By Abukar Arman
Thursday September 28, 2023
There is not much left to debate on the dangerous aspect of al-Shabab’s demonic doctrine that proclaims Islamic values and functions as mindless terrorists or bloodthirsty hoodlums, at best. At its core, al-Shabab is what it is. However, in recent years it has been transforming away from its original monolithic nature. Aside from becoming decentralized franchises with mercenary style function, it has infiltrated the Somali government, intelligence, and the traditional clan structure. That said, it would be naïve to assume that al-Shabab is the only source of violence and insecurity in Somalia.
More than a year ago, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud declared an ‘all-out war against al-Shabab’ and vowed to take the fight to them in every remote village across Somalia. Therefore, he decided to partner with various clan-based vigilantes and armed them to fight al-Shabab. Some warned against that strategy due to its potential to further divide the country, fuel perpetual clan wars, and inadvertently strengthen al-Shabab. Almost a year and a half later, Somalia is barely surviving a worse scenario. Today, more and more clans are turning their guns on each other.
Worse, the Somali army and the highly trained counter-terrorism divisions Danab and Gorgor continue to get ambushed at night, massacred, their equipment taken, and others destroyed in remote villages and military camps in no man’s land in Galmudug and Hirshabelle federal states. These kinds of attacks that happened more than a dozen times—the worst and most under reported being Cowsweyne—are raising serious concerns. They are causing finger pointing, and profound distrust within the military apparatus.
Is al-Shabab strong enough to deliver these successive defeats against a much larger army that is backed by ATMIS and U.S.? Is al-Shabab logistically capable of executing deadly operations in various locations of a vast geographical area? How many fighters, combat technical and suicide trucks did they bring to execute such ambushes? How come on each occasion the massacred soldiers failed to hear the roaring engines coming at them? We are talking about rural areas where there are only dirt tracks that zigzag through a flat landscape. And at night one could hear the muffled sound of the coming truck from a far distance and could see its headlights from afar.
Answers to these critical questions, and to get to the bottom of these mysterious attacks, would depend on whether you drank the Kool-Aid or not. In other words, if you are persuaded by the government’s version that al-Shabab is the only group behind all terrorist attacks—past, present, and future—you don’t need to read beyond this point. However, if you are pained by the scores of young commandoes being mysteriously terminated, or are simply in pursuit of truth, things are not the way they are officially presented.
Somalia, due to its abundant natural resources, lack of patriotic leadership, prevalence of high-level corruption, and relentless zero-sum political competition, is a lucrative, open-for-all illegal mining cottage industry. And Galgadud region, particularly around the town of El-Bur, remains the center of gravity regarding this latest, multi-actor, deadly competition for control.
War Is a Deception
In late August 2011, at that historic night when al-Shabab abruptly pulled out of Mogadishu, I received a good news call from a senior Somali official who told me something to the effect ‘Our mole was right. They are leaving.’ When I asked ‘Who?’ He enthusiastically replied: ‘Al-Shabab, of course.’ I was Somalia’s Special Envoy to the U.S. at the time. In the morning, local and international headlines were claiming that al-Shabab was defeated by a coalition of the Somali National Army and AMISOM. President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed declared al-Shabab “defeated,” and they declared it “a change of tactics.”
However, there were no face-to-face deadly battles between these entities that ultimately compelled al-Shabab to run for their lives. Al-Shabab was controlling almost all of Mogadishu and executing its terrorist attacks at-will. Likewise, it controlled the narrative as it owned more propaganda outlets than the government. But, behind the scenes, al-Shabab militants were being hunted down every night by killer ghosts- mercenary sharpshooters using military night vision and silencers. Al-Shabab militants were dropping like swatted flies when their leader, Ahmed Godane, realized the existential threat that his militants were facing and ordered immediate evacuation.
The ghost-lords of Halane, predatory capitalists, and their armed enforcers, have always been the x-factor. A few countries already have their own mercenaries to serve their interests. Sure, those interests may at times coincide or confluence with the national interest of their host nation. But let us not forget, mercenaries are neither disciplined and restrained by ethics or moral values nor are they accountable to any authority other than their next lucrative contract.
Change of Scenery
On August 5, President Mohamud put on his military gear and set up a central command in Dhusamareeb of Galmudug region to lead the Somali military and clan militias’ all-out war against al-Shabab from there. He has been there more than 40 days. This raised many questions since the town of Mahas in the Hiiraan region was recognized as the ground-zero where that whole community declared war against al-Shabab.
Dhusamareeb is the headquarter or the bazaar of international illegal mining. A fierce competition is already underway between Ethiopia—the old field guardian—and mercenaries funded by U.S, UAE, and the late comer, uranium-desperate, European Union whose new Ambassador took a private plane to present her diplomatic credentials to President Mohamud in Dhusamareeb. An historic moment, indeed.
Meanwhile, President Mohamud cannot go to Garowe- the capital city of Puntland which is only 270 miles from where he is now stationed. Puntland has officially suspended its relationship with the federal government. It is now where Somaliland was three decades ago.
Meanwhile, the people of Sool, Sanaag and Cayn (SSC-Khatumo) who have been living under brutal repression by Somaliland military have organized themselves in recent months and accomplishing what many thought impossible. They convincingly defeated Somaliland military and exhibited exceptional discipline for not chasing the fleeing army into their clan territory. Immediately after their victory, they officially declared their independence from Somaliland and appealed to the Federal Government to accept them as a federal state. With visionary leadership and the right strategy, this issue could have served as a catalyst to a Somali-owned, country-wide reconciliation process. But, President Mohamud pled deaf, dumb, and blind.
Danger still looms as this issue is likely to morph into a long military struggle. Neither Somaliland, nor UAE which heavily invested in Berbera seaport, nor UK which is Somalia’s penholder, and the trainer of Somaliland’s special forces are willing to accept this latest fateful development.
And as if all these are not enough, the federal government mandated citizens to apply for a digital national identification card. While this may be appreciated from the security perspective, for a nation whose constitution remains ‘provisional’ and what constitutes Somali citizenship is yet to be determined, this will only further divide the country. Because clan identity is strong in Somalia and these clans inhabit various parts of East Africa, the citizenship issue has been the most controversial issue since the trusteeship period (50-60).
The emotionalization of the war on al-Shabab, and the muzzling of media reports has not only ensured President Mohamud jingoistic praises, it also emboldened him to declare victory over al-Shabab despite a large number of Somali soldiers getting killed and others being forced to evacuate almost every town or region they occupied for a short while. Things turned out so bad that President Mohamud had to sideline top military commanders, give the greenlight to reshuffle the government after the UN General Assembly, and request an emergency 90-day delay on ATMIS troops reduction.
Any objective observer would question the logic driving the claim of victory against al-Shabab under the current circumstances. But thinking logically means questioning the government’s narrative, and that ironically is considered a treasonous act.
Sadly, the only thing that stood the test of time in Somalia in the past three decades is lustful greed and the attitude that integrity is not necessary in building trust and unity. The status quo preserves al-Shabab, sustains corruption, and makes failure a lucrative cottage industry. Neither the doner nations, nor the Somali government, nor the international non-governmental organizations want to see that industry under any form of scrutiny
Abukar Arman is the author of "Broken Camel Bells: Somalia Age of Terrorism," and is a foreign policy analyst and a former diplomat. On Twitter: @4DialogSK