Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Movement of the Warrior-Youth, hereafter Al-Shabab), the Somali Islamist-insurgent movement, is facing a serious military challenge to its continued control of key swaths of territory inside the capital city of Mogadishu and along the country’s western borders with Kenya and Ethiopia. The insurgency, which has held much of southern and central Somalia since mid-2008, is being stretched militarily by a series of simultaneous offensives launched in mid-February by the 9,000-man African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) military force, the soldiers of Somalia’s internationally-recognized Transitional Federal Government (TFG), and militiamen of the TFG and AMISOM-aligned Sufi Islamist militia Ahlu-Sunnah Wal-Jamaacah (ASWJ). However, the military gains on the ground by AMISOM, TFG, and ASWJ forces continues to be hampered by severe infighting within the TFG, particularly a bitter feud between its president, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, and parliament speaker, Sharif Hasan Sheikh Adan.
The insurgent movement, which is believed to field between five- and seven-thousand fighters has been forced by the AMISOM-led offensive in Mogadishu and ASWJ attacks along parts of the western border regions, particularly in the districts of Gedo and Lower Juba, to spread its already limited forces more thinly. Al-Shabab’s control of the capital city’s largest and most important market district, Bakaara, is also currentlu threatened by AMISOM and TFG forces who hope to wrest away control of the market. The loss of the Bakaara Market would deny the insurgent movement a lucrative financial base where it reportedly draws taxes from merchants and traders.
Al-Shabab, which has been largely unchallenged for the past two-and-a-half years, has also suffered an ideological and, possibly, an operational blow with the killings of Osama bin Laden, the founder of Al-Qaeda Central, and Fazul Abdullah Muhammad, a senior AQC operative in East Africa. The 2 May killing of bin Laden was publicly lamented on 11 May by senior Al-Shabab leaders at a conference in Afgooye, a town to the west of Mogadishu under the banner “We are all Osama.” The late AQC founder was a significant ideological influence for the Somali insurgent movement. The list of conference attendees included some of the insurgency’s most senior leaders including Muqtaar Robow, Hasan Dahir Aweys, and Fu’ad Muhammad Khalaf “Shongole.” Also present was the movement’s high-profile American member, Omar Hammami, who is also known by the nom de guerre “Abu Mansur al-Amriki (The American).” A week before the conference, Al-Shabab’s spokesman Ali Mahamoud Rage eulogised him at a press conference with Somali journalists.
The 7 June chance killing of Fazul Abdullah Muhammad at a TFG checkpoint may compound Al-Shabab’s current difficulties, if claims that he was a member of the insurgency’s governing council made by AMISOM and other state intelligence agencies are accurate. His exact role within the insurgency remains contested and unclear since they rely on confidential reports from AMISOM and intelligence agencies which are not open to public and scholarly scrutiny.
The insurgent response to recent military setbacks has included significant outreach to Somali clan leaders, who continue to play an important social role and wield significant influence. According to Al-Shabab press releases, some clan leaders are actively supporting the insurgents against AMISOM, the TFG, and ASWJ. Meetings and rallies have been held by Al-Shabab with clan leaders and photographs have been released of these events by the insurgent movement itself in a public relations campaign.
Some of these events have been attended by senior Al-Shabab leaders such as Hasan Dahir Aweys and the movement’s governor of Banaadir district, where Mogadishu is located, Muhammad Hasan Umar Abu Abd al-Rahman. Most of the insurgency’s press releases have not specified which clans or sub-clans have been receptive to its outreach with the exception of a 19 March statement and set of photographs that document a meeting between Al-Shabab leaders and clan elders from the Mudulood/Hawiye clan. Meetings between insurgent and clan leaders have continued to be held, including in the areas of Mogadishu further from the city center.
Al-Shabab has received respite from TFG infighting, which temporarily halted the AMISOM-led offensive in Mogadishu for much of April, as well as continued TFG corruption. In March, ASWJ leaders accused the TFG of ignoring their militia’s military contributions in the fight against Al-Shabab, which have been largely responsible for the insurgent movement’s loss of territory along the Kenyan border since mid-February. Severe disputes between President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and parliament speaker Adan threatened to lead to the TFG being cut-off from its primary financial and political backers, the US government, United Nations, and European Union. The two leaders’ feud also angered Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, who threatened to withdraw his country’s soldiers, who make up the majority of the AMISOM force in Mogadishu, if the president and parliament speaker did not reach an agreement. The Ugandan-brokered deal, dubbed the “Kampala Accord,” has been criticized by TFG parliamentarians, Al-Shabab and ASWJ leaders, Somali civilians in Mogadishu, and members of the diaspora.
Despite facing significant battlefield setbacks in Mogadishu, Al-Shabab continues to control most of southern and central Somalia and continues in its attempt to exercise a kind of “insurgent governance” over these territories. The movement claims to have coordinated drought relief, carried out repair and agricultural projects, and distributed charitable donations to the poor. It has documented many of these purported projects in press statements, photographs, videos, and audio interviews with insurgent leaders and civilians.
Al-Shabab continues to benefit from the infighting, corruption, and, to a large degree, ineptness of the TFG. It is noteworthy that despite Al-Shabab’s harsh rule over territories it controls, the majority of the population has not chosen to actively oppose the insurgent movement or back the TFG, which continues to suffer from a legitimacy deficit. Ultimately, military gains alone by AMISOM, the TFG, and ASWJ will not result in lasting improvements inside Somalia. In many ways, it is the TFG’s poor performance and corruption that continues to prevent the majority of the Somali people inside the country from supporting it and actively opposing Al-Shabab.