The increasing air attacks and continued ground operations by Somali security forces and foreign peacekeepers are having an impact. While al Shabaab exercises some control in about a quarter of Somalia, that al Shabaab presence is more as a bandit threat than a replacement for the local or national government. More al Shabaab leaders are concluding that this sort of thing has no future and are leaving or defecting. Al Shabaab treats all who leave as traitors so departing the organization is a major decision, especially for senior members. Lower level members know they can, if they are careful, desert and either get out of the country or return to a powerful clan they came from that can and will protect them. Al Shabaab usually does not bother with low ranking deserters because they know they can just kidnap or persuade more teenage guys to join. But the senior defectors are a growing problem because they often take with them vital details on current planned al Shabaab operations. This improves the frequency and accuracy of American UAV attacks and makes it easier for government forces to trap and destroy al Shabaab factions.
The Benefits Of Corruption
In the south, along the Kenyan border, al Shabaab terrorists and smugglers continue to move freely across the Kenyan border. The border guards on both sides of the frontier accept bribes to allow just about anything to pass through border control points. Despite several major al Shabaab attacks inside Kenya since 2015, starting with the Garissia University massacre four years ago that killed 148 Kenyans, al Shabaab violence continues but with less frequency and intensity. Investigations into al Shabaab attacks nearly always lead back to poor border security and calls for something to be done about it. There have been more border patrols and occasional crackdowns on bribery among border guards. Despite that, the border remains easy for Islamic terrorists to cross.
Since 2015 Kenya has spent $33.5 million on a fence (and other barriers) along the 700 kilometer long Somali border. Most of the money has been stolen or misused and only about 30 kilometers of fence has been built. Actually by the end of 2017, in northeast Kenya, about eight kilometers of the new security fence had been completed in Mandera (near the coast). Work on the next 28 kilometer segment was about to begin but that never happened because of local opposition on both sides of the border. The fence was originally to be a combination of a two meter (6.2 foot) high wall with security cameras in addition to a deep trench and a wire fence. After two years of delays and disputes over exactly where the border was and what to do with existing buildings on the actual borderline, the specifications of the fence were reduced to a border barrier that was just a fence and ditch plus a road for regular patrols and to quickly reach an area that has been breached. Work did not really get underway until 2017 but never built more than 30 kilometers of the actual fence, despite the fact that the Kenyan government appropriated money for the fence every year and that has added up to over $33 million with little to show for it. Any work at all on the fence halted in early 2018 and the parliament refuses to provide any more money for the effort because it has turned out to be another political scam to steal government funds.
Currently, al Shabaab is concentrating most of its attacks on the Somali capital (Mogadishu) in a renewed effort to gain control of the city, topple the government and turn the country into a religious dictatorship. Resistance to that form of government is one of the few things that most Somalis can agree on. Other popular items are that Somalis are superior to their neighbors and are Arabs, not Africans. One area where there is little agreement is who should run a national government. Because of this, there is a growing sense of despair at the inability of Somalia to govern itself. Some Somalis (like al Shabaab) blame foreigners for interfering with Somali internal affairs and manipulating Somalis into a state of chaos. But the majority of Somalis know that the problem is closer to home. Somalis have been battling each other, and their neighbors, for centuries. Disunity is nothing new. Corruption has long been the major flaw in Somali culture and the inability to cope with this has turned Somalia into one of the poorest and violent countries on the planet.
Then there's always the clan (tribal) politics, and the inability of clan and warlord groups to compromise to form a united government. Not enough Somali leaders have accepted the fact that the old ways just are not working. Then again, many Somalis have a different concept of peace and prosperity. In times past, the losers in these tribal wars would all die or be absorbed into the victorious tribe. But these days you have international relief efforts. So millions of Somalis are surviving on foreign aid. This refugee community produces angrier young men, ready to take up the gun and go get some tribal justice, or just get rich. Somalis prove troublesome wherever they end up and, for the neighbors in Africa, Somalia has long been a major menace and source of trouble. So it's not surprising that in Somalia the biggest threat is other Somalis.
