Somalia's Shebab a Tough Nut to Crack

Sunday, 06 Oct 2013 08:02 AM

 

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Efforts to defeat Somalia's al-Qaida-linked Shebab militants and prevent cross-border attacks like the bloody siege at a Nairobi shopping mall will require more than just commando strikes alone, analysts say.

Although killing or capturing senior rebel leaders in raids or drone strikes would dent the insurgents, Shebab's shadowy command structure means they can bounce back from such setbacks.

"Eliminating top level individuals would be strategic blow to the organization, but of course, the problem is in finding them," said one foreign security source who follows the Horn of Africa.

"However, it is not a silver bullet alone . . . it offers a chance to kick them down, but not keep them down."

According to a recent U.N. monitoring report, Shebab have built up a powerful "Amniyat" secret service which operates in separate cells "with the intention of surviving any kind of dissolution" of the group.

In addition, regional Shebab "franchises", such as Kenya's radical Al-Hijra group, which is thought to have played a key role in last month's Westgate shopping center attack, have the ability to work both with Somali commanders but also on their own when necessary.

It was not known which Shebab commander was targeted by elite US forces in their Saturday night raid in the southern Somali port of Barawe.

The wanted militant — described as a "high value" Shebab leader — was not captured and it was unclear whether he had been killed, but a U.S. official said several members of the group had been slain.

Somali experts suggested it would be unlikely that reclusive Shebab chief Ahmed Abdi Godane, who carries a $7 million US bounty on his head, would have been based in as open a place as Barawe.

Some Shebab leaders are thought to be based in the mountains of Puntland in the far northeast, known to some as "Somalia's Tora Bora" after the mountainous area of Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden hid out following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Negotiation seems doubtful with the al-Qaida-linked group, and there seems little sign that Shebab — which want all foreign forces to leave Somalia and have warned Kenya of "rivers of blood" — would actually want to talk.

This leaves the focus on a military solution and a long fight for the 17,700-strong African Union force in Somalia (AMISOM), which is mandated by the United Nations and has already been battling Shebab fighters for almost seven years.

Massive steps forward have been taken in the past two years after Shebab fighters fled fixed positions in the capital Mogadishu, and the AU seized a string of key towns.

But stamping out Shebab for good is far away.

Initial targets on the ground in Somalia could include a push to link up currently separated AU forces by seizing Barawe, some 110 miles south of the capital Mogadishu.

One of few ports left in Shebab hands, it offers both a symbolic and strategic prize.

Kenyan troops in southern Somalia — along with forces from Sierra Leone — could push north from the port of Kismayo, while at the same time Ugandan or Burundian troops could advance south towards the same target.

But just taking towns will weaken but not eliminate Shebab forces, analysts said.

"The notion that insurgency can be defeated by force displays a fundamental misreading of the enemy's strength," said Abdihakim Ainte, an independent analyst.

He said guerrilla attacks will not be quashed by the seizing of towns while the rebels continue to operate in rural areas.

AMISOM itself complains it lacks ground troops and air power including both transport and attack helicopters to fully carry out the task.

"We can't expand anymore . . . the best we can do is consolidating and cleaning up the areas which we're controlling now," Ugandan army chief Edward Wamala Katumba said shortly after the Westgate attack, calling for up for 7,000 more troops.

"The more we stretch, the thinner we become on the ground and the more exposed we are," Katumba told reporters, adding that Shebab fighters use "the ungoverned space . . . to perfect their skills of terrorism."

Financial restrictions including strangling the lucrative charcoal trade to Gulf States that the Shebab still have interests in could also tighten the noose on the group.

But Cedric Barnes, Horn of Africa project director at the International Crisis Group think tank, suggested that while it could hamper Shebab's day-to-day operations, it would not stem the possibility of another Westgate-style attack.

"Attacking sources of funding that are quite high profile is not necessarily going to hurt the kind of networks that carried out this kind of attack," Barnes said.

"This sort of funding (for the attack) would be more ring-fenced."

© AFP 2014

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