WASHINGTON— About a month ago, African Union troops and Somali government soldiers retook the town of Huddur from the militant group al-Shabab. The capture came relatively easy. When the troops approached, al-Shabab just retreated into the hinterland.
The following day, the town of Wajid also fell to pro-government forces. Several towns were then recaptured: Burdhubo on March 9, Buloburde on March 13, Qoryoley on March 22, and el-Bur on March 26. By the end of March, AU and Somali forces had seized 10 towns in all.
In most of these locations, al-Shabab offered no resistance. Qoryoley and Burdhubo were the exceptions; both were home to al-Shabab bases. In Qoryoley, 120 kilometers south of Mogadishu, the militants continue to launch counter-attacks
All the other towns were almost empty when captured. The town of el-Bur, in the Galgudud region, was the emptiest and the “eeriest," witnesses report. They say before al-Shabab retreated, the militants told residents to flee and destroyed the local wells to make sure the coming troops did not have a water supply.
So what is al-Shabab’s strategy here?
Regional analysts say al-Shabab has realized it can not effectively fight AU and Somali government troops in a conventional war, so the group is avoiding direct clashes. The militants suffered significant losses in 2010 and 2011 during attempts to hold Mogadishu, and have since taken heavy casualties in other battles.
Abdullahi Aden, a security analyst in Mogadishu, said, “They [al-Shabab] know and hear what is going on. They know something about the fighting strategy, they have assessed the power that is moving toward them and they decided to vacate these towns.”
Roland Marchal is an al-Shabab expert and a senior fellow at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. He said he thinks the militants have decided to pursue asymmetrical warfare, an approach popular with militant Islamic groups in other parts of the world.
“If you look at what happened to the Taliban in 2011 that was one of their main mistakes," said Marchal. "If you look at other jihadi groups that tried to resist in cities in Syria or Iraq, they lost so much for trying to keep cities for the sake of showing their strength. Shabab has learned."
Blocking the roads
Al-Shabab is implementing another new tactic, more troubling to the Somali government and AMISOM forces. They are blockading the towns they have lost.
In Huddur, Wajid, Buloburde and el-Bur, al-Shabab militants have told commercial truck drivers that they will be targeted and even killed if they transport goods to these towns. With no supplies coming in, food and fuel prices in all four towns have skyrocketed.
Ali Ismail Ali, a worker for a non-governmental organization in Huddur, said the cost of basic goods in Huddur has risen about 50 percent. "[For] an example, a sack of sugar was $35 and now is selling for $80, and a sack of rice was $25 and now $60," he said.
He said the price for a drum of fuel also has jumped, from $70 to $105.
Ali said the only way to ease the situation is to remove al-Shabab from the roads leading to Huddur and the other towns.
Experts say al-Shabab’s ultimate goal is to stretch AMISOM and government forces, wear them down, and then be able to regroup.
Even after its recent losses, al-Shabab still controls a significant amount of the countryside. At the moment, AMISOM and the government lack the troops to drive them out of every area.
Many regional experts think al-Shabab leaders and individuals that are well known -- and wanted by Somali authorities -- will stay in rural areas and jungles to lead the group’s guerrilla war.
But many militants have gradually re-entered main towns, trying to melt into the society. These militants, the experts say, could conduct urban attacks such as suicide bombings and assassinations.
Al-Shabab may also benefit from any grievances residents have. In particular, people in the areas previously controlled by al-Shabab are tired after enduring years of war and al-Shabab's strict Islamic rule. Some feel that at least they had peace under al-Shabab, and expect the government to improve their lives.
One expert says of these civilians: “They cannot accept roadblocks, insecurity and lack of administration. At the moment they want to see the government stay and not move on to other areas because that would make them vulnerable to attacks from al-Shabab.”
Al-Shabab faces its own challenges. Roland Marchal describes the group's leaders as "paranoid" when it comes the possibility of spies passing information about the group's plans to U.S. agents, who can then launch drone attacks against al-Shabab targets. "That has weakened the ability of Shabab to mix with the population and trust people enough to rebuild its recruitment facilities in a short-term basis," he says.
So who is better prepared for the long war in Somalia?
Abdullahi Aden says the government will succeed if it can keep continuous military pressure on al-Shabab. “The international community and the Somali government are determined to remove al-Shabab and to see Somalia united," he says. "The Somali government has its own troops (who) are able to conduct an operation, however weak they are. I believe if they can maintain this operation the government will succeed.”
But Roland Marchal argues there is a huge question mark on which side could come on top at the end.
“AMISOM is going to take over very significant number of cities, some of them very important for their number of population and strategic location," he said. "But the point is, the day after, who is going to control? Who is able to secure logistical lines for the military contingent or for the people and administration to move from one city to the other, and this is the weak point.”