How the Somalia Federal Government finally degraded Al-Shabaab

Today, the world is finally seeing in Somalia a blueprint for total victory against the Al-Shabaab terrorist movement. The unthinkable is now a reality: a Somalia without Al-Shabaab. This blueprint for total victory is emerging despite years of failed foreign military and political interventions. Many Somalia observers are asking how has this incredible reversal of Al-Shabaab ascendency and dominance in Somalia occurred in just one year under the Federal Government of Somalia ( which it should be recalled just a few years ago was merely an entity in name only without any effective power on the ground)?

Perhaps the answers to the recent success against Al-Shabaab lies in the combination of patient rebuilding of the Somali institutions by Turkey, Italy and the US, the maturing of the Somali National Army (SNA), the role of the US-trained Danab Commando Brigade, the restructuring of National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) under its current Commander Mahad Mohamed Salaad- all of this within the generalized Somali societal outrage and deep resentment against the Al Shabaab due to its incessant bloody massacres and usurpations of the dignity, culture and wealth of the Somali communities living under their control.

In August 2022, the President of the Federal Government of Somalia, Hassan Sheikh Mahmud declared a “total war” against the Al-Shabaab extremist movement in Somalia. At the time, like many seasoned Somalia observers I saw no indication that this declaration was anything but hollow political rhetoric.

It should be recalled that in the past 16 years, including Hassan Sheikh’s first presidential term 2012-2016 and previously under Sharif Sheikh Ahmed’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and recently under Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo’s administration, there was no meaningful long-term military, financial or socio-political actions taken against the Al-Shabaab. In fact, in Mogadishu the Shabaab flagrantly ran the court system and extortion networks openly from the nearby Afgoye District- despite the presence of thousands of African Union forces in the area.

Since 2009, the Al-Shabaab successfully utilized the inherently opportunistic and predatory “divide and rule” clan stratagem whereby the clan animosities, minority-majority clan dynamics and political rivalries between the Federal Government and regional entities would ensure that Al-Shabaab was the only fair arbiter of Somali affairs. Consequently, in 16 years, Al Shabaab managed to build a parallel quasi-state apparatus and in the process one that threatened to overrun Somalia. 

However, one year later, to the utter shock of the international community, neighboring countries and Somali watchers alike, the Somali Federal Government forces succeeded to degrade the Al-Shabaab threat, especially the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) units. NISA, now more of a military intelligence unit with its own commandos and financial teams have successfully helped the Federal Government to dismantle the Al-Shabaab financial backbone which in turn allowed the Federal forces to re-take over 45% of previously controlled Al-Shabaab territories in Southern and Central Somalia.

The Mahad Salaad Factor

NISA under Mahad Salaad has arrested and assassinated countless Al-Shabaab activists, detained Al-Shabaab recruiters, financiers and extradited ideological supporters from Kenya. The most effective of all NISA actions under Mahad Salaad has been freezing millions of dollars of Al-Shabaab funds. By simply tracing the frozen Al-Shabaab funds and assets to their sources NISA dismantled illegal bomb- making facilities and trafficking networks and neutralized death squads in Mogadishu.  More interestingly, there are rumours that NISA chief Mahad Salaad has been using the Al-Shabaab frozen assets to recruit more Al-Shabaab operatives within the terrorist network as well as increasing the salaries of NISA operatives. By creating a loyal cadres of NISA agents, well-paid and loyal to him, Mahad Salaad has transformed NISA into a formidable intelligence force that has never been seen since perhaps the NSS of Siad Barre’s regime.

With the momentum on side of the Federal Government, the clandestine NISA units, along with the bulk of Somali National Army (SNA) and Danab Brigade Al- Shabaab is losing much of its previous strongholds. In fact, the SNA has encircled and besieged the Ceelbuur district and the coastal areas of Galmudug and Hirshabelle State.

 What is remarkable about this current “total war” is not just the scale of military coordination, financial, economic and social mobilization of the Somali population against the Al-Shabaab in one year but the sustainable gains in making sure the local clan population is included in every military and political campaign with the clear and measurable goal of dismantling the Al-Shabaab extortion and so called “judicial courts”.

Without the ability to freely extort the local population and no new funds coming and diminished legitimacy in the lack of the local population turning to the Shabaab courts, the Al-Shabaab leadership have found themselves in escalating crisis out of their control: the Al-Shabaab is being attacked by the Federal Government and US-EU drones while it is unable to sustain any large-scale military operations, symbolic mass attacks in Mogadishu and is unable to keep paying their operators to execute targeted assassinations.

The Shabaab Movement is not just losing territory to the Federal Government but the critical ability to project enduring power across the Theatre of War: the ability to intimidate the local population in the areas they governed. Without replenishing the frozen extortion funds now held by NISA under the cunning Mahad Salaad, the Al-Shabaab use of intimidation and mass violent attacks are diminishing in Mogadishu and throughout Southern and Central Somalia- the heartland that they have held onto for 16 years!

 Consequently, one can clearly see the contours of an effective blueprint in the fight against Al-Shabaab utilized by the Federal Government in 2023. Firstly, the Somali National Army (SNA), especially the US and Turkish trained Danab Commando Units and local clan paramilitaries methodically encircle, sweep and strike with overwhelming force into the Al-Shabaab-held districts. Before moving onto the next enemy held Al-Shabaab districts, the Federal Government through the elected clan Members of Parliament who are tasked with setting up local governing council composed of the local clans responsible for holding the territory and administering it. Once the local governance and security infrastructure agreed upon is set up by the Federal Government through the local clan Members of Parliament, the Italy managed Towards Peace and Stability in Somalia (TPSS) fund quickly releases the necessary rapid budgetary funds “cash on the spot” as Italian Ambassador Alberto Vecchi famously stated during the formally inauguration of the TPSS with Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre in September 2023.

The TPSS Fund is crucial for injecting the required immediate economic resources needed to make the newly freed district attractive to the civilian population which directly reduces the chances of Al-Shabaab infiltration, resumed attacks and imposition of extortion Zakat on the civilians.

Why is this important? In the past, the local clan communities in rural Somalia were not fully brought into the anti-Shabaab campaigns and planning for the post- Al-Shabaab transition administration. Predictably, the alienated clans and sub-clans began to collaborate with Al-Shabaab who were able to bribe them to allow for attacks on the Federal Government, sometimes for less than US $100.

Now, what the Federal Government has done by using the elected clan Members of Parliament and the Italian TPSS Fund is to bring all the local clans in the formation of local governance structures after the Al-Shabaab have been pushed out by the SNA, Danab and NISA units. This not only makes the local clans assume the added responsibility in holding the newly freed district but it degrades and eliminates the Al-Shabaab financial and quasi political structures from taking hold again. Militarily, this strategy also frees up the Federal Government forces to continue their uninterrupted advance into Al-Shabaab territory.

The Big Question of 2024 

The only question that remains answered so far is: will the Al-Shabaab now splinter into factions, some open to talks with the embolden Federal Government? If the Al-Shabaab Leadership do not negotiate out of the unprecedented sustained “Total War” being waged against them by the Federal Government, there is a real prospect of the Shabaab’s total defeat as a military and political player in Somalia. Ironically, the new scenario might very well become the Federal Government refusing to negotiate with a weakened Al-Shabaab that they are currently winning against and are confident of its imminent defeat!

Dr. M. Omar Hashi 

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