Somalia: Ghosts, Spies And The Commando Brigade


April 1, 2019: The many recent al Shabaab car bomb attacks in Mogadishu are, in part, an effort to cripple the government intelligence effort. The key intel people tend to live in Mogadishu, often in major hotels, which have some of the best security in the country (because foreigners stay there.) Al Shabaab is concentrating on intelligence experts because Somali intel is paying a lot of attention to al Shabaab operations, locations and leaders. So far this year American airstrikes (usually with armed UAVs) have killed 255, all of them al Shabaab). In 2018 these airstrikes killed 326 but that included some ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) members. This year the sole target for an increased number of attacks is al Shabaab and it is hurting. At the current rate, al Shabaab could lose a thousand men to airstrikes this year.

It’s not just the attacks but their accuracy. Too many key al Shabaab targets (meetings of leaders, large concentrations of al Shabaab gunmen) are getting hit with demoralizing effect. Worse, the Americans have already demonstrated that they can do major damage to an Islamic terror group they concentrate on. Until 2018 the main target of airstrikes in Somalia was the local ISIL operations and by 2019 there were few active ISIL targets to hit.

Since early 2018 American UAV operations in Somalia have concentrated on the 4,000 or so local al Shabaab Islamic terrorists because the few (about 200 men) ISIL members in the country have dispersed and changed its tactics. From 2015 to 2017 the main target of American UAV operations in Somalia was ISIL In late 2018 this led to speculation that the United States would halt UAV operations in Somalia because the U.S. was pulling troops out of overseas battle zones where American troops were not essential. Somalia was not subject to this new policy because few American troops are stationed inside Somalia and those that are there are either part of an international military training effort for the new Somali army or intelligence specialists working with the CIA. For a long time, the main purpose of the UAV operations in Somalia (including Puntland and Somaliland) was to deal with international Islamic terrorists like ISIL or al Qaeda (which al Shabaab technically belongs to). The UAV effort does not depend on any American troops in Somalia and is operated out of a joint (U.S.-French) special operations base in neighboring Djibouti (which is not a combat zone).

There were some UAV attacks against ISIL in 2017 but none in 2018. It is no secret that there are still some ISIL in Somalia but the few that remain are maintaining a low profile, especially in the Puntland highlands where most of them are. There ISIL is getting by as bandits and are too busy with that to pose much of an international Islamic terrorist threat. Then there is the local politics angle. The ISIL operations in Puntland are run by a local fellow with ties to the powerful local Ali Salebaan clan. In return for clan patronage (protection), the local ISIL faction played by clan rules. Banditry is permitted but large scale attacks are not. Since 2015 ISIL has been trying to take advantage of local (Puntland and Galmudug) clan feuds to establish a presence in Puntland. This began in October 2015 when an al Shabaab faction declared that it was now the local branch of ISIL. The ISIL members up there were largely former al Shabaab men who wanted more violence or whatever. ISIL was more daring and dangerous than mainstream Islamic terror groups like al Qaeda (which al Shabaab associates with as well as seeks to destroy) but is also self-destructive as ISIL considers any other Islamic terror group a potential enemy (if the other group does not recognize ISIL as the leader). Between local militias, the UAV attacks and internal disputes ISIL has moved to the bottom of the threat list for Somalia.

March 31, 2019: In the south (Jubba), al Shabaab revealed that it had recently killed four men it accused of spying for Britain, Djibouti and Somali intelligence.

March 30, 2019: In Camp Baledogle (110 kilometers north of Mogadishu), American trainers are expanding the Danab commando battalion into a 3,000 man commando brigade. This will involve Somali commandos working with American trainers to more than triple the size of the current commando force within two or three years. Over the last year, the Danab battalion has regularly carried out counterterrorism operations that have crippled al Shabaab capabilities in areas where Danab remains active. By expanding Danab to a brigade most of Somalia will be served by a Danab contingent. On the downside the Somali commanders of the Danab brigade will be tempted to get involved in politics, a pattern which has occurred often in the past.

