Africa, Politics

Al Shabab: Bruised but not beaten … yet

By Simon Allison 8 August 2011

The Somali government got a little overexcited when Al Shabab announced a tactical withdrawal from Mogadishu this weekend, declaring a “golden victory” over the Islamist rebels. This victory was somewhat tarnished by more skirmishes on Sunday, but might still be the first sign that Al Shabab is getting weaker. By SIMON ALLISON.

One of the lowest of the many low points which characterised George W Bush’s presidency was that infamous image of the beaming president on an aircraft carrier, directly under the huge banner which read “Mission accomplished”. The mission was the war in Iraq, and Bush was announcing America’s victory in it. Eight years and tens of thousands of deaths later, he might be regretting his overconfidence.

Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, embattled President of Somalia, might be regretting some overconfidence of his own. He has a few issues on his hands at the moment. Most of his country is starving, it’s riddled with pirates and terrorists and he only really presides over a a few square kilometres around Mogadishu airport. Somalia is the most comprehensively failed of the world’s failed states and he has the daunting task of turning the country around.

So you can forgive him and his administration for embracing a bit of good news for a change. In a move that caught most by surprise, Al Shabab, the Islamist militia which runs most of the country, announced on Saturday a tactical withdrawal from the areas it controlled in Mogadishu. “Tactical withdrawal” is the military term for “getting the hell out of there as fast as you can”, and that’s exactly what the al Qaeda-linked group was doing, spooked by rumours of a major African Union advance on its positions. The group, however, has insisted that its retreat is merely reflective of a change of strategy towards more mobile, guerrilla-style counterattacks, and that it will maintain direct control over the areas of southern Somalia where it is the de facto government.

The Somali government – the official one, at least – was ecstatic. “Al Shabab is on the verge of collapse,” said the president. “Our enemies have suffered a great loss, it is obvious they will run away from many towns.”

The deputy army commander added: “I embrace with happiness the setback that overwhelmed Al Shabab. I can now declare Mogadishu a free territory.”

A government spokesperson got even more carried away, labelling Al Shabab’s very limited retreat as “a golden victory for the Somali people”.

But this anouncement came a little too soon for the government soldier who was killed by Al Shabab in Mogadishu on Sunday as the capital was rocked by new attacks. Reports indicate that government troops and African Union forces rushing in to take over areas of Mogadishu vacated by Al Shabab met more resistance than anticipated, suggesting that the Al Shabab threat hasn’t been dealt with quite yet. While the government has certainly made significant gains in the capital – with the head of the African Union mission in Mogadishu, slightly less excitable than the Somali government, claiming that AU troops now control 90% of the city – Al Shabab is still in charge of vast swathes of the country. In fact, they run far more of it than does the government in Mogadishu, which until this weekend’s advances didn’t even control the capital’s central market, and is almost entirely propped up by a large contingent of AU troops. The government itself was appointed rather than elected, as part of an international peace process deal, and has just recently had its mandate extended.

But there is certainly cause for optimism. There is some evidence that Al Shabab, which is known for its harsh punishments and dogmatic (if, perhaps, misguided) application of Islamic Sharia law, is losing support, its popularity weakened by the refusal of top leaders to allow famine relief into areas it controls. As well as angering the hungry people, this position is causing division in the group itself as local footsoldiers and commanders from the famine-affected region are torn between the need to provide for their families and friends on the one hand and loyalty to Al Shabab’s top brass on the other, most of whom hail from Somaliland, the democratic breakaway enclave in the north which is not experiencing famine – the benefits of a stable government. Evidence for this is mostly anecdotal, as there is very little solid information coming out of the Al Shabab-controlled areas of Somalia and independent and critical journalism is not exactly encouraged.
But Al Shabab is unlikely to disappear completely anytime soon and things are likely to get worse for the long-suffering citizens of Somalia before they get better. As one local elder in Mogadishu told Reuters, the latest development is unlikely to improve the situation on the ground: “The Al Shabab’s camouflaged departure and the advancing government are two newly modified threats. Jihadists will continue (with their) blasts and beheadings and the so-called government forces will have the chance and space to rape and rob. We have no near future to talk about.” DM

Read more:

  • Fighting erupts in Somali capital after rebels say leaving, on Reuters Africa;
  • Al Shabab rebels withdraw from Somali capital on al Jazeera;
  • Government forces, Al Shabab clash in parts of Mogadishu on Shabelle Media Services via AllAfrica;
  • Somali famine refugees draw hope from Islamists’ Mogadishu withdrawal in The Guardian.

Photo: Reuters.


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