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Security Gaps Leave Room for al-Shabab Resurgence

  • Gabe Joselow

The al-Qaida linked militant group al-Shabab has struck at the heart of the Somali government with a string of suicide attacks in Mogadishu. The recent strikes and a fresh recruitment drive point to a resurgence of one of Africa's most feared terrorist groups.

Three years ago, the end of al-Shabab was thought to be in sight.

The group had been driven out of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, by the African Union force AMISOM, and was losing its grip on cities across the country.

But then the fighting stopped. AMISOM has not taken any new ground from the militants since 2012, when Kenyan troops, later integrated into the AU force, took control of the port city of Kismayo.

During the lull in fighting, the group has only become more dangerous.

Suicide attacks against government targets in Mogadishu, like the February assault on the presidential palace that killed 17 people, have exposed security weaknesses in the capital.

While last year's days-long siege on the Westgate Shopping mall in the Kenyan capital showed al-Shabab remains a serious terrorist threat to the region.

International Crisis Group Horn of Africa project director Cedric Barnes says the militants have also been adding to their ranks.

"They did do a lot of recruitment in the wider region over the past few years, there were several recruitment drives during 2013 both inside Somalia and elsewhere. So we do not think they lack recruits at all," said Barnes.

Meantime, the federal government has been unable to provide services in areas under militant control, which gives al-Shabab leverage over the populations it controls, says Barnes.

"Shabab does not really have to try very hard to provide anything. But I think it is important to acknowledge that while they do have a very brutal side and a side that can be deeply unpopular, they also do provide some very basic services, not just physical services, but and some mediation services that the state can not provide," said Barnes.

A United Nations monitoring group estimates al-Shabab has about 5,000 members and operates from bases in southern Somalia.

Horn of Africa analyst Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad, with Southlink Consultants, says the group should be no match for an AMISOM force comprised of about 22,000 soldiers.

"One thing I know, if AMISOM are serious about defeating al-Shabab they can do [it]," said Abdisamad. "But the question is, are they willing to do so?"

The Somali government and AMISOM have announced plans to resume ground operations against the group in their remaining strongholds, but so far there has been no action.

Abdisamad believes the AU force needs to develop a stronger game plan to target the group, and bring Somali forces up to the task of maintaining the peace.

"For the last couple of weeks, al-Shabab they are making havoc in the security of Mogadishu," said Abdisamad. "If they do not have a strategy to defeat al-Shabab if they do not have an exit strategy so that they can train the Somali security apparatus then, AMISOM, the sooner they leave the country the better."

While AMISOM may have the firepower to defeat al-Shabab, Somali government and U.N. officials have said a military victory alone will not be enough, and that more has to be done to establish government authority in liberated areas to avoid potential power vacuums.

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