By any reckoning, 2011 was not a good year for Harakat al-Shabaab
al-Mujahideen (Movement of Striving Youth) or al-Shabaab (the Youth) as it
is more commonly known. This Islamist and al-Qaeda aligned group in Somalia
suffered various setbacks.
In March, Transitional Federal Government (TFG) forces together with the
African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) recaptured the town of Bulo Hawo.
In April, the town of Dhobley, near the Kenyan border, also fell under the
control of the TFG. By August 6, al-Shabaab was driven out of Mogadishu as a
result of the co-ordinated attacks from AMISOM and TFG fighters.
In the process, some senior and experienced al-Shabaab commanders were
killed. On March 16 Abdelkadir Yusuf Aar who served as the group's leader in
the Juba and Gedo region was killed. On April 3 another senior al-Shabaab
operative, Hassan Abdurahman, was killed in Dhobley. On June 11, Fazul
Abdullah Mohamed was killed by security forces in Afgoye, north-west of
Mogadishu. Not only was Mohamed an al-Shabaab commander but he was also a
senior al-Qaeda operative.
In addition to this military pressure from AMISOM and the TFG, al-Shabaab
was also suffering from a series of organizational problems. Tensions
between the movement's northern and southern commanders escalated on the
ideological and tactical fronts; less money was entering al-Shabaab's
coffers from the Somali diaspora at the same time when support for the
movement from the Somali business community was ebbing; and clan militias
increasingly challenged al-Shabaab's territorial hegemony in its heartland
of southern Somalia.
Attempting to lure Ethiopia
It is in this context that the authorities in Nairobi embarked on an
ill-conceived, badly planned and poorly executed Operation Linda Nchi
(Swahili for "Protect the Nation") which involved hundreds of Kenyan troops
crossing the border into Somalia on October. The immediate catalyst for the
operation was the kidnapping of several tourists from Kenya by ostensibly al
Shabaab militants*. In doing so the government of Mwai Kibaki has played
into the hands of al-Shabaab.
For some time now al-Shabaab has been attempting to lure Ethiopia, the US
and Kenya into sending boots on to Somali ground. In having a foreign
"occupation" force once more on Somali soil, al-Shabaab hopes to play the
nationalist card and to unite all factions under its banner whilst
simultaneously weakening the TFG which is then seen as the "puppets" of
these foreign forces.
Washington, however, has refused to play by al Shabaab's rules, preferring
surgical predator drone strikes. Addis Ababa, having withdrawn their troops
and having learned their mistakes from its earlier intervention see no
reason to once more re-engage militants on their home turf. Unfortunately,
Nairobi still has to learn this painful lesson. Far from using its armed
forces to seal its borders with Somalia or using its air force to provide
support to TFG forces as it did at Dhobley, Kenya chose to send troops into
al-Shabaab's heartland in southern Somalia to take on the movement directly.
This will prove to be a costly mistake for Nairobi.
Objective not clear
In the first instance, the Kenyan authorities were not clear as to the
objective of its military intervention. Thus whilst at first, Nairobi stated
that their armed forces were pursuing al-Shabaab fighters across the border,
subsequent statements suggests that the military objectives became ever more
expansive. These expanded objectives included dismantling al-Shabaab itself
as well securing Kismayo, an al Shabaab- controlled port, 155 miles from the
Second, given the expanded objectives and the topography of the region the
military force deployed was much too small to attain the avowed objectives.
Third, Kenyan military planners seemed not to have factored the weather when
drawing up their plans. One reason for the offensive to have stalled was
because of the heavy rains and mud which is slowing the advance.
Fourth, rather than fight the Kenyans in conventional terms, al-Shabaab is
employing guerilla tactics - which the Kenyan military unfortunately did not
anticipate. Fifth, the intervention is exacerbating popular anger against
Kenyans - especially when innocent civilians are being targeted. On October
30, for instance, the Kenyan air force, conducted an aerial bombardment of
an internally displaced persons camp in Jilib which resulted in the deaths
of five civilians, and the wounding of 45 others. Of the latter, 31 were
children. Al-Shabaab has tapped into this popular anger as it recruits more
It is already clear that Nairobi is seeking a not too gracious exit from the
Somali stage. Recently a Kenyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs official said
that if the TFG commits to fighting al-Shabaab (which it has been doing),
Kenya will halt its military advance. This Kenyan misadventure in Somalia
may well prove to have given al Shabaab a life line.
* It should be noted that al Shabaab never claimed responsibility for these
Prof Solomon lectures Political Science at the University of the Free State.
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Received on Wed Nov 30 2011 - 15:55:05 EST