Somalia’s Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic group, al-Shabaab al-Mujahedeen, is making a "comeback." The Al-Shabaab group had steadily lost ground over the past five years, first losing control of the capital, Mogadishu, in 2011 and then being pushed out of virtually all of Somalia’s other major cities and towns. This was largely the work of the African Union force of 21,000 soldiers from Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi and Djibouti, which is supported by the UN. The relatively weak Somalia army, with 35,000 troops, also participated in the operations.
Al-Shabaab's leader, Ahmed Godane, had been killed in a US air strike in September 2014 and Al-Shabaab named its new leader as Sheikh Ahmad Umar Abu Ubaidah. Godane himself was named head of al-Shabaab in 2008, less than a week after his predecessor, Aden Hashi Ayro, was killed in a similar US raid.
The group has been on the offensive in recent months retaking at least ten towns from Ethiopian and African Union troops. The group has increased the attacks on African Union bases, Somali government facilities and personal, hotels and targets in neighboring Kenya.
There are four main reasons for the comeback of Al-Shabaab. The first is the sudden withdrawal of Ethiopian forces from Ethiopia. The group also aims to destabilize the Somalia and undermine the presidential elections. Further, the African Union (AU) has announced plans to withdraw the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) starting in 2018. And finally, there is the ongoing competition between Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Estimates of the size of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) range from 140,000 to 200,000. Some 8,000 soldiers were deployed in Somalia. Ethiopia's military provides more than 4,000 to the AMISOM force. They make up the third largest contingent, and they are all still in Somalia. Ethiopia had another force with 4,000 soldiers that operated outside of but in tandem with AMISOM, providing crucial assistance.
The Ethiopian troops that were not part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) were suddenly withdrawn to Ethiopia a few days after the Ethiopian government declared a six-month emergency on October 9, 2016.
Ethiopia has pulled its forces out of the towns of Halgan, El-Ali, and Mahas in the Hiran region of south-central Somalia and Tiyeglow, in the southwestern Bakool region. Al-Shabaab wasted no time, and within hours its fighters had seized control of those towns where they raised their black flags.
There are several explanations for the Ethiopian decision.
Ethiopia declared the state of emergency after weeks of anti-government protests and riots during which at least 50 people were killed in a stampede and more than 2,000 demonstrators were temporarily detained. The demonstrations were initially triggered by anger over a development scheme for the capital Addis Ababa but then broadened into demonstrations against political restrictions. Addis Ababa denies the latest troops’ withdrawal has anything to do with events back home.
The expenses of Ethiopian forces outside of AMISOM, were covered by the Ethiopian budget and the unrest was making it more expensive for Ethiopia to have its non-AMISOM troops in Somalia, as its foreign direct investment has been hit and its foreign exchange reserves are decreasing.
“We are pulling out because for a long time our country has shouldered a heavy financial burden having troops in Somalia and it is time the international community took over,” said Getachew Reda, Ethiopia’s communications affairs minister.
The Ethiopian government felt it didn't have the diplomatic support it should have and that its efforts hadn't been recognized.
The Elections in Somalia
The country's presidential election has been delayed multiple times due to security and other concerns. Somalia's long-awaited presidential elections were to take place on December 28, 2016, but have been postponed until January 24, 2017. Despite allegations of corruption, there are tentative signs of democratization and progress. In the Somali elections, the number of delegates who choose the members of parliament - who in turn elect the president – amounts to just 14,025 (who were selected by their clan chiefs). It's a rather modest figure for a country with a population of eleven million. Nonetheless, it could mark a watershed on the road to democratic governance for a country long regarded as a failed state.
The precarious security situation presents the organizers of the elections with enormous challenges. Over the last few weeks, Al-Shabaab terrorist group has persistently tried to disrupt the elections with a series of terror attacks.
AMISOM has grown from an initial deployment of 1,500 Ugandan soldiers in 2007 to a multi-national African force of over 21,000 soldiers, with troops from Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti, and Uganda. Sierra Leone withdrew its battalion of troops in early 2015.
The international community pays each country in AMISOM $1,028 (990 Euros) per month for each soldier. Countries are free to choose how much of that each soldier receives, while the United Nations Support Office for AMISOM (UNSOA) covers all logistics and associated costs.
2016 saw the EU cutting back funding to the AMISOM mission fighting Al-Shabaab jihadists in Somalia. The European Union, AMISOM's largest donor, cut its funding by 20 percent, leaving the African forces that contribute to it scrambling to come up with their own money. Uganda, the largest contributor of troops, announced it would pull its contingent of more than 6,000 soldiers out of Somalia by the end of 2017.
The African Union (AU) has announced plans to withdraw AMISOM completely by the end of 2020, saying security responsibilities would be gradually transferred to Somalia's military, starting in 2018.
On December 20, 2016, President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, which has threatened to pull out of the force over the funding cut, urged the EU to provide more support.
Kenya has begun closing the Dadaab refugee camp, which increases the risk that hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees will be sent back to Somalia. The closure may thus benefit al-Shabaab. The large number of refugees allows an opportunity for the group either to recruit or forcefully conscript new soldiers. For refugees without an income in Somalia, the prospect of a monthly salary can make joining the organization attractive.
The Al Qaeda – ISIS Competition
In 2016, ISIS has launched an aggressive campaign aimed at persuading Al-Shabaab to join its ranks. On October 23, 2016, Abdul Qadir Mu’min, one of Al-Shabaab’s religious leaders, along with about 20 of his followers, have pledged allegiance to Al-Baghdadi. While Mu’min and his followers were applauded for their allegiance by pro-ISIS supporters on Twitter, there are many who are against the alliance. Many condemned and criticized those who join and support ISIS, indicating that Al-Shabaab’s supporter base is still firmly loyal to Al-Qaeda.
Al-Shabaab’s resurgence comes after the extremist group recently splintered. The Al-Shabaab leadership has to present significant achievements in order to be more attractive than ISIS is.
Al-Shabaab seeks to establish an Islamic emirate ruled by a strict version of Shariah law. It regularly targets security forces and officials from within the relatively weak UN-backed government. Bystanders are regularly killed or wounded by its indiscriminate bombing attacks. More than 21,000 peacekeepers are deployed in Somalia in the multinational African Union force. Al-Shabaab opposes the presence of foreign troops and regularly attacks foreign interests and peacekeepers in the Region.
ENDF forces are fighting in Somalia for more than a decade (since 2006), and they are the most experienced and the only ones who have fought both guerrilla and conventional warfare and they are the most effective against al-Shabaab.
The withdrawal of Ethiopian troops certainly gives al-Shabaab an opportunity to regain control of settlements it had previously lost, and it will be a major boon for its forces and its propaganda machine.
Somalia’s security forces are supposed to be taking on more responsibility as the African Union force prepares to withdraw by the end of 2020, but this month’s attacks indicate that the Somali forces may not be able to hold the gains made by the African Union troops that deprived al-Shabaab of large territories.
Should Al-Shabaab as a group pledge allegiance to ISIS, the alliance would perhaps help alleviate Al-Shabaab’s financial as well as other challenges. The likelihood of Al-Shabaab abandoning its allegiance to Al Qaeda remains low even if there are individual cases of fighters defecting to and supporting ISIS.
Nevertheless, the group has the support of both Al-Qaeda and ISIS followers. Furthermore, Al-Shabaab’s propaganda materials are often released through and shared on both pro-ISIS and pro-Al-Qaeda online forums.