March 29, 2019: After three years of delays, Kenya says it would finally close the Dadaab Refugee Camp in northeast Kenya and that would be accomplished by mid-2019. This camp was originally supposed to be shut down by the end of 2016. Protests from donor nations, the UN and Somalia delayed the closure efforts. Dadaab has become the largest refugee camp in the world since it was established in 1991. At its peak, it contained over 400,000 people but that had declined to about 330,000 in 2016 and 230,000 now. This camp for exiled Somalis was built outside the town of Dadaab. The Kenyans living near the camp are largely ethnic Somali but the camp is unpopular because it disrupts more than benefits the locals and has become a base for criminal gangs and Islamic terrorists. Kenya is mostly concerned about Dadaab being used as a base for Islamic terrorists who carry out attacks in Kenya and recruit young men from Dadaab for those attacks. Too often, Kenyan police point out Islamic terror attack investigations come back to Dadaab.

March 28, 2019: In Mogadishu, al Shabaab set off a car bomb near a major hotel leaving fifteen dead and 17 wounded.

March 27, 2019: In Mogadishu, al Shabaab used a roadside bomb against a police commander but only wounded him while killing someone else.

March 26, 2019: In Mogadishu, a senior intelligence official was killed by an al Shabaab car bomb.

March 25, 2019: In Mogadishu, a car bomb was used to kill a local university official. It was unclear if this was al Shabaab or some personal matter.

March 24, 2019: In the south (Lower Shabelle region), soldiers are refusing to return to the Barawe base they abandoned a week ago because they had not been paid. The government says it has not paid soldiers in Barawe because of those who refuse to get biometrically (electronic fingerprints and iris scans) registered so that only actual soldiers will be paid. Many of the soldiers currently listed as on duty do not exist. Commanders of these “ghost soldiers” take the pay these imaginary troops receive. Corruption among military commanders has long been a major problem in Somalia and it is still thriving. The current dispute seems to involve 2-3 percent of the official army strength of 20,000 troops.

March 23, 2019: In Mogadishu, al Shabaab used a car bomb and gunmen to attack the labor ministry compound. Before it was over 15 people (including all the attackers and a deputy minister) were dead. Elsewhere in the city two roadside bomb attacks left two dead.

March 21, 2019: In Mogadishu, someone used a car bomb to kill a prominent engineer.

March 20, 2019: In the northwest (Middle Shabelle region 120 kilometers from Mogadishu), troops abandoned several bases complaining that they had not been paid for at least three months. This appears to be another problem with corrupt officers and ghost soldiers.

March 19, 2019: In the south (Jubba), several hundred Kenyan peacekeepers have quietly abandoned over half a dozen bases and outposts. The Kenyan troops destroyed their bases (because al Shabaab or other outlaws tend to take over abandoned bases) and moved back to Kenya. What is going on here is not enough money is being donated to maintain the usual budget for the peacekeeper force. For the Kenyan peacekeepers that means it is more difficult to keep all of its peacekeepers in southern Somalia supplied, so it is withdrawing some of them. Another factor is a current (and so far unresolved) dispute over where the maritime border is. Because of oil and gas deposits being discovered offshore, the precise location of that maritime border has become very important.

March 14, 2019: Somalia has banned Antonov AN-24, AN-26, AN-32 and AN-12 air transports from Somali airspace. These twin-engine Cold War era aircraft were frequently seen in Africa after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 because hundreds of these aircraft were suddenly surplus as the Soviet era military could no longer sustain its numbers and lost 80 percent of its personnel. Crime was rampant in the at least a dozen of the successor states to the Soviet Union as Cold War era weapons depots were looted by gunrunners who flew the weapons to wherever customers (who could pay in cash) using the Antonov aircraft. These transports were often not properly maintained and their crews were prepared to abandon them if they had to. The Antonov transports were built to operate from crude (often unpaved) airstrips and take a lot of rough handling. But eventually, they failed, often during landings or takeoffs. So more and more African nations banned them or demanded strict inspections before allowing specific aircraft to operate locally. Those approved Antonovs are often used by foreign aid groups to bring in emergency supplies to remote areas.

March 13, 2019: In the south (Jubba), Kenyan peacekeepers killed three al Shabaab men outside Bura Hachi, a town near the Kenyan border.

March 7, 2019: In Mogadishu, a car bomb near a popular restaurant left seven dead. Al Shabaab was suspected.




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