by Cristiana Era
October 28 was the last of several bloody days that have been racked Somalia in 2017, following a much deadlier terrorist attack just two weeks earlier that caused the death of more than 350 people. It is the comeback of al-Shabaab (“Youth”, in Arabic), the al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist network which seemed to be retreating with heavy losses in 2012-2013. But the lack of steadfast efforts by the International Community, maybe too much absorbed by the Islamic State and by the Libyan case, has reversed the situation in the Horn of Africa.
The presence of AMISOM, the African Union Mission peacekeeping forces in Somalia has contained the threat for some time, but Kenya, which provides the bulk of the peacekeepers, has suffered a major setback last year, after the terrorist group attacked the military camp of El Adde, killing more than a hundred and fifty Kenyan soldiers. Furthermore, the country is currently undergoing an internal crisis due to the much contested Presidential election which, after the Supreme Court cancelled the August 8 one upon alleged irregularities, saw the re-election of Uhuru Kenyatta with slightly more than 7 thousand votes on October 26. But even this time, many are predicting a new legal action by the opposition and increased internal turmoil. In all this, Kenyan public opinion is not in favor of a renewed commitment of its troops in Somalia.
Indeed, the Kenyan death toll in the fight against al-Shabaab is significant and on the rise. Kenya, like Uganda, has been targeted by the Islamic group for years because of its participation to AMISOM. And each time, the country has suffered losses in the number of tens. In 2013 militants from al-Shabaab targeted Kenya’s Westgate Mall, which, after a four day siege, caused at least 68 dead. In 2014 its militants attacked the Kenyan towns of Mpeketoni, Poromoko and Koromei, killing more than eighty people. In 2015, another attack to Kenya’s Garissa University College caused the death of 147 people, followed, as already mentioned, by the massacre of El Adde in January 2016. Thus, unless a major change occurs both internally and in Somalia, President Kenyatta will likely abide by the 2018 date set for the AMISOM’s withdrawal, with a devastating impact on the already precarious security situation.
The resumption of extensive terrorist activity by al-Shabaab in the Somali capital is actually not a matter of recent months. After a partial withdrawal in 2011 from several cities, the movement – which aims at ousting the Government, establish the Shari’a rule and support the jihadi cause – has regained momentum by resorting to suicide bombings, IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devises) and assassination of political leaders. It still maintains control of rural areas in central and south Somalia and it is attempting to expand its presence in the north.
Besides military attacks, though, in an attempt to combine different strategies and undermine the Somali Federal Government’s credibility and legitimacy, the Islamic group is also seeking to build popular support by providing humanitarian assistance to rural population suffering from famine and draught, which are said to affect almost 6 million Somalis. To this respect, the attack of October 28 in Mogadishu might not produce the desired outcome, and that might be the reason why responsibility has not been officially claimed. Some observers speculate that the attack was planned in order to hit Somali institutions but something went wrong along the way and the explosion that killed three hundred people occurred earlier than scheduled. Indeed, so far al-Shabaab has targeted mainly foreign entities and individuals and Somali politicians.
However, it will take more than this to erode the growing influence of the group. First of all, militants Islamists can count on the inability of AMISOM and national forces to effectively fight terrorism. Widespread corruption and low loyalty to the nation’s values are troubling features for a Somali army that is a patchwork of former warlords’ militias, while the extension of the peacekeeping mission of the African Union is in doubt. Secondly, the February Presidential election, won by Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, was hailed as a sign that the country was gradually reaching stability and moving towards democracy. But since before the election took place, militant Islamists’ strikes have grown in number and intensity and the new President appears as weak as his predecessor. Thirdly, the weakness of Somali institutions is deepened by endemic corruption fostered by personal interests, nepotism and absence of real governance in many parts of the country, where al-Shabaab is better competing for popular recognition. Last, but not least: Somalia is one of the routes connecting the Middle East to Africa; a perfect gateway for illicit traffic, of goods or people (particularly jihadists from other countries), which will increase the power of the Islamic group, both financially and militarily. Its connections to the al-Qaeda network (including AQAP in Yemen and ISIS in Egypt, Lybia, and Sudan) are renowned, and it is likely to increase its importance in the jihadist universe now that the Islamic Caliphate (but not ISIS meant as an inspiring movement) has collapsed in Iraq. As a matter of fact, many ISIS militants might find a safe-haven there, contributing to the enlargement of al-Shabaab forces and to their training.