The fight against al-Shabab

A false and premature sense of security regarding al-Shabab’s capabilities led to the tragedy in Nairobi, Dersso writes.

Even though some al-Shabab leaders were killed and they were driven out of Somalia, there is still plenty of evidence of the group's intention to cause further mayhem [Reuters]

The attack by al-Shabab elements on the Westgate mall in Nairobi, on September 21, stands out from any of the attacks that the group has orchestrated in the region. More than 62 innocent people lost their lives and more than 150 others sustained injuries.

The attacks took place at the centre of Kenya’s economic and political power. As such, it represents a direct challenge to the power and prestige of Kenya, a regional economic power-house

The Westgate attack was the largest and most sophisticated, in terms of its planning and execution, of any of the attacks for which al-Shabab has claimd responsibility, outside of Somalia. Regionally, the Westgate Mall attack, the second major attack by al-Shabab after the 7/11 Kampala bombings in 2010, epitomises what the capability of the group. While in Kampala, al-Shabab undertook a series of co-ordinated bombings, in Westgate, its operatives stormed and forcibly seized the mall resulting in four days of siege at the heart of Kenya’s capital.

The scale of the attack is a clear manifestation that the group has changed its modes operandi after it suffered defeat in the battlefield against AMISOM, Kenyan and Ethiopian forces in 2011-2012. It abandoned conventional fighting in favour of a hit and run tactic of asymmetric warfare. Significantly, al-Shabab opted for using small units or cells that draw on local elements – and use external expertise – to conduct attacks in Mogadishu and in the region, particularly Kenya.

The meticulous planning and masterful execution of such a large-scale attack at the very centre of Kenya exposed major lapses and gaps in Kenya’s security system. The team successfully evaded both Kenyan intelligence, in organising the attack, and security personnel, in moving around members of the team and the weapons used for staging the attack.

This raises a number of questions about al-Shabab’s strength and transformation on the one hand and the vulnerability of the region and the effectiveness of regional and international response to the crisis in Somalia, on the other.

[Al-Shabab] abandoned conventional fighting in favour of a hit and run tactic of asymmetric warfare. Significantly, al-Shabab opted for using small units or cells that draw on local elements – and use external expertise – to conduct attacks in Mogadishu and in the region, particularly Kenya.

Al-Shabab’s strength

There is little doubt that al-Shabab has been divided and weakened militarily. Since 2011, al-Shabab has suffered from deep internal divisions and in-fighting, pitting Somali nationalist factions against the radical jihadi faction of the group. The in-fighting has led to the killing of some key leaders, including Omar Hammami (known also as Abu Mansur al Amriki) and Ibrahim al-Afghani, and the desertion of others. The radical and jihadi faction led by Ahmed Godane, however, has consolidated its dominance.

Significantly, the regional balance of power has shifted away from al-Shabab in favour of Somali and AMISOM (African Union Mission to Somalia) forces since the end of 2011. On the security front, al-Shabab suffered a huge loss after AMISOM forces, in concert with local military forces drove the group out of Mogadishu and other areas.

Importantly, dislodging it from the port city of Kismayo dealt a strategic blow to the group, both in terms of its capability for raising millions of dollars from port usage fees, and for procuring arms from the Arabian peninsula and other areas.

Militarily, the capacity of the group has been depleted substantially in its force size and its access to weaponry. According to the July 2013 report of the UN Security Council Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, al-Shabab’s force strength is approximately 5,000 strong fighters, which is a reduction in half from the estimated size at its peak.

Notwithstanding that the group lost significant momentum, it has not totally lost it’s ability to inflict harm both in Somalia and neighbouring countries.The group also remains in control of large swaths of land in south central Somalia.

Although the group has been totally dislodged from Mogadishu, it continues to perpetrate major attacks. In the past year it carried out several suicide attacks and bombings in Mogadishu. The group attacked various targets including some Somali government installations, the UN and the Embassy of Turkey.

Outside of Somalia, al-Shabab repeatedly warned that it would avenge itself against Kenya for the losses it suffered – notably its control of the port of Kismayo – and for what it called atrocities committed by Kenyan forces. Acting on its threat, the group started to target Kenya in 2012. The capital Nairobi has experienced several small-scale attacks since.

Kenyan failures

Kenyan intelligence services either failed to detect the signs early enough, or did not consider the signs to be serious enough warranting follow-up and early response. There must have also been a leakage in the porous border, on the part of the police and border security agencies. Most worryingly, corrupt members of the security forces might have even been complicit in lending support to the activities of the attackers.

The nature of the attack additionally reflects a failure or gap in the broader regional and international response to the threat that al-Shabab poses. Regionally, the coordinated military pressure at the end of 2011 and early 2012 by AMISOM, Kenyan and Ethiopian forces that chased out al-Shabab from many territories in which it enjoyed undisputed control, did not last long enough.

In the context of the transition in Somalia in the past year and the apparent weakening of al-Shabab, an attitude of discounting al-Shabab‘s remaining strength seemed to have slowly emerged. The security pressure on the group was not maintained, and was not adequately strengthened to adapt to the group’s continual re-working and changing of tactics. Worryingly, AMISOM’s capacity is stretched to its limits.

In the battle for the hearts and minds of al-Shabab‘s support base within and outside Somalia, the efforts of the new Somali government remain precarious and are undermined by the power rivalry between the new Somali government and other political actors.

Clearly, increasing the focus on the socio-economic and political governance side of the Somali crisis should not lead to an underestimation of al-Shabab’s ability to stage major attacks.

What next?

There is very little doubt that the fight against al-Shabab will not be won through security and military means alone. It requires a comprehensive response involving economic and development as well as socio-political tools. These areas have attracted increasing attention in the past year in the international engagement with Somalia. The latest manifestation of that was the New Deal that the Somali government signed with its international backers at the Brussels conference.

In the aftermath of the Westgate attack, questions are emerging: Did this shift in focus and attention towards economic and socio-political issues reduce the focus on the security and military approach against al-Shabab? One simple manifestation of this was the lack of attention given to al-Shabab in the New Deal document. It was mentioned only once and even then it was only under the pillar of economic foundations.

Clearly, increasing the focus on the socio-economic and political governance side of the Somali crisis should not lead to an underestimation of al-Shabab’s ability to stage major attacks.

Westgate also highlighted the need for deepening regional support and co-operation not only in the areas of intelligence-sharing but also in achieving political consensus and an effective system of governance in Somalia. The fact that the team that carried out the attack drew its members from various Western countries shows that these countries need to look into the disaffection of their migrant communities.

Apart from the overall rethink of the approach against al-Shabab that the foregoing discussion advocates, the likely attention and support that the Westgate attack would draw to al-Shabab from al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups mean that security arrangements in Somalia and the region should be beefed up.

In the aftermath of the Westgate attack, measures for cracking down on al-Shabab’s regional and international networks are sure to increase. These measures may not however be enough to stop the group from orchestrating similar attacks.

The changing modes operandi of the group means that it is enough for it to exploit any remaining vulnerability for launching such attacks and take advantage of the attention that the Westgate attack earned the group.

Somalia remains the main theatre for al-Shabab’s operation. The effectiveness of the terrorism threat that the group poses to the region would thus depend on the relative strength of the security, socio-economic and political responses in Somalia.

In the meantime, al-Shabab is sure to capitalise on its “success” and continue to orchestrate attacks both in Somalia and the region.

Dr Solomon Ayele Dersso, a legal scholar and analyst of African international affairs who writes on current African issues, is a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, Addis Ababa Office.

Follow Solomon Dersoo on Twitter: @SolomonADersso