Somalia’s terror: What retreating ISIS may have in store
Beirut - As the world’s attention focused on Syria and Iraq where the Islamic State (ISIS) is being steadily driven out of territory by a US-led international coalition, another jihadist group still holds sway over a vast expanse of territory in war-ravaged Somalia in the Horn of Africa.
Just as ISIS is steadily losing ground, al-Shabab was forced to relinquish strategic ports along the Indian Ocean in 2011-12, cutting its key sources of revenue from extortion and taxing commerce in the cities and towns. It then lost Somalia’s seaside capital, Mogadishu, in 2014 to Western-backed troops of the African Union (AU).
These days, al-Shabab, fighting to topple the Western-backed government and set up an Islamist regime, is fighting back from strongholds in the arid Somalia hinterland on the fringe of the Muslim world.
While al-Shabab may not be regaining much of its lost ground, it is waging a fierce insurgency in which coordinated suicide bombings — ISIS’s murderous trademark — play a key role.
Though Somalia has been largely out of the global public eye since it descended into civil war after the overthrow of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in January 1991, events there are instructive.
They provide insight into what ISIS can be expected to do when it has been battered out of its last redoubts in its self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate that spans Iraq and Syria.
Al-Shabab has been closely tied to al-Qaeda for many years but ISIS is also making inroads in Somalia. There have been defections and the group’s recent operations indicate it has adopted some of ISIS’s most effective terror tactics.
The Americans eliminated many of al-Shabab’s leaders in air strikes or special forces operations a few years ago but have recently resumed their campaign against the Somalia jihadists.
There are concerns that al- Shabab, which has close links with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen across the Gulf of Aden, could merge with jihadist clusters springing up across Africa, from the Maghreb to Nigeria.
On August 11th, a helicopter-borne team of US and Somali special forces swooped into southern Somalia in an apparent effort to target al-Shabab’s leader, Sheikh Ahmad Umar Abu Ubaidah, a religious hardliner in a group that has long been plagued by internal divisions that mirror the ideological rift between al-Qaeda and ISIS.
The US-based global security consultancy Stratfor reported that Abu Ubaidah “may have been killed or captured in the operation” in southern Somalia.
Stratfor said the attack and other operations indicated “a significant offensive against key al-Shabab leaders and facilities was in the works. The news that Abu Ubaidah and several other top leaders were the targets of the raid could indicate a critical tactical victory in the effort to ruin the militant group.”
In March, US and Somalia raiders killed more than ten insurgents, including a leader identified by Somali intelligence as “a high-profile target” the attackers had hoped to capture. It is not known who that target was.
That raid followed a March 5th air strike that killed more than 150 fighters at a training camp 195km north of Mogadishu following weeks of surveillance.
High on the US-Somali target list is al-Shabab’s intelligence organisation known as the Amniyat, of which Abu Ubaidah was a founding member.
According to intelligence sources, al-Shabab has recently been affected by desertions, particularly among foreigners in the group who fled to join ISIS.
The United States put a $6 million bounty on Abu Ubaidah’s head in 2015 and there may be a link between the desertions and the August 11th operation against him. The group’s lack of ideological cohesion and an inadequate command structure has long been its Achilles heel.
Like the leaders of many jihadist groups, Abu Ubaidah filled a dead man’s shoes when he took over in 2014, replacing Ahmad Abdi Godane, a staunch supporter of global jihad who was killed in a US air strike.
Before that, Abu Ubaidah was a little-known cleric who was a member of the widely feared Amniyat, which Godane had established to expose and kill dissidents within the organisation.
Under Abu Ubaidah, al-Shabab took a page out of the ISIS playbook and stepped up its terror operations with a series of suicide attacks in which hundreds of people were killed.
Al-Shabab’s links to AQAP in Yemen, notorious for its innovative bomb makers and their persistent — though futile — effort to bomb US aircraft in flight, were reinforced several months ago with two failed attacks against airliners using laptop bombs.
Until Abu Ubaidah took over, the group had never attempted anything as ambitious as trying to down a passenger plane. More such attacks may be coming.
“The answer to many of the thorny questions facing al-Shabab, such as whether to align more closely with al-Qaeda or the Islamic State could… be heavily influenced by who is at the group’s helm,” Stratfor observed.
What comes next for al-Shabab is not clear but Abu Ubaidah may have provided a clue with a fiery audio message issued July 12th, the first since he became the group’s emir in 2014.
During his 44-minute rant titled Sharia or Martyrdom and widely circulated on social media and on al-Shabab’s Radio Andalus, he called on his fighters to slaughter the “Christian crusaders” of the 22,000-member AU peacekeeping mission known as AMISOM — something they are already doing in significant numbers in retaliation for AMISOM’s recent successes.
But, in a hint of al-Shabab widening its war as ISIS has done, Abu Ubaidah, who in 2015 vowed to escalate attacks on African states contributing troops to AMISOM, urged his men to unleash attacks on Turkey, “the enemy nation” that recently beefed up aid to the Somali government and its nascent reconstruction programme.