Even as the exact number of casualties suffered in the latest attack by Somali terrorist group Al Shabaab on Ugandan peacekeepers remains unclear, troop-contributing countries are alarmed at the frequency of deadly attacks on the forces of the African Union Mission in Somalia.
On September 1, Al Shabaab attacked a base at Janaale, 90km southwest of Mogadishu manned by Uganda People’s Defence Forces, using a car loaded with explosives. This was the second attack in a month on Ugandan troops, and the third in five weeks on Amisom forces.
The rate at which the attacks are happening and their impact prompted UPDF Chief of Defence Forces Gen Edward Katumba Wamala to fly to the Horn of Africa country to assess if operational lapses contributed to the raid, which upon confirmation of casualty numbers could have the same impact as the one on the Burundian base in late June.
There was another bomb attack on July 31 on an Amisom convoy in an area manned by Ugandan troops, that saw the soldiers comb the Rusiya neighbourhood in Merka city, Lower Shabelle, and kill six civilians at a wedding. Al Shabaab said the attack on the Janaale base was in retaliation for the July 31 incident.
“My visit was prompted by what happened here in Janaale, where our base was attacked by Al Shabaab using a vehicle bomb IED [improvised explosive device] to breach the defence and where we incurred some casualties. Some of our friends lost their lives,” Gen Katumba Wamala said. “I came to assess the situation and get a clear picture of how the whole thing happened and establish whether there were any flaws in terms of response.”
The feared operational flaws explain why Al Shabaab has the motivation to strike with impact, and this has government officials in Kampala speaking at cross-purposes on the magnitude of the loss from this attack.
While presenting a statement to parliament on September 3, State Minister for Defence Jeje Odongo said UPDF lost 10 soldiers, whose bodies were flown into Uganda the same day.
But army spokesman Lt-Col Paddy Ankunda had earlier dismissed as propaganda reports that Al Shabaab had inflicted as many as 50 casualties in the attack. Lt-Col Ankunda gave a figure of 12 dead, 10 of whom would be flown into the country and the remaining two be brought in later.
All this runs counter to earlier reports by Western military sources in a brief to diplomats that 50 soldiers were killed and a similar number remained unaccounted for, reinforcing Al Shabaab’s own claims that “scores” of Ugandan troops had been killed in the attack.
A security source however told The EastAfrican that the government had the number of casualties confirmed by independent sources as 19.
But, as different figures are being quoted, the precision of these attacks by Al Shabaab should be a concern for countries that have troops in Amisom, security expert and legislator Simon Mulongo argues.
“Al Shabaab has never been destroyed. It was only defeated in the urban centres, and driven into the countryside where it remains a big threat after changing tack from conventional to guerrilla warfare, operating clandestinely and hence being capable of inflicting harm using asymmetrical tactics,” said Mr Mulongo, who is also a former Director of East African Standby Forces.
Since 2007 when the over 22,000-strong Amisom force was deployed in Somalia, its different contingents have battled Al Shabaab, forcing the terrorist group out of the capital and other strategic towns like Kismayu and Baidoa. But Al Shabaab still has suicide bombers willing to use explosives to fight back, using the element of surprise on sentries at different posts.
“Because there is no frontline, the forces keeping vigil tend to relax; when these force protection systems such as sentries relax in terms of vigilance, the enemy strikes. Where Amisom has reached now, there is a need to review the concept of basic security because over time the enemy studies the peacekeepers; routine and knows when to strike,” Mr Mulongo added.
Indeed, a Western military brief to diplomats says the attack on Janaale showed a relaxation in the vigilance and operational efficiency with which the AU force has conducted past operations that have led to victories against Shabaab.
For some time, the authorities have feared that Al Shabaab has collaborators within the Somali Transitional Federal Government and the national army who furnish the terrorists with ground presence and deployments of airborne capabilities to enable them to plan attacks.
For instance, the Western military brief reveals that at the time of the attack at 5.30am local time, Amisom could not call on air support by UN helicopters due to “low cloud and landing restrictions.”
In addition, US drones, Kenyan and Ethiopian jets “were unavailable at the time of the attack” while Amisom tanks and artillery located in Janaale had been deployed elsewhere.
Reports also indicate that the Hezbollah and Mujahedeen-trained Al Shabaab began the attack by destroying two bridges, cutting the camp off. This can only be because they had informers about the vigilance at the base, and had all the time to plan the attack.
Al Shabaab is a weakened force, but sources say that the terrorist group has technical competence and training in the use of information technology to monitor Amisom bases, troop strength and deployment, enabling them to keep mounting attacks against the peacekeepers.