July 3, 2023
IntelBrief: Al-Shabaab Shows No Signs of Decline in East Africa
On June 19th the government of Somalia announced that 43 al-Shabaab fighters, including two high-level commanders, were killed in an airstrike by the Somali National Army (SNA) in the Lower Juba region. The two commanders killed were Aden Abdirahman Aden and Idris Abdiramin Nur, the latter of whom was a Kenyan national. The statement from the Somali National News Agency did not state who the foreign partner was that conducted the airstrike, but U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) drones are often responsible for aerial attacks against al-Shabaab in the region. The airstrike occurred on the same day as the nomination of Brigadier General Ibrahim Sheikh Muhydin as the new commander of the SNA. General Muhydin was nominated by a council of ministers and endorsed by Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud through the signing of a decree. The restructuring of the top SNA command comes in preparation for a new offensive against al-Shabaab, in what President Mohamud calls the second phase of operations. The President stated earlier this year: “We have more experience than when we first entered the war in Galmudug and Hirshabelle states. We’ve learned the tactics of al-Shabaab. Our morale tells us that we are capable of defeating them. The government’s current policy is to liberate the country from Al Shabab.” However, al-Shabaab seemingly has no shortage of manpower, as frequent casualties from U.S. air strikes and skirmishes with African Union Transmission Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) security forces have failed to curb the terror groups’ actions against military bases in Somalia. According to the United States, three airstrikes conducted in February killed a total of 24 al-Shabaab fighters. Additionally, eyewitnesses said 17 people were killed in an attack on a Somali special forces base in Masagawa in late May. According to Somali Captain Abdullahi Mohamed, 12 of the deceased were al-Shabaab militants. Although relegated to the countryside for quite some time, al-Shabaab is still capable of conducting attacks in Somalia’s capital of Mogadishu, against military bases of the ATMIS, and across the borders of ATMIS member states Ethiopia and Kenya.
Marine Corps General Michael Langley, head of AFRICOM, visited Mogadishu to meet President Hassan Sheik Mohamud of Somalia, Somali defense and state department leadership, and ATMIS troops earlier in June. The visit was to discuss joint operational priorities against their common enemy, al-Shabaab. General Langley also visited Kismayo to oversee ongoing U.S. troop operations and training, as well as to meet with the Jubaland Federal Member State President Ahmed Madobe and Somali special forces leadership. The trip to Somalia comes in the wake of major al-Shabaab attacks against ATMIS forces in Somalia, where a Ugandan military base and a few other bases were raided. 54 Ugandan soldiers stationed in an ATMIS base 120 kilometers southwest of Mogadishu were massacred in an al-Shabaab attack on May 26. The bodies found included Ugandan commanding officer Lt. Colonel Edward Nyoro. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni announced that two commanders who ordered a retreat during the attack would face court martial. Unverified images on jihadi social media channels showed approximately a dozen Ugandan soldiers being captured and detained by al-Shabaab militants. Both the United States and the European Union condemned the attack. The United States’ increased presence and dedication to fighting al-Shabaab, showcased through General Langley’s visit, is a significant reversal by the current administration from former President Trump’s removal of U.S. troops from Somalia.
Although engaged with ATMIS ground forces from Ethiopia, Uganda, and Kenya, al-Shabaab is actively conducting terrorist activities with varying success across the border into neighboring countries as retribution for stationing their troops within Somalia. On June 7th al-Shabaab claimed it conducted suicide bombings against an Ethiopian military base near the border town of Dollo, claiming it targeted the military headquarters and an ammunition warehouse and caused “heavy casualties in deaths and injuries.” Al-Shabaab has been known to exaggerate its battlefield reports. This claim has been rebuked by Ethiopia, as the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry tweeted that their forces had “successfully foiled an attempted attack by the terrorist group al Shabaab at the Ethiopia-Somalia border town of Dollo.” Regardless of the outcome of the attack, al-Shabaab maintains the capacity to launch cross-border attacks on its neighbors, being bold enough to assault military targets directly.
Al-Shabaab has increased its presence and activities in eastern Kenya, with confirmed attacks over the last month causing the deaths of over 30 Kenyan soldiers, police officers, and civilians. Two buses were held up on June 12th and 16th respectively, with the former resulting in four civilians killed according to the Kenyan police. Security forces have also been directly targeted, with eight Kenyan police officers being killed in their vehicle by an improvised explosion on June 13th. Attacks are not limited to rural roadways, as on June 24th, five people were executed in their village in the coastal Lamu province of Kenya. Thirty suspected al-Shabaab militants attacked the village, stealing food, burning houses, and slitting the throats of four villagers and shooting another. According to the residents of the village, the women were locked in their houses while the men were ordered outside, being tied up and executed. Among those executed was a secondary school student, and some of the dead had been decapitated. In a France 24 interview, Kenyan President William Ruto stated, “We are very clear and we are going to send a very powerful message to al-Shabaab, that they are not going to reverse the gains that we have made in the last couple of years,” suggesting that Kenya may choose to keep its troops stationed in Somalia past the end of June withdrawal date. Although relegated to the countryside since losing control of Mogadishu in 2011, al-Shabaab has proven itself as a capable insurgency and growing threat to stability in the Horn of Africa, one that does not appear to be losing momentum anytime soon.