Is Somalia’s three-pronged approach winning the war against Al-Shabaab?

By Abdulkadir Fooday

Posted on Wednesday, 8 February 2023 17:24
An ambulance is parked at the entrance to the Mogadishu Municipality Headquaters in Mogadishu on January 22, 2023, after at east six people were killed on January 23, 2023 in an attack by Al-Shabaab militants at the mayor's office in central Mogadishu, according to police sources. (Photo by Hassan Ali ELMI / AFP)

The military offensive against al-Shabaab in Somalia enters its eighth month this February. The Somali government remains upbeat about its pending victory against the militant group that has been around since 2007 and has since spread its tentacles in the East Africa region and beyond. The government swears by its three-pronged approach really. Is it really working?

In January, the Federal Government said the national army along with the support of clan militia had killed over 2000 militants and liberated tens of villages and towns in the central regions of Middle Shabelle, Hiiraan and Galgaduud. Additionally, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud announced in mid-January that the government had frozen 250 bank accounts and 70 mobile money-transfer accounts in its bid to cut off al-Shabaab financing.

The government is also taking the ideological warfare to al-Shabaab by enlisting the support of clerics whom it hopes will not only counter extremist narratives, but also deny the Islamist group new recruits by setting the record straight on the teachings of Islam.

The government says this three-pronged approach – military, financial, and ideological –  is yielding fruit.

Yielding fruit, but…

Building on these ‘victories’, the ministry of planning issued a circular urging UN and other aid agencies to relocate their operations, and not just bases, from outside the country back to Somalia by the end of March. The government says Somalia is now more stable thanks to the ongoing military operations. However, a senior source in the government tells The Africa Report that many UN and aid agencies complained to the minister on account of the security situation with the militants.

However, despite these gains al-Shabaab is not any closer to hanging its boots. In January, the militia group launched over 10 attacks in newly liberated areas in central Somalia targeting the military and civilians.

Al Shabaab [is] keen to fight on [its] terms and have reverted back to guerilla tactics.

Over 100 people were killed in these attacks. The group also mounted a daring raid at the Mogadishu Mayor’s office on 22 January creating a hostage situation that resulted in at least six deaths according to government reports.

Strength or desperation?

There is a divergence of opinion on whether these reprisal attacks demonstrate al-Shabaab’s strength or are just diversionary as the group deploys its thinning resources.

Ahmed Ali, an independent security analyst in Mogadishu, tells The Africa Report that although these recent counterattacks by Al-Shabaab have increased and resulted in high casualty figures, they do not indicate a serious concern to the campaign.

“These attacks are only meant to show that they [al-Shabaab] can still conduct raids, but it does not mean that the group can change anything in the ongoing war, which is coming from the side of the government and the people.

“The group only wants to reduce the pressure from the allied forces, so if we evaluate the strategy that the leaders of the Somali government are facing the al-Shabaab with, and their clear decision about the fight against the group, these attacks will not impact the liberation.”

Samira Gaid, an independent security expert in Mogadishu, views the counter-attacks as a move to hold back the offensives.

“Al Shabaab [is] keen to fight on [its] terms and have reverted back to guerilla tactics. These attacks are intended to stall the operations and suspend them all together. So far, we have seen operations slow down not necessarily due to the reprisal attacks, but other factors. They will take advantage of this pause to destabilise the security forces and impact on their morale,” she says.

‘Unofficial militarisation’

Somali officials have said on previous occasions that 2023 is the decisive year in the war against al-Shabaab. Indeed, a major assault to weaken the group is crucial for the Horn of Africa nation as it prepares to take over security responsibilities from the African Union forces. The UN Security Council has set December 2024 as the last date for the AU forces to exit Somalia. However, analysts have warned that that timeline is overly ambitious in light of the prevailing situation.

The capability of the FGS to curb al-Shabaab funds is limited.

