January 16, 2020
IntelBrief: Al-Shabaab is Resurging in Somalia
Al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda-linked jihadist group in Somalia, is resurging again and demonstrating its ability to launch attacks with impunity. In late December 2019, Shabaab detonated an explosives-laden truck at a busy intersection in Mogadishu, killing 79 people and injuring 149 more. The attack drew comparisons to a double truck bombing that occurred in October 2017, which resulted in the deaths of nearly 600 civilians. Somali forces are currently slated to assume responsibility for security in May, when troops from the African Union are scheduled to depart. Many close observers of the situation in Somalia are concerned that this could further destabilize the country. In addition to the African Union peacekeeping operation, the United States has several hundred Special Operations Forces (SOF), known for their elite special training capabilities, engaged in the fight against Shabaab.
Since March 2017, al-Shabaab has launched close to 900 attacks on civilians and hundreds more against U.S., Somali, and Kenyan troops. Its strength has ebbed and flowed over the past decade and a half, weathering a string of territorial losses, defections, and the killing of several high-profile leaders. Yet on balance, the group has proved remarkably resilient, even in the face of an intensified campaign of U.S. air strikes against its fighters and facilities. In 2019, the Pentagon carried out 60 drone strikes in Somalia, with the lion’s share directed against al-Shabaab; the remaining strikes targeted elements of the so-called Islamic State in Somalia. IS in Somalia is relegated to the Puntland region in the northeast of the country and is thought to number in the low hundreds in terms of overall fighters. Al-Shabaab remains, by far, the dominant jihadist group in Somalia and has consistently sought to prevent IS from expanding its operations.
Al-Shabaab controls vast swaths of territory throughout rural parts of Somalia in the country’s south and central areas, while launching attacks against the capital of Mogadishu. Shabaab raises money through extorting civilians and businessmen in areas where it maintains influence. Its involvement in the illicit economy also extends to taxing agricultural produce and criminal activities centered around the port in Mogadishu. This steady stream of income has facilitated the group’s ability to manufacture explosives, which in turn explains its penchant for devastating terrorist attacks featuring the use of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs). Al-Shabaab maintains a vast intelligence apparatus throughout Somalia and is widely rumored to have penetrated Somali government institutions. Somalia, and indeed the entire Horn of Africa, has emerged as an arena for competition between countries in the broader region, with Gulf nations backing favored factions and supplying them with weapons, equipment, and training. As far back as 2012, the United Arab Emirates deployed commandos to Somalia to take part in counter-piracy operations and help establish commercial ports and military bases throughout the Gulf of Aden and the broader region.
Militants have demonstrated a proven ability to project power beyond Somalia and into Kenya, where a Shabaab attack recently killed an American soldier, two private contractors and destroyed six aircraft. The attack on Manda Bay airfield is just the latest in a series of strikes by Shabaab in Kenya, where militants have previously launched attacks against shopping malls, hotels, universities, and transportation infrastructure. Poor governance has plagued Somalia for decades. Porous borders, weak security forces, and high levels of corruption contribute to a sense of lawlessness and state failure. An ongoing rift between the Somali central government and federal states over electoral processes has stymied efforts at government reform. Just as the Taliban has done in Afghanistan and the Islamic State in parts of Syria and Iraq, al-Shabaab has filled the power vacuum and played a critical function by mediating disputes and dispensing its own draconian, yet efficient, form of justice. This has conferred a sense of legitimacy on the group among segments of the population, despite its relentless campaign of attacking civilians.
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