It was recently revealed that two known pirate gangs in the north (Puntland) which were suspected of having switched to smuggling (between Somalia and Yemen) had used contacts with Islamic terrorists (developed while operating as pirates) to later get work smuggling weapons and people for both al Shabaab and the local branch of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). This was long suspected but detailed evidence was scant.
Further south al Shabaab, the main local Islamic radical group in the region since 2006 has been greatly diminished since 2011 but not completely destroyed. In fact al Shabaab related violence left some 4,000 people dead in Somalia and Kenya during 2016. This was the most for any Islamic terrorist group in Africa that year. But the violence al Shabaab brings with it has had noxious side effects for all concerned, including al Shabaab. An example of how this works recently played out in central Somalia.
The Bakool Breakdown
At the end of June several hundred additional troops passed through Hudur, the capital of the Bakool region in central Somalia. The soldiers were there in case fighting broke out between the local al Shabaab commander Mukhtar Robow and other al Shabaab factions that want to kill him for negotiating with the government. Robow has been feuding with other al Shabaab leaders since 2010 over strategy and since 2013 has essentially declared that his al Shabaab faction (from his Rahanweyn clan, which dominates the region) was going to defend clan territory and do little else for al Shabaab. That meant al Shabaab men could move through Bakool but government forces would be resisted.
Back in 2012 the U.S. had offered a $5 million reward for anyone who would make it possible to capture or kill Robow. But in mid- June 2017 that reward was quietly withdrawn. This soon led to several al Shabaab leaders demanding that al Shabaab mass its depleted forces and punish Robow for this suspected betrayal. Many al Shabaab still blame Robow for the loss of Mogadishu in 2011. That mess began in 2010 when Mukhtar Robow (then al Shabaab deputy commander-in-chief) split with the group and withdrew his forces from Mogadishu. That also meant he was no longer the spokesman for the group or the deputy commander. The weakened and disorganized al Shabaab forces were then much less able to resist the pro-government clans/peacekeeper offensive to take control of the city.
Robow's complaint was that foreign terrorists were increasingly taking over al Shabaab, sometimes killing those who objected. At the time six al Qaeda foreigners were members of the ten man Sura Council (the al Shabaab supreme command) versus four Somalis. The defection of Robow meant al Shabaab lost about a quarter of its gunmen. That was when al Shabaab began recruiting more teenagers (who are easier to recruit, but aren't as effective in combat) to replace the older, more experienced men they were losing to combat injuries, desertion and defection. Al Shabaab also has to contend with the fact that most Somalis now hated the Islamic radicals and were increasing demonstrating that attitude by fleeing areas ruled by al Shabaab.
The feuding among senior al Shabaab leaders has never really ended but that sort of thing rarely makes the news. One exception occurred in early 2013 when al Shabaab ordered one of their more visible leaders, American born (but with a Syrian father) Abu Mansoor al Amriki (Omar Hammami) to turn himself in or be hunted down and killed. Hammami did not surrender and was caught by al Shabaab and killed in September 2013. Because Hammami was an American citizen that was considered news in most of the world. It all began at the end of 2012 when Hammami was expelled from al Shabaab and accused of spreading discord and disunity inside al Shabaab by going public about a dispute within al Shabaab over enforcing Islamic lifestyle rules. Hammami also accused al Shabaab leaders of corruption and incompetence. Al Shabaab quickly announced that Hammami was no longer their spokesman. Hammami has been with al Shabaab for seven years and had become a public face of the terrorists via his video releases on the Internet. Hammami grew up in Alabama, but came to Somalia and joined al Shabaab in 2006. Once he began appearing in al Shabaab videos he became a target for those fighting Islamic terrorists. The FBI named Hammami one of their most-wanted felons in late 2012 but that did not help get him out of Somalia safely.
In mid-2017 the Somali government does not want Mukhtar Robow to get killed by al Shabaab because that would cause more fighting in central Somalia and enable al Shabaab to continue moving through an area that is the safest route for al Shabaab from northern to southern Somalia. If Robow makes a peace deal with the government al Shabaab suddenly has a much more difficult time moving from north to south and, in effect, al Shabaab forces in the south (mostly near the Kenyan border) and north (mostly in Puntland) are isolated from each other and easier to defeat. Robow is apparently taking advantage of the situation and trying to make the best deal (for himself and his clan) he can with the government. Meanwhile he and several hundred of his armed followers have fortified a village 18 kilometers from Hudur and await developments.
