leaders have also staged major relief efforts at Al-Yasir, which they have carefully publicized via their own media office and sympathetic Somali media networks.

On October 13 Al-Yasir was the location of a major insurgent media event, the delivery of aid by a masked young man, Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir, who claimed to be a representative of “Al-Qaeda.” Speaking in English, he urged other Muslims from outside Somalia to aid the famine victims. He was accompanied by Rage and the distribution of aid was, according to banners at the scene, “coordinated” by Al-Shabab. The aid distributed included 4,000 packets of powdered milk, medicines, and $17,000 in local currency and was dubbed the “Charitable Campaign of the Martyr Bin Laden for the Relief of Those Affected by the Drought.” Insurgent relief efforts, which have also been publicized by Al-Shabab’s media office, have also been conducted in other regions of the country including Galguduud, Bay, Bakool, and Juba since at least the autumn of 2009.

The exact meaning of the delivery of aid by a supposed Al-Qaeda representative remains unclear and Al-Qaeda Central, headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri, has yet to release an official announcement of its own about the aid delivery. The decision to maintain a divide between Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabab, as illustrated by the wording of banners at the event, suggests that insurgent leaders continue to maintain their independence, despite their close affinity with bin Laden and Al-Qaeda’s ideology. Despite its military setbacks and pressures from the famine, Al-Shabab remains a formidable and adaptive force and insurgents continue to control most of central and southern Somalia.

About the author

Christopher Anzalone is a doctoral student in the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University where he studies modern Muslim socio-political movements, Shi'ite Islam, contemporary jihadi movements, and Islamist visual culture. He has published articles in Foreign Policy magazine's AFPAK Channel and several academic encyclopedias including the Princeton University Press' Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought (forthcoming) and Oxford University Press' Encyclopedia of the Islamic World (2009), Encyclopedia of the Modern World (2008), and Encyclopedia of Islam and Law (forthcoming).