Shabaab regains ground in southern Somalia

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Shabaab fighters raise the group’s flag in Marka.

Shabaab, al Qaeda’s official branch in East Africa, has retaken control several towns in southern Somalia after the withdrawal of African Union and government forces.

Shabaab fighters reoccupied Marka, located just 45 miles south of the Somali capital of Mogadishu, today after African Union and Somali troops abandoned the town.

“AMISOM (African Union Mission in Somia) forces moved out at midday and the local administration and all other Somali security forces left a few minutes later – and then heavily armed al-Shabab militants entered the town,” a local resident told The Associated Press. “They have been addressing residents at the district headquarters.”

Shabaab raised its flag at the town center, addressed a crowd, and began patrols, according to photographs obtained from Shahada News Agency, a jihadist propaganda outfit. According to the AP, Shabaab has occupied the police station and government buildings.

Shabaab lost control of Marka in August 2012 after the Kenyan military invaded southern Somalia in response to Shabaab raids in northern Kenya. While Shabaab lost control of the major population centers in southern Somalia during the Kenyan and African Union offensive, the group maintained its military strength and retreated to rural areas of the country.

They have retaken control over the last month with a vengeance.

Today’s African Union withdrawal from Marka is likely a response to Shabaab’s mid-January assault on an ANISOM base in the town of El Ade. Shabaab fighters from the Saleh al Nabhani Battalion killed scores of Kenyan troops and seized a large quantity of weapons, munitions, and vehicles during the rout. Shabaab claimed it killed more than 100 troops during the El Ade raid and the Kenyan military has been silent on its losses.

Attacks of that magnitude have a demoralizing effect on African Union troops, and the militaries are unable to sustain such losses over time.

Marka is the third large town in southern Somalia to fall to Shabaab in the past two weeks after African Union troops pulled out without warning. On January 26, Shabaab marched into the towns of El Ade and Badhadhe after Kenyan forces withdrew, leaving a security vacuum.

Shabaab has been able to mount attacks in the region despite the presence of a large African Union mission in Somalia. The jihadist group has also launched numerous suicide assaults on heavily guarded hotels in Mogadishu this year. It has continuously targeted African Union troops in southern Somalia and has taken back some territory in the process. Shabaab has mounted operations in the central part of Somalia and into neighboring Kenya, as well. In late November, Shabaab said its forces temporarily took control over a Kenyan town bordering Somalia.

Photographs of Shabaab fighters in Marka

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Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of The Long War Journal. Caleb Weiss is an intern at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributor to The Long War Journal.

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