The US State Department said that al Qaeda’s branch in East Africa has prospered over the past year “due largely to lapses in offensive counterterrorism operations during 2016.” Additionally, State noted that Somali security forces “remained incapable of securing and retaking towns from al-Shabaab independently,” and while not explicitly stated, hinted that the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) is failing.
State documented the dire situation in Somalia in its newly released Country Reports on Terrorism 2016. State’s analysis Somalia mirrors that of FDD’s Long War Journal, which has warned that Shabaab has maintained its safe havens and retaken ground in the south, forced poorly resourced African Union forces to cede territory after spectacular complex assaults, and continues to plot against the US and the West.
“In 2016, terrorists used under-governed areas in northern, central, and southern Somalia as safe havens from where they conducted, planned, and facilitated operations with little resistance,” State noted in its opening paragraph. “Despite having made significant progress toward formally federating its member states in the latter part of 2016, Somalia continued to struggle with the provision of security, justice, and governance capacity at all levels needed to limit terrorists’ freedom of movement, access to resources, and capacity to operate.”
Shabaab, al Qaeda’s official branch in Somalia and East Africa, retained its safe haven in the Jubba River Valley, controls “several villages and towns throughout Jubaland region, including Janaale, Jilib, and Kunyo Barow,” and “exploited the porous border regions further south between Kenya and Somalia to launch cross-border attacks.”
State’s assessment that counterterrorism operations were insufficient to battle Shabaab explains the March 30 directive by the US Department of Defense that it would intensify operations in Somalia. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, US military to actively target Shabaab in Somalia.]
The State report said that the Somali military “as a whole, remained incapable of securing and retaking towns from al-Shabaab independently.” The country has “chronically low capacity and human capital” and remains “heavily dependent on regional and international partners.”
Most disturbingly, State noted that African Union forces have suffered major setbacks and ceded ground to al Qaeda’s affiliate. Shabaab now threatens “previously liberated towns in Bakool, Hiiraan, and other regions” in Central Somalia after “Ethiopian forces largely withdrew.” Additionally, the report notes that Kenya forces have been unable to stop Shabaab fighters from raiding across the border.
Ethiopian forces weren’t the only African Union contingent to withdrawal from areas it previously held. Kenyan forces abandoned several bases in the south after Shabaab launched major assaults and overran the facilities.
Shabaab has successfully overrun Somali and African Union bases in the past and inflicted a large number of casualties on troops based there. In Jan. 2016, Shabaab fighters assaulted a base in Al Ade in the south and killed at least 100 Kenyan soldiers. In June 2015, Shabaab killed an estimated 60 Ethiopian soldiers in the south. Also, that same month, Shabaab fighters killed more than 50 Burundi soldiers in Leego.
The US government has elevated the threat that Shabaab poses after the group used a sophisticated laptop bomb in an attempt to down a Somali airliner in 2016. This attack was cited by the US government as one of the reasons that electronics have been banned in the cabins of airplanes departing from 10 airports in the Middle East. [See What’s really behind Trump’s laptop ban.]