As Atmis exit, Al Shabaab creates deadly pan-East African force

Sunday June 30 2024

Outgoing African Union Mission in Somalia (Atmis) troops arrive at Jalalaqsi, Somalia on February 9, 2023. PHOTO | POOL

By The EastAfrican

The African Union (AU) has backed the creation of a new force to replace the more than 10,000 troops of its peacekeeping mission due to leave Somalia by end of December. This comes amid signs and alarm that Shabaab extremists have grown stronger.

There is good reason to be afraid, and Shabaab looks to present a greater danger to the East African region than ever before.

Troops from Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti and Ethiopia, have fought Al-Shabaab since 2007, first as the AU Mission in Somalia (Amisom), and lately as the Transition Mission (Atmis), as the jihadist group fights to overthrow Somalia’s government.

In the past 14 years, Shabaab has carried out a series of deadly terror attacks in Somalia, Kenya and Uganda, killing hundreds of civilians and US defence contractors. Its biggest attack farthest from Somalia was in Kampala, in two bombings that killed 76 football fans who were watching World Cup final in July 2010.

Read: Africom commander: How Somali can avoid an Shabaab takeover

On September 21, 2013, it carried out a brazen attack on the upmarket Westgate Mall in Nairobi. When the siege ended three days later, there were 71 deaths, including 62 civilians, five Kenyan soldiers and all four gunmen.


About 200 people were wounded in the onslaught.

As Atmis withdraws, with 5,000 of its troops having left in recent months, a senior American defence official over a week ago said Shabaab has reversed all Somali National Army gains over the past two years.

A Somalia government official angrily rejected the claim, but a confidential AU assessment “for a post-Atmis African Union-led mission in Somalia” seen by The EastAfrican confirms Al Shabaab gains in some regions. Their forces have vacated, though, on a lower scale than that painted by the US.

The AU assessment offers a peek into the state in Somalia, estimating Al-Shabaab to have an increasing fighting strength. While detailing the destruction the militants have wrought, and the scale of Atmis’ operation and control over the past 14 years, it also presents a picture of Shabaab rarely seen outside.

In reviewing region by region, Al Shabaab’s spread and ability to carry out attacks in virtually all corners of the country, is unprecedented. Almost everywhere in the world, such militant groups will be active or strong in only one or two parts of the county, as Boko Haram was in Nigeria and Ansar al-Sunna in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province.

Al Shabaab has already made important moves in East Africa. It has established links with the Uganda rebel group Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), which has left a trail of destruction in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where it has been based for nearly 25 years.

ADF has had a revival in the past three years.

Read: About 16 killed by suspected Islamists in east Congo

The assessment portrays a Shabaab that has become adept at drone use, is always inventing new ways to unleash IEDs in addition to its old method of using donkeys, has a fairly good intelligence system, and is using open-source geographical information platforms to acquire grids of targets for attack.

It added that in the Jubaland region, where the militants are strong, and roam freely, “The thriving agriculture along the Juba River also provides Al Shabaab with an unlimited flow of food across the seasons.”

It notes that, “Somalia’s neighbours and the wider Gulf have a real stake in the security and stability of Somalia”. As well they should.

More alarming at the regional level are al-Shabaab’s African foreign fighters known as Muhajirin. The largest number of Muhajirins are Kenyans, Ethiopians, and Tanzanians, but there are also Congolese, Burundians, Rwandans and Ugandans. When few were looking, Al Shabaab created a pan-East African force.

These, sources say, they are led by a Kenyan-born militant.

It has carried out bomb attacks in Kampala and, in late June 2023, carried out a night massacre at a Ugandan school near its border with DRC. ADF is reported to be supplying al-Shabaab with illegal minerals from mines in eastern DRC in exchange for training and weapons.