The good news is that the Pentagon is wiping out Somali insurgents on the ground and from the air. The bad news is that al-Shabab keeps coming back stronger.
NAIROBI — The U.S. Defense Department notched major tactical victories against the Somali militant group al-Shabab over the past week. It claims to have killed nearly as many insurgents in a single aerial assault last weekend than in the previous eight years of air- and drone strikes in the troubled East African nation; that attack was followed by a joint operation on Wednesday between Somali and U.S. special operations forces that killed 15 more extremists.
But it would be a mistake to conclude that al-Shabab was on the ropes before these attacks or that it’s significantly more so now. More than anything, regional analysts and Somali diplomats say the airstrikes on a terrorist training facility roughly 120 miles north of the capital, Mogadishu, illustrates just how dramatically the group has rebounded in recent years.
“The good news is that someone in the United States was keeping an eye on the ball,” J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, said in an interview posted on the Washington-based think tank’s website. “The bad news is that the group could assemble 150 people in one spot and was not afraid to do so. These are not signs of a group that is supposedly on the run or defeated.”
The U.S. operation on Saturday, March 5, involved both manned and unmanned aircraft, and left 150 al-Shabab militants dead, according to the Pentagon. The militants were “scheduled to depart the camp [and] posed an imminent threat” to U.S. and African Union forces in Somalia, Defense Department spokesman Peter Cook said in a statement on Monday.
At a time when the United States has grown increasingly alarmed at the spread of Islamic extremism in Africa — from Boko Haram in Nigeria to al Qaeda in the Sahel region to the Islamic State in Libya — the resilience of al-Shabab has highlighted the limits of the Obama administration’s approach to counterterrorism on the continent. American drone strikes, coupled with financial and material assistance to a 22,000-strong African Union peace enforcement mission (AMISOM), have succeeded in driving al-Shabab from most urban areas. But those policies have not prevented the group from continuing to strike civilian, government, and AU targets as it seeks to expel AMISOM and establish an Islamic state in Somalia.
Al-Shabab’s resurgence has grown increasingly hard to ignore in the last 12 months. In that time, the group has ramped up its terrorist operations in neighboring Kenya, where it killed 148 people at Garissa University last April, while at the same time it accelerated its attacks on AU forces in Somalia. In addition to ambushing and attacking AMISOM supply lines with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the group has begun direct strikes, with deadly effect, on the peacekeeping mission’s forward operating bases. Since June of last year, it has overrun three such bases — in Leego, Janaale, and El Adde — and killed more than 170 soldiers.
Even more worryingly, the group has exhibited a new level of technological sophistication. In February, it nearly downed a commercial airliner with a bomb hidden in a laptop (the explosion punched a hole in the plane’s fuselage, but only killed the bomber). And on multiple recent occasions, it has targeted restaurants and hotels with massive car bombs that suggest increased know-how and ready access to explosives.
“This is a new face of al-Shabab that has many things to do with the international jihadists that are springing up everywhere in Libya, Tunisia, Yemen,” Somali Foreign Minister Abdisalam Omer told Foreign Policy in an interview at the Somali Embassy in Nairobi on Tuesday.
The group’s resurgence has been fueled, in part, by the tactical shifts it has made since being routed from its urban strongholds in Mogadishu, Kismayo, and elsewhere in Somalia between 2011 and 2012. At that time, the group stopped facing off conventionally against militarily superior AMISOM troops and began launching attacks against civilians in the urban areas they had been forced to leave, in order to erode support for the Somali federal government, which had assumed control of them.
The group also began what Somalia expert Bronwyn Bruton has termed a “mosquito bite” strategy of ambushes, assassinations, and IED attacks against AMISOM. Whenever the peacekeepers launched an offensive, al-Shabab simply retreated. Then it pummeled the mission’s exposed supply lines. This not only enabled al-Shabab to regroup in between offensives, it also yielded a terrifying arsenal of captured weapons, ammunition, and vehicles that the insurgents now appear to be turning against AMISOM.
