Hope and fear loom over Somalia’s battle with Al-Shabab

Following the re-election of Somalia’s president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, the Somali government declared total war against the Al-Qaeda-linked militant group Al-Shabab with the aim of eradicating the rebels from Somalia.

The president’s predecessors had failed in subduing Al-Shabab, which made it politically expedient for Mohamud to start his new term by going head-on with the insurgents.

Within weeks of taking office, the Somali government began an all-out war against Al-Shabab with full support from international partners, which saw Somalia’s federal government seize numerous towns and districts across central Somalia’s Hirshabelle and Galmudug regional states.

What makes this current military offensive differ from previous military endeavours seen over the past decade is that the federal government of Somalia has begun empowering local clans to take up arms and rise up against Al-Shabab.

In an attempt to mimic the Sunni uprising in Iraq in the mid-2000s, which saw tribes take up arms and expel Al-Qaeda from their lands, the Somali government has begun backing a coalition of tribal militias widely known as the ‘Macawisley’. But it has produced mixed results.

The initiative has been applauded by the Somali government and its international partners due to the territorial gains by government forces and the ‘Macawisley’ militias against Al-Shabab.

While certain segments of Somali society have welcomed the move, other local clans feel alienated and vulnerable due to what they perceive as the government empowering their rivals.

Somalia is a homogeneous nation whose society is built on a clan-based system. Deep levels of mistrust and unaddressed grievances remain entrenched, made worse by three decades of conflict that have torn neighbours, friends, and communities apart.

The government’s decision to prop up certain communities, or clans, under the pretext of fighting Al-Shabab while alienating others, has caused a quagmire.

With Al-Shabab being pushed out of certain areas, many minority clans and disadvantaged communities fear that these government-backed tribal militias will begin targeting neighbouring clans over territorial control linked to disputes over towns and grazing lands and settling old scores linked to past grievances.

This could be a recipe for disaster, and potentially a move which will further turn ordinary Somalis against one another.

Secondly, propping up clan-based militias across the country without nationalising them into the armed forces could prove dangerous.

The Somali government does not have full control of its territory or borders. Its’ physical reach and authority for the time being is limited outside of Mogadishu, Middle Shabelle, Galgaduud, Mudug, and Eastern Hiiraan.

The government, therefore, faces the risk of various armed militias sprouting up across the country if the Al-Shabab threat were to permanently diminish. This in itself would be a new dilemma that the government would have to deal with.

Local communities, such as those that make up the brunt of the government-backed ‘Macawisley’ militias, have the right to defend their dignity and livelihoods from any armed foe that threatens their way of life.

But letting loose a coalition of tribal militias to reign with immunity is bound to open a Pandora’s box that nobody is ready for, including the Somali government.

Furthermore, when the government backs certain clan militias, oftentimes these communities face retribution from Al-Shabab, as with the recent wave of abductions reportedly carried out by the group targeting local clans backed by the government.

The Somali government doesn’t have the physical capabilities to ensure the safety of these communities when Al-Shabab retaliates, forcing them to fend for themselves as they suffer the receiving end of the militant group’s scorched earth policies.

Despite success in rural Somalia, the government is still struggling to quell the insurgency in its own backyard. For example, Al-Shabab has been able to strike high-profile targets at will in Mogadishu, the seat of power for the Federal Government of Somalia, since the government’s military offensive began several months ago.

A case in point was the longest hotel siege in Somalia’s history in August of last year, with a similar hotel siege targeting an upscale hotel adjacent to the presidential palace a few weeks later.

The persistent Al-Shabab attacks in Mogadishu aren’t limited to just hotels. They have also targeted government buildings, such as the Municipality headquarters, and carried out one of the deadliest bombings in the last decade near the education ministry in October, killing at least 100 people.

This begs the question, is chasing Al-Shabab through rural Somalia while ignoring their presence in Mogadishu a viable policy?

“The federal government is yet to issue any public statement on these (issues). However, I do believe it made a strategic decision to drive Al-Shabab out of the regions in the periphery first, based on the assumption that if Al-Shabab is weakened in the neighbouring regions, it will be difficult for them to mount attacks,” Mukhtar Ainashe, the former National Security Adviser to Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), told The New Arab.

But the government’s territorial advances in rural Somalia have not put an end to Al-Shabab’s ability to strike the government in the heart of the Somali capital, as seen with the wave of deadly attacks over the past several months.

“This (approach) is not necessarily risk-free as Al-Shabab could, potentially, bring several hundred of their fighters into Mogadishu and create havoc,” Mukhtar Ainashe added.

Off the battlefield, the government has also attempted to weaken Al-Shabab financially by freezing bank accounts and mobile money transfers belonging to purported members. By doing so, the government aims to cut off the group’s financial flow.

Colonel Abdullahi Ali Maow, a security expert and former senior intelligence official of the National Intelligence & Security Agency (NISA) of Somalia, says Al-Shabab has been diminished significantly due to the government’s multi-faceted strategy in dealing with the militants on the battlefield and within the financial sector.

“Al-Shabab have mostly been subdued in the Galmudug region, with small pockets of insurgents still in the vicinity of the El-Buur and Galhareri districts,” the colonel told The New Arab. “The expectation for the current momentum is for military gains to shift towards the states of Southwest and Jubaland.”

These two regions have been an Al-Shabab stronghold for a number of years. On the financial front, “Al-Shabab is capitulating financially due to the rigorous work of the National Intelligence & Security Agency (NISA) as they shut down bank accounts linked to the armed group aimed at squeezing the insurgents financially,” Colonel Abdullahi Ali Maow said.

In the past several weeks, the Somali government has claimed to have shut down 250 bank accounts alleged to be linked to Al-Shabab members. Mobile money users purportedly linked to the jihadists have also been targeted in the crackdown.

However, despite these reported gains by the Somali government, the armed group continues to generate revenue nationwide, taxing livestock, goods, and businesses uncontested, even in government strongholds such as Mogadishu. In practice, they operate a parallel government far more efficiently than that of the Western-backed government based in Mogadishu.

The armed group can provide basic services and security to civilians in the areas they govern with their own financial means, unlike their rivals in Villa Somalia (Mogadishu’s presidential palace), who are unable to service the basic needs of their constituents despite the financial support they receive from international donors under the guise of state-building.

Weakening Al-Shabab financially will also take more than closing bank accounts. It will require putting in place mechanisms that diminish corruption within the ranks of government and a system that allows it to be more financially accountable and transparent in order to reach citizens that are most in need.

Furthermore, the role of international actors in the Somali conflict is heating up. Both US and Turkish air support is being provided to Somali ground forces as they sweep through towns and districts across southern and central Somalia.

The Somali government troops are dependent on air superiority to advance through large swaths of Al-Shabab-controlled territory and as a result, have made significant gains.

But it remains to be seen whether the government can hold onto these newfound gains. Al-Shabab has a knack for taking back territory they’ve conceded to government forces. The government needs to utilise the current momentum and build the confidence of local communities.

The average Somali doesn’t care who rules over them, as long as they can provide a semblance of peace and security, which Al-Shabab has managed to do.

It remains to be seen if the Somali government can fill the void and win the hearts and minds of those caught in the middle of the senseless violence that has befallen Somalia for three consecutive decades.

Mohamed Gabobe is a freelance journalist based in Mogadishu, Somalia
Follow him on Twitter: @Mohamed_Gabobe

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