Somalia: Can al-Shabaab be defeated?

By Dr. Mohamed Hassan Tifow

Without a coherent war plan, al-Shabaab is here to stay. What happens then, when we become aware of the fact that we do not meet our aim of defeating al-Shabaab? Like the dissonance theory, the self-discrepancy theory predicts that these attacks on our self-esteem will cause psychological tension and the motivation to reduce the inconsistency we associate with self-discrepancy.

The Somali government and the society are each trying to explain this discrepancy between the reality (powerlessness to defeat the enemy) and the expected aim (defeat of al-Shabaab), employing various forms of self-justification.

President Farmaajo during his inauguration speech declared a total war against the movement. He declared that he would destroy Al-Shabaab once and for all. Three years later, the group, still controls large areas of the countryside and regularly carries out attacks, especially in Mogadishu. Despite putting a total lock on Mogadishu and numerous military operations by Amisom, a regional peace mission of the African Union, together with the weak Somali army, a victory over the terror organization has not been achieved. On the contrary, al-Shabaab succeeded to expand its control to a large part of the Mogadishu and its surrounding areas. Al-Shabaab infiltrated if not all, most of the government departments (especially security sectors), due to governments’ naïve programme which provides work without proper check on defectors from the group. It is almost impossible to defeat Al-Shabaab with this arrangement in force.

But two big obstacles makes almost impossible to defeat Al-Shabaab; the first obstacle is the situation of the Somali army itself. The soldiers fight without proper strategy, their positions are mostly isolated and there’s no logistical support available. Roads are mostly controlled by Al-Shabaab forces. Often they do not get their pay, despite the millions of dollars in support from Western donor countries. Corruption is the main reason for this. Civil servants and army leaders put the funds in their own pockets. Soldiers become demoralized and don’t want to risk their lives at the front when they are not paid. Some sell their weapons in the market to get money; others defect to Al-Shabaab, which has the reputation of paying their soldiers regularly and well. Recently, some of the Lower Shabeele positions of the Somali army were easily captured by the terrorist movement as the soldiers were isolated and without support.

The second obstacle is the demography of the country; the country has many young people who are in the prime of their lives and at the same time have no prospect of work. Joining Al-Shabaab comes with the opportunity to eat every day, belong somewhere and fight for a common cause, while they may not be able to see the bad consequences of their choice as distraught youngsters.

Because of weak governments, Al-Shabaab is in a position of power that they can use to their advantage: for example, the levy taxes on the population to buy new weapons and to expand the area of terror.

Corruption also embodies the contrasts between rich and poor. The badly paid police officer manning checkpoints looks another way, puts a dollar from a terrorist driving a car full of explosives in his pocket. The top officer and minister build a villa of the misappropriation or bribe. Every time Transparency International issues a report, putting Somalia at the first of the list of the most corrupt land, Farmaajo’s government takes some measures. Lower officials are hit, but the big profiteers are left out.

Al-Shabaab carried out an increasing number of attacks and assassinations in Somalia in the past months. At the same time, the United States is striking back from the air, with drone strikes against terrorist group fighters in the vast countryside without any tangible result to show.  In 2021, the military from Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti (known as AMISOM) must be gone. The Somali army must then be able to take over peacekeeping and cope with Al-Shabaab.

However, the Somali army is far from being able to take over the role of the African peacekeeping force. Somali military personnel are poorly trained underpaid and have inferior weapons. As mentioned earlier, because soldiers receive too little pay, corruption lurks and their weapons are sold on. Indeed, Al-Shabaab has somewhat weakened. That is why their focus is attacking soft targets like hotels, politicians, journalists, and the street assassination. Al-Shabaab fighters are very mobile. They still do a lot of damage with land mines, car bombs and improvised explosives. So far thousands of Somalis did not survive the terror of al-Shabaab.

However, it remains to be watched if defeating al-Shabaab is possible with current government’s strategy and the limited training and equipment available to the Somali military. The risk remains that the Somali government will not be able to maintain the security level in Mogadishu and all of Somalia in the post-AMISOM era. I assume that, with the current political atmosphere in the country, as soon as the last Amisom soldier leaves the country, the government will collapse and the civil war will restart again. As for Al-Shabaab, it will not certainly mean the end but reinventing.

Dr. Mohamed Hassan Tifow can be reached at mxtifow@yahoo.co.uk 

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