Escalating conflict in Somalia threatens to make 2022 one of the deadliest years in history

The double attack of October 29 in Mogadishu with more than 120 dead is one of the bloodiest committed to date by Al Shabaab and adds to a wave of attacks with which the Al Qaeda affiliate in Somalia wants to show that it has not been defeated despite the “total war” declared by the president, Hassan Shaykh Mohamud.

The immediate consequence of this escalation of the conflict is that 2022 threatens to be one of the deadliest years to date. According to data collected by the ACLED project, which counts the victims of violence, some 1,400 people have already died so far this year, more than in 2020 and 2021.

This figure — which includes victims of Al Shabaab as well as Somali and foreign forces operating in the country and the Islamic State affiliate, which is not very active in Somalia — is well below the record of more than 2,600 dead in 2017, the year of the deadliest attack to date. The scene of that attack, which resulted in more than 500 dead and which Al Shabaab never claimed responsibility for, was precisely the same as last Saturday’s.

“The attacks were a message sent by the militiamen to show that they are still alive despite the fact that they are being defeated by government forces,” said the Somali president after the double car bomb attack next to the Ministry of Education.

Mohamud, who already ruled Somalia between 2012 and 2017, took office last June and from the first moment put the focus on Al Shabaab. However, it was the attack against the Al Hayat hotel in Mogadishu on August 19 that led him to launch what he defined as an “all-out war” to wipe out the Al Qaeda affiliate.

The terrorists carried out their longest siege to date, which lasted more than 30 hours and left more than a score of people dead before the assailants were gunned down. They also taunted Mohamud in a statement for saying he “could crush” Al Shabaab and for declaring a war “he is not prepared to fight.”

PROGRESS AGAINST AL SHABAAB

However, experts agree that the offensive launched by government forces with support from clan militias — known as Maawisley — as well as the African Union is making clear progress, especially in central Somalia, one of Al Shabaab’s main areas of operations, is yielding results.

The operations have had their epicenter in the Hiraan region, but have also extended to neighboring Galmudug and Bay, and have allowed the jihadists to wrest some localities and areas under their control, although the challenge now will be to be able to hold on to them.

The Somali government is also counting on U.S. support in this effort, particularly from the air. Joe Biden’s administration decided last June to send 500 U.S. troops back to Somalia, after Donald Trump had withdrawn troops from the African country in December 2020. In addition, ten drone strikes have been carried out against Al Shabaab so far this year.

The terrorist group has proceeded to carry out numerous retaliatory attacks, including the triple suicide bombing in the capital of Hiraan, the epicenter of the offensive against them, which killed at least 30 people, as well as many others in other parts of the country, including Mogadishu. In total, according to the Long War Journal, it has carried out almost 40 suicide attacks this year.

THE ATTACKS WILL CONTINUE

According to Caleb Weiss, an expert analyst at Long War Journal, as the offensive against Al Shabaab increases and expands, the terrorist group “can be expected to carry out more retaliatory attacks against civilian targets as it attempts to undermine the political will and popular support for the offensives.”

A view shared by Rashid Abdi, an expert on the Horn of Africa. “It is no surprise that Al Shabaab is more lethal now. Its back is against the wall. It has lost more territory in four months than in the last five years,” he stresses, speaking to the BBC. “It is facing the most serious clan revolt so far and its economic empire is under pressure,” he insists.

Precisely that is another of the fronts that President Mohamud wants to open, the economic one, to try to leave the terrorists without their sources of income, mainly the taxes they collect. According to the Somali think tank Hiraal, Al Shabaab has an annual budget of $100 million, a quarter of which is used to buy weapons and combat equipment.

Caleb Weiss stresses that “despite some setbacks in recent years, Al Shabaab remains one of the most effective Al Qaeda affiliates”. The group “maintains significant control over much of southern Somalia and continues to have the ability to strike in Mogadishu,” the capital from which it withdrew in 2011, as well as in Kenya, where it also controls territory.

The upsurge in violence in Somalia also comes at a particularly sensitive time from a humanitarian point of view. The country is experiencing its longest drought in 40 years, affecting 7.8 million people, a figure that has doubled since the beginning of the year. This has led to severe food insecurity, with 6.7 million people affected, and the risk of famine hanging in the air.