Thursday January 19, 2023
Anti–al Shabaab forces increased pressure on al Shabaab in central Somalia by capturing district capitals that al Shabaab has used for logistics and finances. The current offensive, which began in summer 2022, is the first Somali-led offensive against al Shabaab and the largest challenge to al Shabaab’s presence in central Somalia since 2015. Somali forces and local clan militias, with US and Turkish drone support, cleared al Shabaab from its former strongholds in eastern Hiraan region in central Somalia in September 2022. They also cleared the Middle Shabelle region from October to December and began clearing operations in the Galgudud and Mudug regions in late December and early January.
Anti–al Shabaab forces, including US-trained special forces, captured two district capitals—Harardhere and El Dheere—in north-central Somalia on January 16 and 17. These takeovers mark an important symbolic and military victory for anti–al Shabaab forces, which had been unable to enter Harardhere since al Shabaab took over the town in 2008. The capture of Harardhere and El Dheere also eliminates al Shabaab’s two largest ports on the central Somalia coast, cutting key supply and smuggling lines that supply the group’s activities in central Somalia.
Al Shabaab is weathering the offensive by retreating and regrouping to launch counterattacks from rural areas. It used these rear staging areas to launch a wave of suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED) attacks in the Hiraan and Middle Shabelle regions beginning in early January. The group has carried out at least six SVBIED attacks in the Middle Shabelle and Hiraan regions since January 4, using at least 12 vehicle borne improvised explosive devices (VBIED) across the attacks. Somali security forces also seized four unused VBIEDs in Middle Shabelle region on January 8 and 11. Al Shabaab will likely use this same retreat-and-counterattack strategy in north-central Somalia. The group’s fighters withdrew from Harardhere and El Dheere before security forces arrived. The Somali Federal Government is seeking to rebuff the coming counterattacks by garrisoning major towns and using local militias to target al Shabaab staging areas. Somali forces have thus far repelled two large-scale al Shabaab suicide raids on its positions in central Somalia in January.
The rapid fall of Harardhere could alternatively indicate that al Shabaab forces in central Somalia are overstretched and lacking morale. Anti–al Shabaab forces quickly captured Harardhere, taking over the district capital only 10 days after beginning operations in Mudug. Al Shabaab also has not yet attacked anti–al Shabaab forces in Mudug. This relatively quiet response is noteworthy because al Shabaab appears to be ceding more valuable terrain with less resistance compared to earlier in the campaign. Furthermore, two al Shabaab factions reportedly clashed north of Harardhere on December 31, killing 12 militants, after one group attempted to defect. These factors indicate that al Shabaab forces may have been unable or unwilling to launch a meaningful defense in north-central Somalia. The group remains likely to marshal a counteroffensive in the future, however, and retains significant strategic depth in Somalia.