The increased number of attacks by Somali terrorist group al Shabaab in Kenya and Somalia could lead to security chiefs rethinking their counter-terrorism policy.
In a year when the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) is considering reducing its troops in Somalia, al-Shabaab has launched several assaults in the two countries since December, killing at least 130 people in the attacks.
This past week, as Kenya marked the first anniversary of the attack on the dusitD2 complex in Nairobi on January 15, the US embassy issued a statement that the resurgent attacks by al-Shabaab could destabilise the country and East Africa.
Twenty-one people were killed and at least 28 injured in the dusitD2 terror attack.
January 15 is also the day al-Shabaab ambushed a Kenya Defence Forces camp in El-Adde, Somalia, in 2016, killing an unknown number of soldiers.
The US government said it was partnering with Kenya in training, sharing information, and “fighting side by side” to defeat al-Shabaab.
The terror group, which appeared spent between 2012 and 2015, has recently resurged with attacks in Kenya and Mogadishu.
In December, al-Shabaab killed at least 85 people in a car bomb explosion in Mogadishu.
On January 6, the group raided Simba Camp, a base used by Kenyan and US troops in Manda Bay in Lamu County, killing one US serviceman and two contactors, and destroying up to five planes. Five al-Shabaab terrorists were killed in the attack.
This attack was quickly followed by four others that targeted a passenger bus in Lamu and raids in Garissa and Wajir in northern Kenya, killing at least 10 civilians. On average, al-Shabaab have launched at least two attacks every week in Kenya and Somalia since October last year.
The US Africa Command, which shared the Manda Bay base with Kenyan troops, says al-Shabaab may be weaker now. In a statement published in the Military Times this past week, spokesman Col Christopher Karns said: “While these terrorists present a threat that should be taken very seriously, they also specialise in lies to create doubt about the international community’s resolve to reduce their influence. There is danger if their false narratives are confused with truth and seeds of doubt are planted.”
Meanwhile, Amisom is planning to gradually reduce troop numbers in Somalia starting this year, leaving much of the security responsibility to the Somali National Army (SNA).
In his New Year’s message, the head of Amisom, Francisco Madeira, said the UN and the FGS had formed a tripartite team to conduct “a threat assessment”, which will determine the number of troops to be withdrawn at a time.
“This exercise will inform the conditions under which the African Union is going to implement the third drawdown of 1,000 Burundian troops from February, and serve as a prerequisite for other mandated tasks chiefly aligning Amisom’s Conops,” he said, referring to the operations policy of Amisom known as the Concept of Operations (Conops).
Amisom is currently operations under Conops, in which several Forward Operating Bases have been reconfigured and others folded up as troop numbers reduce.
The UN Security Council made a resolution in 2017 for a gradual drawdown. Somalia’s partners, including the UN, have been holding discussions on how to implement the phased withdrawal in an election year. A total pull-out is expected in 2021, as the Mission has suffered from funding cuts since 2017 when the EU reduced its budgetary allocation. The last withdrawal was 1,000 troops from the Burundi contingent in March 2019.
“This year will be a turning point for Amisom and Somalia. The country will hold historic elections to choose national leaders,” said Assistant Inspector-General of Police Augustine Magnus Kailie, who is the Amisom Police Commissioner. “As Amisom police, we will play a critical role in ensuring that the Somali people elect their leaders in a safe and secure environment.”
The resurgent attacks could prove an added challenge. Some Somali politicians say that Amisom’s own operations have been broken for the past five years, allowing al Shabaab to regroup.
“The question should be, when was the last time Amisom took an offensive operation or joint operation with SNA against al-Shabaab? The answer is six years ago! It is time to review the status of mission agreement and time for the EU funders to implement mutual accountability,” said Abdirazak Mohamed, a former Internal Security minister in Somalia, now a Federal Member of Parliament. “Pursuing the same strategy will not give you different outcome. Troop surge will not fix the al-Shabaab quagmire; a different strategy is needed to address it including negotiating with al-Shabaab. In asymmetric war, the intent of the militant is not to win the fight, but by not losing the war, they win.”
Amisom says it has, since last year, deployed a larger civilian component to have a “a much closer follow-up on monitoring to the work of our military and police.” But some experts think Amisom and partners like the US have been too focused on the armed efforts to tame al-Shabaab.
In Kenya, security chiefs would not reveal their next step for al-Shabaab; the official position is that the war on the terrorists will continue.
Abdulaziz Ali Ibrahim Xildhiban, the former spokesman of the Federal Government of Somalia, said that besides morphing into thugs, al-Shabaab could be profiting from infiltration into Somalia government institutions including the national intelligence agency.
“The government has been doing little because of lack of capacity of the SNA, and a divisive leadership that is using al Shabaab to subdue and intimidate opponents ahead of the elections,” said Mr Xildhiban.
Mustafa Ali, the chairman of the Horn International Institute for Strategic Studies, a regional think-tank in Nairobi, said the terror group sees ambushes as a strategy to remain relevant after its combat war was curtailed.
“In order to replenish its diminished financial resources, they carry out such attacks to assure sympathisers that they are still potent and effective. Such organisations also use visible terrorist attacks to attract new donors and supporters,” said Dr Ali.
Mr Madeira said restructuring the security sector and improved co-operation between the federal government, Amisom and partners are critical to improvement of security in Somalia this year.
This is will require the training of more SNA soldiers to maintain peace in the cities and towns that have been liberated, and allow Amisom to advance despite logistics and supplies being overstretched.
Hussein Sheikh-Ali, founder and chair of Somalia’s security research think-tank Hiraal Institute, and former national security adviser, weighed in on US drone attacks.
"I believe that this strategy will not in any way affect al-Shabaab’s short- or long-term capabilities. The US is just playing whack-a-mole. Somali people don’t take this strategy seriously anymore."
Amisom is planning to gradually reduce troop numbers in Somalia starting this year, leaving much of the country’s security responsibility to the Somali National Army.