Analysis: Shabaab takes advantage of slowed counter-offensive

Somalia’s large counter-offensive against Shabaab is currently stalled and its much touted next phase continues to be delayed. In response, Shabaab, al Qaeda’s branch in East Africa, seeks to gain the initiative against the nearly year-long offensive against it. 

A brazen hotel siege and targeted assassinations in Mogadishu, in addition to a series of major raids against military bases around the country, demonstrate Shabaab’s lasting capabilities and desire to seize the gap in the Somali government’s offensive delays. 

Over the weekend, the Somali capital was rocked by a succession of explosions and gunfire as Shabaab both raided a popular hotel and targeted a local official within the city. 

On Friday, the jihadi group stormed the Pearl Beach Hotel in Mogadishu’s Lido Beach. Starting with a suicide car bomb, an assault team then entered the fray, seizing the hotel and taking various hostages. Somali security forces were able to end the siege several hours later, though at least nine people were killed by Shabaab during the assault. 

The hotel siege, a tragically common occurrence in Mogadishu, was the first since Nov. 2022, when Shabaab raided the Villa Rays Hotel just meters from the presidential palace. However, in February 2023, it also laid siege to the private residence of a senior military official in Mogadishu, which was also hosting members of the Macawisley (or local clan militias that fight against Shabaab). 

And on Sunday, Shabaab attempted to assassinate a senior police officer in Mogadishu with a remote-detonated explosive attached to his vehicle. That explosion came just a week after a similar explosion in the city targeted a Somali government official and his assistant. 

Targeted assassinations via improvised explosive devices (IED) is a historically-favored tactic of the jihadi group, particularly in Mogadishu. That two similar devices were detonated within a week of each other shows that Shabaab’s urban hit squads in Mogadishu remain active. 

The weekend violence in Mogadishu also comes after a series of major assaults on military bases across Somalia. Late last week, Shabaab mounted a raid on an Ethiopian military base in the border town of Doolow in the southern Gedo Region. 

For its part, Shabaab claimed it killed and wounded over 200 Ethiopian troops, though Ethiopia has vehemently denied this assertion. Ethiopia maintains its forces successfully repelled the assault, though admitted that Shabaab did launch two suicide car bombs at its base. Shabaab has yet to provide any visual evidence for its claims, as of the time of publishing. 

Though the number of those killed and wounded is more than likely greatly exaggerated, Shabaab has nevertheless been more accurate regarding two other major assaults in recent weeks. For instance, on May 30, it overran a Somali military base near the town of Masagaway in the central Galguduud Region.

Somali officials initially denied the jihadi group’s claims, though photos and videos subsequently released by Shabaab seemingly confirmed more of its side of the story. 

Likewise, on May 26, Shabaaab overran a Ugandan military base in Buulo Mareer, Lower Shabelle, killing at least 54 Ugandan troops and representing one of the deadliest to have ever hit the Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF) contingent in Somalia. 

The African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS), of which the UPDF contingent is a member, initially denied the base being overran. Subsequent photos and a long-form video released by Shabaab again painted a vastly different picture. 

It is certainly possible – and indeed would be highly welcomed – that the Ethiopian troops did in fact repel Shabaab’s recent assault on its forces. However, both ATMIS and its Somali partners must learn that providing easily refutable talking points in communiques only harms their legitimacy and only helps in Shabaab’s propaganda empire. 

The successive assaults, raids, and targeted assassinations, however, only show that Shabaab is taking advantage of slowed offensive operations to regroup, reconsolidate, and refocus its forces. Though operations have certainly stalled in Somalia’s center, periodic operations have still taken place elsewhere, with Somali security forces announcing a new operation in Lower Shabelle yesterday. 

However, the periodic announced operations, particularly like yesterday’s in Lower Shabelle, are largely temporary in nature and do not provide the necessary sustained pressure on Shabaab. Moreover, the Somali government continues to delay the actual beginning of the so-called “Phase Two” of the counter-Shabaab offensives, which are supposed to take place in Somalia’s southern states of Jubaland and South-West State.

Militias loyal to Jubaland state have previously conducted anti-Shabaab operations in recent months, though these appear to not be part of the planned “Phase Two.” Though Somalia benefited from clan hostility against Shabaab during the offensive’s first phase in central Somalia, it is also unclear how well it can benefit from anti-Shabaab clan sentiment in Somalia’s south, where Shabaab has based much of its governance and social services.

For its part, Jubaland has so far rejected overtures from the federal government to replicate the clan model it utilized in Somalia’s center – though the rejection was largely based on intra-Somali political rivalries than any sense of futility regarding Shabaab’s strong relations with the southern clans.

The delays and slowing down of sustained operations elsewhere has had a drastic impact on the overall fight against Shabaab. In order to prevent the al Qaeda branch from continuing its regrouping efforts, Somalia must effectively begin its so-called “Phase Two” of its offensive operations in southern Somalia, while also not taking its eye off of the country’s center, wherein Shabaab may look to reconsolidate with any potential relapse in security efforts. 

Until then, the fight against what the U.S. military describes as “the largest and most deadly al Qaeda network in the world” remains far from over. 

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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