Al-Shabab: The War That Should Have Ended

Analysis Mohamed Mubarak

In exactly a month from today, it will be 10 years after Al-Shabab was forced to withdraw from Mogadishu. Low on ammunition and morale, the group made a strategic decision to revert to a guerrilla campaign. Ten years later, and after having been forced to adapt to newer and ever-escalating threats, today AS is stronger and richer than the day it abandoned its campaign to take the capital.

Al-Shabab: The War That Should Have Ended

On the other hand, the government has refocused away from combating the group and prioritises its internal power struggle over the war with AS. The group today controls almost the entire countryside in south and central Somalia; in some areas, its control has remained unchallenged for more than 14 years, meaning almost half the population was born after the group seized these areas.

Simply bombing AS or retaking towns from it is not producing any tangible effect against the group in the long-term. Combat is just one tool among many that are necessary to win the war, which is multidimensional. The group can easily replace dead fighters at a faster rate than it loses them; it retakes most towns in a little more than a year. Today, it is present in some districts of Mogadishu with covert and overt forces. As we say in Somalia, the war has therefore become analogous to trying to fill a punctured bucket with water. As we face the high probability of this going on for another 10 years without achieving a different result, it is worth briefly looking at some of the reasons that continue to enable AS to not only survive, but thrive in an apparently harsh environment.

1.  Clan politics and clan elders

While AS initially started out opposing the clans and clan politics, the necessity in the countryside and among the traditional societies in which it operated forced the group to reassess its position and change accordingly. Unlike the government, it uses the clans and refuses to be used by them. It imposes harsh penalties to rebellious clans and lavishly rewards clans that adhere to its rules. The conflict resolution work of AS and punishing of clans that start clan wars has won it support from historically marginalised clans, ensuring it a steady flow of foot soldiers that do not necessarily believe in the group’s ideology but appreciate the effect it has on their daily lives. 

When clans elect a clan elder, AS awards the elder with a car, a gun, and cash. On top of that, it gives regular salaries to the elder and gives intercession powers to them, including the ability to bail out fellow clansmen. In return, these elders keep a record of the clan’s wealth and membership. AS uses this information to tax clans: clansmen in government have been known to send their share of the AS clan tax to their AS elders. 

It also uses clan elders in its expansion strategy. For the past three years, AS has been trying to expand into new areas in Mudug but met a strong clan militia in southern Mudug. After assassinating the clan elders that rejected its offer to peacefully take over the town, the remaining elders were intimidated and signed a peaceful handover in April of this year. In return, the clan received a multi-year tax exemption and other special treatment from AS. 

On the government side, clan politics are responsible for much of the poor governance and incompetence we see. Clan considerations override all else, no matter how able or incapable one is. Additionally, clan elders are problematic and responsible for some of the toxic politics and clan-based violence that occasionally flares up among the security forces. Without a clear strategy to use the elders in state building, they will continue to pose a problem. At the very least, the government should outlaw hate speech and incitement. 

As some clans despise each other more than they do AS, they are more likely to watch their neighbours be attacked and consumed by the AS state than they are to assist them. It is this “enemy of my enemy” mindset that allows AS to use its limited forces against clan militias that are more numerous than it can muster. Again, without genuine reconciliation among the clans in south and central Somalia, the group will continue exploiting this vulnerability. 

2. Education and Indoctrination

AS has two main sources of indoctrinated and loyal members. One is its own education system, which is the only available system for millions of children in south and central Somalia. Even when it does not directly control an educational institute, it forces it to adopt the AS curriculum. This and the banning of the internet means that the only source of knowledge is what is approved by the group. The second are individuals radicalised by the group’s media campaign and, to some extent, by some education institutes in government areas – a topic beyond the scope of this article. 

The AS media campaign is widespread and has hundreds of social media accounts with tens of thousands of active followers. As the group has banned the internet in the areas it controls, the followers being influenced are in government areas or abroad. Sadly, the government and its allies do not seem to understand or are concerned by this. For years, the allies are stuck on devising “strategies to combat CVE” while AS continues to use every possible medium to get supporters and members. The issue is not being addressed with the urgency it deserves. 

