Shabaab retakes territory as the U.S. sanctions one of its money laundering networks

Shabaab, al-Qaeda’s branch in East Africa, is steadily undoing progress made by Somali security services in its nearly two year old counter-offensive against the group. Over the last few days, the group has recaptured several important areas in central Somalia that the federal government in Mogadishu previously touted as successes in the campaign to weaken the jihadist insurgency. 

At the same time, the United States has both sanctioned a far-reaching money laundering network of the group and launched new airstrikes in Somalia. Even with the recent sanctions and military operations against Shabaab, the U.S. continues to estimate that Shabaab rakes in nearly $100 million a year while the drone strikes have done little to stymie the group’s advances against the Somali military. 

Retaking Ground

Central Somalia, particularly the regions of Galguduud, Hiraan, and Mudug, have been at the forefront of the aforementioned counter-offensive against Shabaab since those operations were launched in mid-2022. The Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) in Mogadishu has often touted the capture of Shabaab-held areas in those regions as signs of success in the counter-offensive. 

Over the last several months, however, the offensive(s) in those regions have largely stalled and Shabaab has made a concerted effort to take advantage of the halted progress – particularly as seen with the devastating attack on a Somali military base in Oswein, Galguduud, in late Aug. 2023. Since then, Shabaab has exploited the weakness of the Somali military in the region to retake some of its previously lost territory. 

In the last week, however, Shabaab has made its most dramatic gains yet. For instance, in Mudug, Shabaab recaptured Caad, Camara, and allegedly Bacadweyn, though the local police chief has disputed this latter claim. All three areas saw intense fighting between Shabaab, Somali troops, and Macawisely, or local clan militias allied with the Somali National Army (SNA). 

The confirmed recapture of Caad and Camara also came after Shabaab launched large-scale attacks on those localities in Jan. 2024 and Dec. 2023, respectively. According to local media, the al-Qaeda branch was able to recapture the areas in recent days after Somali troops withdrew. 

Further still in Mudug, Shabaab also reportedly recaptured Laasgacamey and Sirgo, while advancing on Xarardheere, one of the biggest locales retaken from Shabaab during the counter-offensive. And much like in Caad and Camara, SNA troops also reportedly withdrew from Laasgacamey and Sirgo before Shabaab’s recapture. 

And though entirely unconfirmed (as of the time of publishing), there are claims of Masagaway, a town in Galguduud, also being recaptured by Shabaab. If true, this comes just a few months after Masagaway was captured by Somali forces. 

The SNA prematurely withdrawing from strategic areas has been an issue for years and is a primary way Shabaab retakes territory. As the army advanced in central Somalia during the current counter-offensive, the SNA was theoretically meant to rely on the Macawisely for these holding operations. 

Shabaab taking advantage of the slowed-to-stalled counter-offensive against it is something FDD’s Long War Journal has warned about for many months. For example, in July 2023, we noted the slowing of the offensive, and thus weakening the pressure against it, allowed Shabaab to conduct a series of attacks both in Mogadishu and against remaining African Union forces. 

Much more recently in Sept. 2023, which was Somalia’s worst month on record for suicide bombings taking place within its territory, we noted this was only possible in part due to the counter-offensive stalling. 

The more Somalia’s counter-offensive against Shabaab continues to be stalled the more likely it will be that Shabaab continues to find opportunities to further undo any progress made against it. 

All of this is currently compounded by the African Union troops, which provide for a much needed security buffer in many areas, drawing down for a full withdrawal by the end of the year. 

Sanctions and Drone Strikes

As Shabaab was making these advances, the United States sanctioned a geographically disparate money laundering network helping to finance the al-Qaeda branch. Two drone strikes, neither of which were located in central Somalia, were also reported by the U.S. Military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM). 

On Monday, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned 16 entities and individuals, ranging from locations in Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Finland, and Cyprus, all operating as part of a cohesive network to help finance Shabaab. 

Many of the entities and individuals are related to the Haleel Group and its subsidiaries, which operate in all the aforementioned countries by members of the Somali diaspora. Two additional businesses, Qemat Al Najah General Trading in the UAE, and Crown Bus Services in Kenya, were also sanctioned for their connections to the Haleel Group. 

Treasury makes a specific note of this network’s activities inside Uganda, noting that all of the directors of Haleel Group’s Uganda branch are involved in this financing scheme. 

Shabaab’s activities in Uganda, though receiving less attention than its activities in Kenya, remain steady. Though it does not conduct attacks inside Uganda like it does inside Kenya, the recent U.S. sanctions makes clear that Shabaab continues to find fertile ground at least for logistical support. In recent years, Shabaab’s recurring recruitment of Ugandans have also come to light. 

Additionally, AFRICOM has noted that it has conducted at least two new drone strikes against Shabaab in southern Somalia. On March 2, it stated it killed two Shabaab members in a so-called “collective self-defense strike” not far from the southern city of Kismayo. And on March 10, it killed an additional three Shabaab fighters in a drone strike near Ugunji in the Lower Shabelle region. 

This brings the total number of U.S. drone strikes in Somalia so far this year to six. Last year, AFRICOM conducted 18 drone strikes and one special operations raid inside Somalia. Since taking office in Jan. 2021, the Biden Administration has conducted a total of at least 43 drone strikes inside Somalia according to data kept by FDD’s Long War Journal

However, drone strikes over the last year have done little to stop Shabaab from taking advantage of a counter-offensive on pause and weakened security as African Union troops continue to draw down.

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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