Why splintered al Shabaab worries security experts

Saturday September 13 2014

Amisom troops are pushing al Shabaab militants from Mogadishu. PHOTO | FILE

Following the killing of al Shabaab leader Ahmed Godane and several field commanders, the next challenge security agencies in the region are facing is how to deal with a fragmented terrorist group, which present significant threat.

Security analysts say while Godane’s death and al Shabaab’s continual loss of territory in Somalia will weaken and splinter the group, the developments are unlikely to impact significantly on its operations.

The group, according to the analysts, will maintain asymmetrical warfare for some time as it leverages its Amniyat branch to reassert its presence.

The Amniyat, one of three sections in al Shabaab’s command structure, comprises highly trained and specialised operatives that are charged with intelligence gathering, assassination and bombing missions. It was behind the attack last September on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.

In a report seen by The EastAfrican, the analysts note that the group is likely to turn to its cells across East Africa for co-ordination as it undertakes recruitment drives across the region.

The search for new membership is likely to benefit immensely from alarming levels of corruption, marginalisation, poverty and unemployment – four factors African spy chiefs outlined in Nairobi on August 30 as being key drivers of indoctrination into extremist ideologies.


Al Shabaab will also attempt to position itself more as a global group by strengthening ties with the Al Qaeda branch in the Maghreb, and other extremist groups such as the Nigerian-based Boko Haram and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

READ: Al Shabaab changes tack to directly take on KDF in Lamu

To foil these plans, the analysts said, al Shabaab must be completely cut off from its access and resupply channels — particularly the southern port of Baraawe and Cadale in the middle Shabelle region.

“Al Shabaab is hit hard and by all standards they can never put up a big momentum of their operations… The government and intelligence has to ensure no resupplies and control of ports or other sources of revenue is left out for al Shabaab,” the analysis reads in part.

On August 25, the Somali army and Amisom launched a major offensive against al Shabaab code-named “Operation Indian Ocean” that is aimed to free Baraawe, which replaced Kismayu as al Shabaab’s strategic base.

The port houses the group’s top leadership, logistics, intelligence gathering arm and operations centre as well as the foreign militia co-ordination centre. It is also the group’s remaining social, political and, most importantly, economic lifeline.

According to intelligence analysis, it is through here that the group exports charcoal from which it earns revenue (estimated at over $20 million per year) that sustains the members and enables them to replenish their armoury by easily accessing illegal arms through the same channel.

Mr Godane and his entourage were headed to Baraawe when the US drones rained hellfire missiles on their convoy and killed them. The American defence Ministry hailed his death as “a major symbolic and operational loss to al Shabaab.”

READ: AU says Somalia raids weakening Al-Shabaab threat to region

The Ugandan contingent in Amisom, in whose zone Baraawe falls, wants to ensure that by end of September al Shabaab controls no area in its operational sector of Central and Middle Somalia, according to Maj Deo Akiiki, the contingent’s spokesperson.

“Godane’s strategy since withdrawing from Mogadishu was to move away from a classical insurgent movement to a proper terrorist organisation. In other words, instead of holding territory to integrate into ‘liberated’ areas and strike when it suits them,” according to Anneli Botha, a senior researcher on terrorism at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria.

“Secondly, al Shabaab’s area of operation changed from isolated areas to populated areas, like Mogadishu, but increasingly countries in the region – especially Kenya. In other words, liberating more areas might seem as a victory, but all fits into al Shabaab’s new strategy. Ultimately the fight against al Shabaab is far from over,” Ms Botha added.

To meet immediate threats, security agencies in Uganda and across the region are reviewing their counter terrorism measures to nip in the bud any attacks al Shabaab has promised in revenge to the murder of its leader, amid concerns that the terror group’s disintegration could result in or revitalise smaller, widely spread cells.

Uganda and Kenya, who have suffered the worst of the terror group’s attacks in the region, are putting emphasis on enhancing community vigilance and heightening border controls and immigration to detect and prevent its members from slipping into their countries.

Al Shabaab is known to attract foreigners to its cause and has recruited extensively across the region, analysts say.

This choice to watch the borders appeared to gain importance when on September 6, security at the Frankfurt airport in Germany arrested three Germans shortly after they arrived on a flight from Kenya on suspicion that they belong to al Shabaab.

Investigations are underway in Nairobi to establish their connections to two other German men Kenyan police arrested on August 29 on suspicion that they may have recently fled Somalia as al Shabaab increasingly lost territory in joint offensive by the Somali government forces and Amisom.

“The demise of a single leader has nothing to do with the death of an ideology. It is clear terrorism might even increase as the new leader [Ahmed Umar alias Abu Ubaidah] seeks to prove a point that he is capable to do even more than his predecessor,” said Lt Col Paddy Ankunda, the spokesperson of the Ugandan army.