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Somalia's intensifying fight against Al-Shabab

Somalia's intensifying fight against Al-Shabab
7 min read
11 October, 2022
Analysis: President Mohamud has made it his priority to eradicate the extremist group, reviving alliances with regional powers and the US and arming local militias to defeat Al-Shabab once and for all.

The recently re-elected President of the Federal Republic of Somalia, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, has made fighting against Al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda linked terrorist group, his top priority, both ideologically and militarily. His most recent trip, and arguably his most eventful one, was to the United States.

On the 16th of September, in a speech in Washington DC, Mohamud delivered an articulate rebuttal against the extremist ideology of Al-Shabab.

“Somalia belongs to the Muslim, but it belongs to the Somali Muslims, not every Muslim. We need to tell our people that Abu Salah, Abu Ubaidah, and Abu Qahtan have nothing to do with Somalia," he said. "This is a land for Jama, Alasow, and Qawdhan”.

His comments earned plaudits from regional commentators, perceived as a confident statement dismissing religious extremism as something that is not native to Somalia.

The president has spent the first few months of his presidency on the road. Within a span of four months, he has visited Turkey, Kenya, Tanzania, Djibouti, Eritrea, Egypt, the UAE, and the UK. But most importantly, President Mohamud has also met with numerous US officials.

At the Pentagon, he met with the US Secretary of Defence Lloyd J. Austin III to discuss recent efforts to counter Al-Shabab. The Secretary of Defence appreciated President Mohamud’s willingness to host US forces, indicating that Somalia intends to work more closely with the US than the previous Farmaajo administration.

Similarly, President Mohamud met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken again, with both agreeing on the importance of combatting terrorism in the Horn of Africa. President Mohamud also met with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, where Sullivan and President Mohamud reiterated the close friendship and co-operation between the United States and Somalia.

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During Mohamud’s visit, he also met with the Somali diaspora of Washington DC. In a speech to the Somali community, he said, “We see a strong momentum against Al-Shabab and want to sustain it to defeat a group that has proven to be remorseless and [like the] mafia, which has attained economic autonomy through intimidation and the murder of innocent people.”

It is clear that Mohamud visited the United States with one thing on his mind: lobbying the US government and the Somali diaspora to support his administration’s heightened fight against the Al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group.

In tandem with the president’s lobbying efforts, there has been a concerted effort on the ground. Just three days after his meeting with the Secretary of Defence, Lloyd J Austin III, where Mohamud was praised for his willingness to scale up efforts against Al-Shabab, a US air strike in the Hiiraan region of Somalia killed 27 Al-Shabab terrorists.

The air strikes were carried out “at the request of the Federal Government of Somalia”, the US Africa Command said in a statement. This operation is the largest combined Somali and African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) offensive operation in five years, further demonstrating the increased engagement between the US and Somalia as the offensive against Al-Shabab picks up.

Women walk next to a destroyed house and the wreckage of a car following an attack by Al-Shabaab militants on a police station on the outskirts of Mogadishu, Somalia, on 16 February 2022. [Getty]

There has also been a formation of local vigilante groups, colloquially known as the 'ma'awisley', who, empowered with weaponry and intelligence provided by the Somali government and sick of Al-Shabab’s puritanical dogma and senseless violence, have vowed to take on the extremist group.

The term 'ma'awisley' refers to the traditional sarong-like cloth that Somali men wear. The local vigilante groups, with the help of the Somali National Army, have successfully captured numerous towns and districts that were previously governed by the terrorist group.

Faisal Roble, a Horn of Africa political analyst, told The New Arab that the motivation behind the 'ma'awisley' taking the fight to Al-Shabab is that the Hiiraan region has recently borne the brunt of Al-Shabab’s brutality.

“Several prominent individuals including parliamentarians have been killed in a cruel and cunning manner,” said Roble.

Roble also compared the current backing of local vigilante groups in Somalia to Ethiopia, Somalia’s western neighbour, where the government has armed local militias.

“If the government of Mohamud moves quickly to set a functioning security system and offer alternative governance, Al-Shabab can be defeated for good,” Roble said.

In Mohamud’s address to the UN General Assembly on the 22nd of September, he addressed the recent organic efforts by the local vigilante groups that the Somali federal government is backing with weaponry and intelligence.

“On our part, the Somali Federal government and its federal member states with the direct support of our brave and resilient people are responding by challenging and defeating terrorist groups in major localities,” he said.

“Somali people have begun to organically rise up in support of their government’s call to defend their nation from the evils of terror.”

The government has also passed a new media law banning the proliferation of “terrorist messages” for Al-Shabab, warning internet providers to block access to media houses deemed sympathetic to the terrorist group.

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Dr Abdirahman M. Abdi Hashi, a former minister of Fisheries and Marine Resources for Somalia, told The New Arab that in order to minimise potential risks of arming local vigilante groups, the government should immediately make sure that the 'ma'awisley' don’t stray away and become an independent militia.

“The government needs to undertake proactive initiatives such as job creation, building roads, hospitals, schools, assisting farmers with fertilisers, and incentivising local support for the government,” said Hashi.

Hashi added that Somalia should appeal to the international community, namely the US and the EU, to present to the UN Security Council measures such as lifting the arms embargo, which would provide the Somali National Army the force multiplier weapons such as helicopters, artillery, drones, and tanks needed to defeat Al-Shabab once and for all.

“The UN Security Council must immediately lift the arms embargo imposed on Somalia, in order for the country to effectively defeat Al-Shabab and securely defend its borders as a sovereign nation,” Hashi told The New Arab.

Security officers patrol near the destroyed Hayat Hotel after a deadly 30-hour siege by Al-Shabab militants killed tens of civilians, in Mogadishu on 21 August 2022. [Getty]

In addition to the military front, it’s equally important to end the extortion and taxation that is the locomotive engine of the terrorist group, Hashi explained. This critical responsibility is that of the Ministry of Finance, with the cooperation and collaboration of banks, money transfer companies, and telecom companies, to take the fight to Al-Shabab on the financial front.

“In light of the recent major victories against Al-Shabab on the battlefield, it is absolutely critical that the federal government must also cut off the funding Al-Shabab gets from extortion and taxation to finish them off,” Hashi said.

After returning from his trip to the US, Mohamud embarked on a trip to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. The president has enjoyed support from Somalia’s regional allies in the fight against Al-Shabab. Abiy Ahmed, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, expressed support for Mohamud and joined the call for lifting the arms embargo.

In July, a coordinated effort by Ethiopia’s special police and local militia successfully eradicated a surge in Al-Shabab activities in Ethiopia’s Somali Region.

In recent years, Somalia has had rocky relations with its southern neighbour, Kenya. However, Mohamud’s election seems to have ushered in a period of more cordial relations, with newly elected Kenyan president William Ruto expressing his support for Mohamud, who Ruto said is "much more committed to fighting terrorism".

Somalia has been rapidly regaining territory in previously Al-Shabab-held areas, but the test remains as to whether President Mohamud’s administration will be able to keep these towns away from the terrorist group.

“I think we need to see how the administration of Mohamud moves or addresses these post-victory challenges,” Roble said.

Mohammed Haji is a London-based freelance journalist with a keen interest in East African affairs. 

Follow him on Twitter: @hxji99