Shabaab, al Qaeda’s branch in East Africa, launched a deadly ambush on African Union Mission (AMISOM) forces in southern Somalia yesterday. AMISOM initially claimed that 12 soldiers were killed and several others wounded, but subsequent reporting indicates that the death toll may be higher.
Shabaab has trumpeted the operation on social media sites and via its Shahada News Agency. In a statement yesterday, Abdul Aziz Abu Musab, the group’s spokesman, claimed that the jihadists had the bodies of some of the dead in their possession. “The Mujahideen today set up a series of ambushes for the convoy of the Ugandan Crusader forces and more than 39 soldiers were killed,” Abdul Aziz Abu Musab said. He added that Shabaab had also captured AMISOM weapons.
In a subsequent posting on Shahada News, Shabaab alleged that the number of dead was even higher, with 51 Ugandan troops perishing in the assault.
Earlier today, AMISOM reported fewer casualties, saying that “12 gallant AMISOM soldiers lost their lives while seven others sustained injuries and are currently receiving treatment.” The “troops were ambushed during a regular patrol to secure the Mogadishu-Barawe Main Supply Route.” AMISOM added that the attack involved an improvised explosive device (IED).
The Ugandan military quickly moved to refute Shabaab’s statments, claiming that the al Qaeda group was exaggerating the number of fatalities, according to The Ugandan.
But Somali officials told the press that the casualties were higher than AMISOM indicated. “We have carried 23 dead AMISOM soldiers and a dead Somali soldier from the scene where [Shabaab’ ambushed AMISOM today,” Reuters quoted Ali Nur, the deputy governor of Lower Shabelle region, as saying.
It is often difficult to confirm the number of fatalities resulting from Shabaab’s attacks. For instance, the UN found that 150 Kenyan soldiers were killed during the Jan. 15, 2016 surprise assault on an AFRICOM base in the town of El Adde. However, the Kenyan government was not forthcoming when it came to its losses, which the UN described as “the largest military defeat in Kenyan history.”
The latest Shabaab ambush occurred in or near Bulo Marer, which is approximately 140 to 150 kilometers south of Mogadishu. The town was freed from Shabaab’s control by Somali and AMISOM fighters in Aug. 2014. Bulo Marer had served “as a major route for [Shabaab] insurgents and provided them with steady income obtained through extortion and forceful taxation of residents and travellers,” the UN explained at the time. The town was also part of “a major route” used by Shabaab to move “deadly explosive devices” into “the rest of Somalia.”
The jihadists put up “stiff resistance” during the operation to retake the town in 2014, but ultimately failed to hold onto it. “We appreciate the Ugandan AMISOM force,” Abdul Kadir JS Siidi, the governor Lower Shabelle, said at the time. “They came by force and they beat [Shabaab], al-Qaeda like a child with stick.”
Shabaab, which remains a prolific insurgency and terrorist organization, obviously did not forget its setback in 2014. And the group is still trying to retake the territory it lost.