Can Somalia’s new president win the fight against al-Shabaab?

By Abdulkadir Fooday
Posted on Thursday, 15 September 2022 10:15

Somalia's President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud in Mogadishu, Somalia, Thursday, June 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh)

Somalia's President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has designated security and the war against terrorism as his number-one domestic policy agenda, noting that al-Shabaab insurgency remains the country’s foremost existential threat.

Shortly after the May election of Mohamud, who served a presidential term between 2012 and 2016, President Joe Biden announced the return of US troops into Somalia, further bolstering his Somalian counterpart’s quest for more firepower and international support for his anti-al-Shabaab campaign. 

Nonetheless, that upbeat mood in Mogadishu has since been met with a string of deadly attacks both in the capital and other parts of the country by the militant group. 

Al-Shabaab raided Mogadishu on 20 August and mounted a 30-hour siege at Hayat Hotel, located about a kilometre away from Aden Adde Airport. At least 21 people were killed and 117 others injured. 

Two weeks later, on 3 September, the group attacked a convoy transporting food in the central province of Hiran, killing at least 18 people and setting alight seven vehicles.

The group mocked the president’s ‘war on terror’ in its affiliate media, labelling it a ‘tried and failed mission’. Meanwhile, observers wonder how successful the new administration’s anti-terror campaign will be, considering stern domestic and regional challenges.

‘No experience’

Aweis Ahmed, who teaches foreign policy analysis at Mogadishu University, says the president’s bid to take the war to al-Shabaab has been below-par. 

“I expected the president would be more experienced than in his previous term and put forward a comprehensive plan for domestic security with competent people hired throughout meritocracy,” Ahmed says.

President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud had and still has an excellent opportunity to reverse the advances by al-Shabaab

“Instead, the president hired people with no experience in one of the most imperative security institutions, NISA [National Intelligence and Security Agency]. 

“He needs professional people even if they are not within his inner circle,” he says.

Mohamud stands a chance

Prime Minister Hamza Barre has picked a former al-Shabaab deputy and key ideologue, Mukhtar Robow, to head the Religious Affairs Ministry, in what analysts said was a crucial soft approach to counter al-Shabaab ideology with the hope of winning over more of the group’s defectors.

Despite the surging violence, President Mohamud’s chances of dealing a much-needed blow to al-Shabaab remain valid, says Samira Gaid, the executive director of Mogadishu-based security think-tank Hiraal Institute.

“President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud had and still has an excellent opportunity to reverse the advances by al-Shabaab,” she says. “The stated strategy so far has been that the government intends on targeting the group militarily, ideologically, and financially”.

On the other hand, Gaid recognises the headwinds Mohamud is facing.

Fragile relations with regional federal states

Joint military operations between the Somali National Army, regional government forces, and local clan militias against al-Shabaab are currently underway in central regions of Somalia.

Gaid, however, worries the fragile relations between the federal government and the regional federal units, also known as the federal member states, could derail a coordinated effort to strike al-Shabaab. 

The regional states’ finance ministers announced recently that they were suspending cooperation with the national treasury, citing failure to honour previous agreements.

“A working relationship with the federal member states that would allow for operational priorities to be implemented would be ideal, but unfortunately that’s not how the political system works,” Gaid says. 

“[…] this will hamper large-scale coordinated offensive operations that would be required to deal a decisive blow to the group.”

Losing a key ally

Amid pressure to act quickly and stifle a-Shabaab’s fast-paced campaign, President Mohamud is also having to contend with the loss of a key ally: Ethiopia. 

Mogadishu and Addis Ababa have had a rather cold relationship since President Mohamud came to power. 

In a bid to cut off the old relationship between his predecessor Mohamed Farmaajo and Ethiopia’s incumbent Premier Abiy Ahmed, President Mohamud skipped Addis Ababa in his whirlwind regional tour during the first month of his tenure.

There have been concerns in Somalia that Ethiopia is revisiting its former script on relations with its neighbouring country by advancing the politics of antagonism against the federal government and directly engaging with the federal member states. 

Al-Shabaab’s most prized target

Against the backdrop of this diplomatic uncertainty between the two countries, al-Shabaab is exploring its entry into Ethiopia.

The group launched an offensive inside Ethiopia’s southern border on 5 August in a rare feat. Ethiopian authorities said it had killed 800 al-Shabaab fighters during the operation.

“The incursion was what we consider – a reconnaissance-in-force – operation. I believe it was intended at probing the strength of Ethiopia’s security apparatus, especially in light of Ethiopia’s security posture since the war in the north began,” Gaid says.

Gaid describes Ethiopia as al-Shabaab’s most prized target, with the group seeking to expand its tentacles in the region. Poor relations between Somalia and Ethiopia would, therefore, be a boon to al-Shabaab, which has effectively exploited the fragility of politics in the region.

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