The many recent al Shabaab car bomb attacks in Mogadishu are, in part, an effort to cripple the government security forces by going after the leadership and intimidating the security forces in the national capital. Key military and political leaders 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 Somali intelligence experts because those Somalis are paying a lot of attention to al Shabaab operations, locations and leaders. So far this year American airstrikes (usually with armed UAVs) have killed 280, all but a few of them al Shabaab. In 2018 these airstrikes killed 326 but that included about 200 ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) members. This year the primary target for an increased number of attacks is still 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. Since early 2018 American UAV operations in Somalia have concentrated on the 4,000 or so local al Shabaab Islamic members. 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). From 2015 to 2017 the main target of American UAV operations in Somalia was ISIL but American advisors in Somalia made a strong case that more American UAV action (surveillance and missile attacks) could cripple al Shabaab the way it did ISIL. 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). In other words, it was low risk but with a potential high payoff.
April 26, 2019: In the north (Puntland), an American UAV used missiles to kill three ISIL men.
April 23, 2019: In the southwest (Gedo), two senior al Shabaab officials surrendered to the government.
April 19, 2019: In the north, pirates captured a Yemeni dhow off the coast. The anti-piracy patrol eventually learned of it and after five days captured the five pirates responsible and freed the dhow and its crew. During those five days, the pirates used the captured dhow to attack ships far offshore. This is how the anti-piracy patrol learned of the captured dhow and its conversion into a high seas pirate mothership. Even far from shore (beyond where pirate speedboats launched from land, not a mothership) foreign commercial ships are still alert to the pirate threat and that is why in the few days before the anti-piracy patrol caught up with them, the pirate attacks on three ships failed and simply made it easier for the anti-piracy patrol warships to catch up with them.
In Mogadishu, an al Shabaab car bomb went off killing four people and wounding five.
April 14, 2019: In the north (Puntland), an American UAV used missiles to kill Abdulhakim Dhuqub, the ISIL second-in-command for Somalia. Dhuqub was in charge of planning attacks and general day-to-day operations. 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, 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.
April 13, 2019: In Mogadishu, operators of motorized rickshaws (the most common “taxi” in the city) rioted to protest security forces restrictions on where they could drive. The riot got violent and five people died. There has been growing threats of violence from the rickshaw operators who resent having to deal with so many military checkpoints (established to deal with al Shabaab operations.) This sense of entitlement (to ignore checkpoints or use violence to protest them) is a common factor in Somali internal affairs.
April 12, 2019: In northeast Kenya (Mandera), two Cuban doctors were kidnapped by al Shabaab and held for ransom. While the Cuban economy is a wreck the country does provide free medical school for nearly all Cubans who are capable of handling the demanding courses. While Cuba has lots of doctors it has little money for medications or medical equipment in general. Cuba does demonstrate that good primary care has a very positive overall impact. Cuba eventually had more doctors than they could use and found that renting out its doctors for foreign countries, especially in South American and Africa, could be lucrative. That business now brings in over $10 billion a year. The Cuban doctors involved are paid more than they receive back in Cuba and have opportunities to defect, which a growing number do. The Cuban government holds kin of doctors’ hostage but that, and fact that kin will no longer receive part of the doctors’ foreign pay, is often not sufficient to prevent defection. The Cuban doctors are appreciated in foreign countries, where the local medical facilities are generally better than back in Cuba and the patients grateful for the specialist care and surgical skills the Cuban doctors often provide to people who would otherwise not receive much medical care at all.
The kidnapping in northern Kenya had an immediate impact. Local tribal elders and others with contact or clout with al Shabaab began negotiations to get the doctors released. After all the doctors also treated Kenyan Somalis and refugees from Somalia. Meanwhile, other Cuban doctors working near the Somali border withdrew to safer areas until their colleagues were released and Kenya increased security for those Cubans working in areas where al Shabaab is known to operate.
April 9, 2019: In the south (Jilib) an American UAV used a missile to kill at least one al Shabaab gunman.
April 4, 2019: in Mogadishu an al Shabaab car bomb exploded near the police academy, wounding seven people.
April 2, 2019: Kenya demanded that the UN stop paying about a million dollars a month in foreign aid to al Shabaab in order to allow the rest of the aid to reach needy Somalis unmolested. The UN officially opposes such bribery but Kenya says it has proof that UN officials in Kenya and Somalia are paying off the Islamic terrorists, which helps al Shabaab survive in southern Somalia and continue to cause problems in northeastern Kenya. It is also pointed out that paying bribes to al Shabaab does not always guarantee the aid supplies will reach their intended destination.