According to the latest Somali Transition Plan, the government envisages the generation of an additional 22,856 soldiers by June 2024. However, it is not clear if this number will include the current 24,000 forces, of which many are no longer fit for services. Even as Somalia rushes to generate more forces, concerns have been raised about the haphazard manner of training troops by various external actors.

A new report by the Mogadishu-based policy think-tank Heritage Institute for Policy Studies (HIPS) warned of what it termed as ‘unofficial militarisation’. National Security Advisor Hussein Sheikh-Ali told the media on 31 January that the Somali government had sent 3,000 more recruits to Uganda and Eritrea under the support of the UAE. In this scenario, the report says, the re-integration of these forces could present a leadership and operational challenge to the Somali National Army. The US, UK, Turkey, and the EU also train Somali forces.


The Somali government is also keeping close watch on al-Shabaab’s financing. By cutting off access to finances, especially through formal banking, the government hopes to deny the militant group the means to finance its operations.

However, al-Shabaab has devised ways to circumvent regulatory mechanisms, such as those provided by the Anti-Laundering and Terrorist Financing Act passed by parliament in 2016. A UN panel of Experts report in 2022 noted that al-Shabaab was able to play around the dictates of the Financial Reporting Centre by transferring funds in tranches of $9,500, thereby avoiding the $10,000 threshold for FRC flagging.

“The capability of the FGS to curb al-Shabaab funds is limited. However, the government is doing its best. Still, it is doubtful whether it can succeed in this area soon due to Somalia’s weak fiscal and regulatory mechanisms,” Aweis Ahmed who teaches politics and foreign policy at Mogadishu University, tells The Africa Report.

Ideological warfare

A third component of the Somali campaign against Al-Shabaab is ideological warfare and propaganda. The ministry of information has established a TV channel dedicated to covering the joint operations and countering al-Shabaab reporting. Additionally, the government has roped in religious leaders in a bid to challenge al-Shabaab’s interpretation of Islam to advance its course.

Religious scholars play a role in presenting the correct understanding and they also play a significant role in raising awareness

Over 300 clerics gathered in Mogadishu in late January under the auspices of the Federal Government. They vowed to support the government and wage an ideological battle against the group. A note-worthy party is the Religious Affairs docket of the Federal Government, headed by the former al-Shabaab number two Mukhtar Robow. Nor Abdirahman, an independent security analyst, says the convening of the cleric’s conference was a major step in deploying non-military means against al-Shabaab.

“Religious scholars play a role in presenting the correct understanding and they also play a significant role in raising awareness of the different segments of society who are associated with their religious scholars, which means that the public perceives the group as outliers with a unified viewpoint. Scholars also play a role in addressing the public’s misconceptions about the group as a whole.”

Politics at the regional and national level

Analysts further note that Somalia needs to fix its politics to ensure the country’s leadership at the national and state level is focused on fighting al-Shabaab. Recent fissures in relations between the Federal Government and Puntland – the oldest Federal Member State – raised concerns about an upsurge of the cyclical disputes between the two levels of government. However, Aweis says the geographical location of Puntland has little bearing on the military campaign.

At the regional level, there is a need for the mobilisation of resources, intelligence, and border security. Hassan Sheikh Ali, a professor of International Relations at the Somalia Institute for National Security Studies, says the recent Somalia Front-Line States Summit in Mogadishu not only sought to mobilise resources, but to send a statement of solidarity to Somalia in the ongoing campaign.

“I do believe that the Frontline Countries can work together [Joint Plan] and support Somalia to destroy the terrorists in the Horn of Africa. In addition, supporting Somalia against al-Shabaab is every count[r]y’s security interest in the Horn of Africa,” he tells The Africa Report.

As Somalia prepares to open the fourth and fifth battlefronts in the southern parts of the country, it will still bank on the support and solidarity of its citizens who have oiled the engine of the war in unprecedented ways and proved that a united front can bring down the terrorist organisation.

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