3. Role of the diaspora and foreign-based politicians

Highly educated and motivated technocrats from the diaspora are essential to the rebuilding of Somalia’s institutions. The problem is with political leaders that come from the diaspora or have all their wealth and families outside the country. They have nothing to lose if the whole country burns down; their actions reflect this attitude. The reason foreign counter insurgencies are almost impossible to win is because the stronger side is fighting a limited war because the war does not constitute an existential threat to it. The elites in charge of Somalia are fighting a limited war because the war does not constitute a threat to their wealth and families. 

There are three political entities in Somalia that see the war as an existential threat and therefore commit fully to it. These three polities were largely created in Somalia by Somalis with little to no involvement by foreign parties. These three polities run largely stable administrations that monopolise the use of force in all their territories except the border areas where there is a contest with other polities. The three are Somaliland, Puntland, and the regional administrations created by Al-Shabab. All three are mostly run by locals and protect the interests of local clans. 

In all the FMSs besides PL and SL, there are armed clans that oppose the FMS government in one way or another. Most FMSs really exist only in name, controlling a handful of towns, and existing for the sole reason of enriching the elites in power and producing the MPs and Senators needed for the election in Mogadishu. These FMSs do not have direct road access to most of their towns from their respective capitals. 

Only with a genuine bottom-up locally focused state building and reconciliation approach can we ever hope to create truly representative and locally acceptable alternative to AS. Unfortunately, this is where the interests of AS and some politicians aligns. Very few people would elect an absent, foreign-based politician. It is for this reason that the elites refuse to allow a general election.

4. The effect of defection and infiltration

Genuine defectors from AS are essential to the war efforts. They provide vital intelligence and weaken the group’s morale and cohesion.  However, not all defectors are genuine; many top officials have been assassinated by these sorts of defectors. The government does not have a consistent policy towards defection, with clan politics playing a huge role in how a defector is treated, regardless of whether they are genuine or on a mission of infiltration. Then there is the issue of the non-defecting former AS individuals holding government positions. Again, some may have genuinely left the group while others have been sent to infiltrate the government. Without a thorough, intelligence-led vetting process, it is impossible to know.

To say government institutions are heavily infiltrated by AS is not an overstatement. Sticky IEDs have been placed in cars parked in government facilities; top commanders have been specifically targeted by IEDs/SVBIEDs, suggesting that someone with information passed info to the group, and many more plots have been foiled. 

5. The politicisation of the intelligence agency

Policing and intelligence operations are vital to combating urban terrorism. Sadly, although already suffering from gross incompetence caused by clan-based and patronage hiring, the intelligence agency has become politicised and used to secure the interests of the ruling party. This trend started with the reign of former president Hassan Sheikh, who started the trend of using the agency as a tool to reward his clan base, whom he gave top positions and dozens of lower positions. The current government overhauled it, moving many of the people employed for political reasons to the police and the local Mogadishu government. It nevertheless continued using the agency to spy on and intimidate the regime’s political opposition. 

Breaking the cycle

If we seek a reality in which this article does not reflect the situation in 10 years, we need a radical break from the way things are done today. It is not impossible for Somalis to create a government that represents local interests and therefore has local support, as we see in Puntland and Somaliland. More attention need be given to genuine reconciliation and empowerment of the locals; smarter investment in education and re-integration of defectors; a clear democratisation roadmap that includes a referendum for the constitution; and the separation of the security forces from politics.  Unfortunately, all these will depend on the involvement and pressure by the foreign backers of the Somali government. 

If this cycle is not broken in the next ten years, Al-Shabab will be in a better position to recapture the war-weary capital. And when they do, the cycle will restart. 

Mohamed Mubarak

The author is political analysis and founder of Marqaati, an anti-corruption local NGO based in Mogadishu

Analysis 22 April 2022 0:10

Finally, on April 14, 2022, the Somali people and the international partners of Somalia breathed a sigh of relief on witnessing the swearing in of the selected/elected members of the 11th Federal Parliament (FP) after one year and four months from the expiration of the mandate of the 10th FP which created absence of legitimate government and political upheavals.