For those that missed last week’s BBC article “Defections put militant al-Shabaab on the run in Somalia“, I encourage you to take a read through the piece and see al Qaeda’s history repeating itself in Somalia. In the 1990′s, al Qaeda (AQ) struggled to integrate and command Somalia’s clans. AQ thought the Somali clans were too worried about clan politics and ignoring the ‘far enemy’. Somali clans thought the AQ operatives to be elitist and concerned with far off global matters of little importance in Somalia’s hinterlands.
Now, Zawahiri has foolishly fallen into the same predicament by merging with al Shabaab only to meet the same fate encountered by Bin Laden nearly 20 years earlier. TFG/AMISOM advances have resulted in Shabaab retreating to safe havens and pursuing guerrilla warfare. During their retreat, Shabaab has seen broad defections having alienated locals through harsh tactics. Included in the motivations of defectors is the elitist nature of AQ foreign fighters. The article notes:
Abu Khalit said he had little time for the foreign fighters who provide the Islamist group with its ideological backbone.
“They hide their faces from us. They live in safe houses, and we are not allowed inside,” he said.
It’s pretty hard to take orders from outsiders, especially those you can’t even see. Next, the BBC story outlines other reasons locals have turned against al-Shabaab.
At a crossroads on the outskirts of Afgoye, an impromptu market had sprung up; a line of tables, from which women in brightly coloured headscarves were selling small bunches of leaves.
For many Somalis, chewing this stimulant, known as khat, is a national obsession, close to a way of life.
Al-Shabab declared it to be “haram”, forbidden, and banned it.
They would not have approved of Abu Khalit’s musical ringtone either.
I don’t expect that AQ affiliated extremism will be wiped from Somalia. The linkages between AQ and extremism in Somalia have endured for more than 20 years so I don’t expect them to vanish anytime soon. Instead, I would estimate the following would happen: (Note, this is shoot from the hip analysis, not a thorough review so take it with a grain or two of salt.)
- Shabaab will break into two loosely affiliated nodes – If I had to guess, the strongest concentration of Shabaab will remain and hold the Shabelle regions for some time to come. This would be the primary node of Shabaab and may or may not change its name to keep its local base of popular support. The pattern will be quite similar to the evolution of AIAI to ICU to al Shabaab. Ultimately, the group’s focus will primarily be on survival more than ideology. A second smaller insurgent Shabaab element will endure amongst the remnants of the Galgala Militia and will continue to harass with terrorist attacks from a mountain safe haven between Puntland and Somaliland.
- Many Shabaab defectors and sub-groups will break into other militias – Many defectors of Shabaab were coerced into joining in the first place. Absent legitimate employment, these fighters will not truly demobilize and instead will join other local militias, the interim government or start their own militia. Either way, these former fighters are unlikely to be a stablizing force in Somalia.
- A handful of Shabaab members most closely affiliated with AQ will depart for Yemen – If the combined pressures of TFG, Kenya, Ethipia and U.S. become to great, I would expect small contingents of Shabaab members well connected to AQ to seek refuge in Yemen. There are rumors of this happening already but solid proof remains hard to come by.
- The TFG/AMISOM will not make any sustained gains in governing the south of Somalia - Lastly, I have no real expectations that a functioning government able to control Somalia much beyond Mogadishu will emerge. As discussed in Jeffrey Herbst’s excellent work, States and Power in Africa, rarely do fractured African states have governments that can extend authority much beyond the capital.