Shabaab continues to lose ground in central Somalia

Over the last few weeks, troops from the Somali National Army (SNA), backed by clan-based militias, African Union forces, and U.S. air support, have steadily made progress against Shabaab, al Qaeda’s branch in East Africa, across central Somalia. 

Beginning earlier this month, the SNA, alongside clan-based militias known as the Macawisley, began an offensive against Shabaab in Somalia’s central Hiraan region. These operations then spread into the neighboring regions of Galguduud, further northeast, and Bay, to the southwest of Hiraan. 

Somali officials in all three regions, as well as from the federal government in Mogadishu, have touted that the combined operations have re-taken dozens of towns and villages from Shabaab, many of which have been under the direct control of the al Qaeda branch for over a decade.

Most recently, this includes the area around Buq Aqable in Hiraan, which featured prominently in Shabaab’s local propaganda production and itself has been under the control of the jihadist group for almost a decade.

While in the Galguduud and Bay regions, the joint forces have also made steady progress clearing Shabaab out of several villages in towns. In Galguduud, Somali forces managed to clear out several areas near Dhusamareb, an important city within the region whose control has vacillated between Shabaab and government forces.

And in Bay, the joint forces continue to make progress around the city of Baidoa. 

Additionally, officials state that at least 200 Shabaab fighters have been killed inside Hiraan alone. However, this number cannot be independently corroborated by FDD’s Long War Journal. Dozens of other Shabaab fighters have been reported killed across Galguduud and Bay. 

And though it has not yet started, President Ahmed Madobe, who heads Somalia’s semi-autonomous Jubaland State in its extreme south, announced plans for Jubaland’s own offensive against the al Qaeda branch.

Shabaab maintains much of its governance apparatus and hierarchy inside Jubaland’s Middle Juba region. Such an offensive would thus put much needed additional pressure on the jihadist group. 

Both the African Union’s Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) and the United States have also confirmed playing a role in supporting the offensives. ATMIS confirmed last week that it was providing air support and medical evacuation to SNA and Macawisley forces, while the United States Military’s Africa Command also confirmed it launched an airstrike in support of SNA troops last week. 

Intense fighting has been ongoing in Hiraan since the jihadist group’s incursions into Ethiopia from the region in July. 

But following last month’s deadly hotel siege in Mogadishu, Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud vowed to defeat the jihadist group, in which the recent offensives in Hiraan and elsewhere have been touted as part of this vow.

For its part, Shabaab’s main spokesman, Ali Mohamud Rage, recently released a video statement “accepting the challenge” of Hassan Sheikh’s vow to eradicate the group and pledged to meet the Somali government forces head on.

Shabaab’s propaganda has also heavily promoted its own counter-offensives largely in Hiraan and Galgaduud. For instance, it recently claimed it killed 50 SNA and Macawisley forces in Adakibir, Galguduud, earlier this week.

Photos published by the group purporting to show the aftermath do show dozens of killed Macawisley fighters and copious amounts of captured weapons and equipment.

The jihadist group has also attempted to repeatedly strike inside Mogadishu, likely as a means of retaliation for the offensives. Though it was able to mount a suicide bombing on a military base in the city on Sept. 25, which killed one soldier, Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) has cracked down on Shabaab’s support networks in Mogadishu.

It remains to be seen if this crackdown will prevent future Shabaab attacks in the Somali capital in the coming days and weeks. 

As the joint offensives continue across much of central Somalia – and potentially soon in southern Somalia – it is important for the Somali forces to not only continue to clear villages and towns from the jihadist group, but organize efforts to effectively hold the liberated locales. 

Given the large-scale mobilization of Macawisely fighters, clan-based militias will likely help in this endeavor. However, these militias must be continually supported by federal or state-sponsored forces to have any chance of long-term success. 

Many areas in central (and even southern) Somalia routinely switched hands over the last several years, as government forces often vacate areas not long after liberating them from Shabaab. To maintain the momentum and ensure Shabaab does not return to the newly recaptured areas, Somalia must now work to effectively hold these areas. 

At the same time, Shabaab has repeatedly shown to be an adaptable force in the face of major offensives against it. For instance, its predecessor group, the Islamic Courts Union, withdrew from most of Mogadishu in 2006 to regroup and bolster its forces in the countryside to mount a counter-offensive against invading Ethiopian forces and consolidate forces elsewhere

Over the following years it re-entered Mogadishu and continued to contest parts of the capital until it again withdrew in 2011. Following this latter withdrawal, Shabaab again focused its efforts across much of Somalia’s rural areas in the country’s south and central areas. 

Though some areas have since been re-captured and long-held by government forces, it was following the 2011 withdrawal from Mogadishu that Shabaab further solidified much of its control over rural Somalia. Many of the villages and towns now being retaken in the last few weeks fell under jihadist control during this time. 

Other areas of Somalia, as well as regional states, should also join and support the large-scale counter-offensive in order to prevent Shabaab from retreating, regrouping, and forming new strongholds elsewhere.

The recent initiative by the Somali government to work alongside local clan-based militias, backed by U.S. airstrikes and African Union troops, to oust Shabaab from its longtime strongholds in the Hiraan, Galguduud, and Bay regions is a welcome development. Somalia must now also prioritize effectively holding the newly recaptured territory.

Caleb Weiss is an editor of FDD's Long War Journal and a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the spread of the Islamic State in Central Africa.

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