There is also an international dimension to the story of the Somali militant group’s revival. The collapse of neighboring Yemen following the Saudi-led intervention last year has reinvigorated al-Shabab’s longtime ally, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and deepened their ties. Some argue that the transfer of weapons and training between the two groups has accelerated.
“We have been flagging the danger that is coming from the collapse of Yemen for a long time and the possibility that [AQAP] and even ISIS might get involved,” said Omer. “We honestly believe that there are new skilled people who come from outside Somalia. There are new weapons of destruction and new tactics and a new approach that al-Shabab is coming up with in the last six months. It is because of the collapse of Yemen.”
Omer cited the use of laptop explosives as well as the “sophisticated engineering” of truck bombs that are now leveling buildings “four or five blocks” from the site of the blast as evidence of heightened collaboration between al-Shabab and AQAP.
“This is not the usual al-Shabab. This is almost similar to what happened in Baghdad yesterday that has killed 60 people,” he said, referring to a March 6 attack in the Iraqi capital claimed by the Islamic State. “It created a crater.”
Casual ties between al-Shabab and AQAP date back at least to 2008, when the American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who later became a leading figure in AQAP, penned a glowing encomium to al-Shabab on his blog. Then in 2010, AQAP deputy leader Said al-Shihri released an audio message urging the two groups to “work together, each in our own arena, in our future battle with America.” The full extent of the two groups’ cooperation is not known, but U.S. intelligence agents reportedly believed that AQAP was training al-Shabab fighters and sending them weapons and ammunition as early as 2011.
Al-Shabab, which emerged in 2006 as a nationalist force devoted to countering the U.S.-backed Ethiopian occupation of Somalia, became a formal al Qaeda affiliate in 2012.
“The collapse of Yemen certainly enabled the long-term ties between Shabab and AQAP to be strengthened,” said Cedric Barnes, the Horn of Africa project director at the International Crisis Group. “One of the reasons we were so skeptical of the ISIS threat in Somalia is because AQAP is so strong in Yemen. Why would al-Shabab go and join the Islamic State when its affiliate [AQAP] is already doing so well?”
After Nigeria’s Boko Haram pledged loyalty to the Islamic State last March, some predicted that al-Shabab would ditch al Qaeda for the newly ascendant jihadi brand. But so far the existing alliance has stayed intact; only a small number of al-Shabab fighters have reportedly broken with the group’s leadership and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
The gradual escalation of al-Shabab attacks over the last year could partly reflect the ease of procuring weapons from its al Qaeda affiliate in war-torn Yemen or from smugglers operating there. Just this week, the Australian navy seized a huge shipment of arms off the coast of Oman that was apparently headed to Somalia. It included $2 million worth of rocket-propelled grenades and nearly 2,000 assault rifles. (It is not yet clear if the weapons were ultimately intended for al-Shabab or for Houthi rebels in Yemen.)
“That’s like a shipment going to the Somali national army,” said Omer, the Somali foreign minister, marveling at the quantity of weapons being smuggled.
The U.S. assault on the al-Shabab training camp on March 5 seemed to reinforce an important shift in U.S. strategy that has taken place over the last six months. Whereas from 2007 until the middle of 2015, when the Pentagon used drone and airstrikes only to take out individual al-Shabab leaders, it has been using them in support of African Union operations on the ground since at least last July. But Saturday’s assault was the first time the United States has directed its firepower at rank-and-file insurgents on such a massive scale. According to data collected by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, before the March 5 attack, between 78 and 267 people had been killed in U.S. drone and airstrikes in Somalia since 2007 — fewer or only slightly more than the number of militants the Pentagon claimed to have killed on Saturday.
Al-Shabab spokesman Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab acknowledged that the “U.S. bombed an area controlled by al-Shabab” but denied that so many of the group’s fighters had been killed. “We never gather 100 fighters in one spot for security reasons,” he told the news agency Reuters on Tuesday. “We know the sky is full of planes.”
Photo credit: Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images