The Larger Mess
The main threat in Somalia is the corruption and factionalism that have always defined and defiled Somali culture. Since 2013 Al Shabaab has been driven out of most of the territory it controlled for years but remnants fought on in thinly populated areas of central Somalia, the far north (Puntland border) and far south (Kenyan border). The defeated al Shabaab split into factions and most of the international (pro-al Qaeda) group has seized control of what was left. An elected Somali government, propped up by foreign aid (most of which gets stolen) has been around since 2012. Despite all that Somalia is still a failed state that defies every attempt at nation building. The situation is worse than it appears because Somalia was never a country, but rather a collection of clans and tribes that fight each other constantly over economic issues (land and water). The country remains an economic and political mess, a black hole on the map.
Pirates became a major problem after 2006 and in response the major trading nations launched a counter-piracy effort which since 2012 reduced pirate success (captured ships) considerably. In fact, no large ships have been captured in since early 2012 even though some of the pirate gangs are still operating up there. There are not many pirate groups left because of the lack of multi-million dollar ransoms.
In the far south (where the second major port, Kismayo is) a third statelet (after Puntland and Somaliland in the north) is trying to exist as Jubaland. The UN backed government in the center is trying to prevent this but the problem remains the independent minded clans. There is not a lot of enthusiasm among local leaders for a national government.
July 13, 2017: In the southeast (Lower Shabelle region) a raid by Somali and American commandos killed several al Shabaab men at one location while at a nearby site (which al Shabaab was using as a jail) several prisoners were freed.
July 10, 2017: In the north (Puntland) local troops completed a four day operation in the Galgala hills to find and destroy six al Shabaab camps in the area. While many al Shabaab men escaped 18 were killed and large quantities of food, other supplies and weapons were seized.
July 7, 2017: In the south, across the border in northeast Kenya, al Shabaab killed three policemen and then continued moving towards villages near the coast (Lamu). The Islamic terrorists sought out Christian residents in two villages and beheaded nine of them. Survivors of the attack reported that some of the al Shabaab men appeared to Kenyans (ethnic Somalis). Over the next few days Kenyan forces used ground troops and air strikes to attack suspected al Shabaab camps in the area, especially the Boni forest along the border. Kenya also imposed a dusk to dawn curfew in the Lamu area for the next 90 days.
July 6, 2017: In Burundi the government insisted that Burundian soldiers serving as peacekeepers in Somalia will receive their salaries. The soldiers have gone unpaid for a year. The EU (European Union) provided pay six months’ worth of salaries but refused further payments as a way to bring pressure on the Burundian government. At first Burundi threatened to withdraw its troops from Somalia but as news the corruption scandal spread the government changed its mind. Stealing pay and other money provided by the UN for peacekeepers is not an unusual even with African contingents.
July 5, 2017: In the south, near the port of Kismayo, Somali and U.S. forces attacked an al Shabaab camp and killed at least 13 Islamic terrorists. This operation was to disrupt a major attack al Shabaab was planning on a nearby Somali military base. Apparently al Shabaab had recently attacked that base and been repulsed and were regrouping to attack it again.
July 4, 2017: In Mogadishu several mortar shells were fired at a peacekeeper base. There were no casualties and Al Shabaab was suspected.
July 3, 2017: In Mogadishu a policeman died when a bomb planted in his vehicle went off. Al Shabaab was suspected.
July 2, 2017: In the south (Middle Jubba) American aircraft carried out an airstrike against an al Shabaab training camp near the town of Sakow.
July 1, 2017: Near Mogadishu an al Shabaab roadside bomb went off near a van killing two civilians and wounding six others.
June 29, 2017: In the north (Puntland) the local government executed seven al Shabaab men who were recently convicted of terrorism activities. The prompt prosecution and execution was prompted by the June 8th incident where al Shabaab attacked a Puntland military base and adjacent village (Af Urur) near the coast killing about fifty people.
June 23, 2017: In the south, across the border in Kenya (Mandera) five al Shabaab men in a car drove into a town firing their weapons. This left two civilians and a policeman dead. The vehicle then sped off for the border, which was seven kilometers away. The killers made it across the border before police could alert the border guards.
June 20, 2017: In Mogadishu an al Shabaab suicide truck bomber attacked a government compound leaving about twenty dead and at least as many wounded. Elsewhere in the area two Kenyan civilians were wounded when their vehicle triggered a roadside bomb.