Gregory Alonso Pirio writes in a guest column for Informed Comment:
With the world’s eyes riveted to the unfolding civil conflict in Libya, little notice is being given to a major offensive underway in Somalia to defeat the forces of the radical Al-Shabaab movement. Al Shabaab — a coalition of Somali forces supported by hundreds of foreign “jihadist” fighters – has been in control of much of southern and central Somalia, including key sectors of the capital, Mogadishu. Al Shaabab is worrisome to the international community and neighboring states as it was co-founded by Al-Qaeda-trained Somali operatives and has publicly pledged allegiance to Osama Bin Laden. Dozens of young Somalis from the diaspora in Europe and the United States have gone to Somalia to join the Al-Shabaab-inspired jihad, and some of the Somali Americans have been implicated in terrorist plots within the United States, and others with plots in Europe, Australia and South Africa.
In recent days, the intense fighting in Mogadishu between African Union Peacekeepers and Al Shabaab militiamen has left 53 peacekeepers dead. Most of the dead are soldiers from Burundi which has contributed 3,000 soldiers to the peacekeeping contingent. Ugandans comprise the remaining 5,000 members. It is not altogether clear where the UN-sanction African Union “peacekeepers” get their mandate to engage in a major offensive against Al Shabaab, as the UN had rejected the idea of expanding the peacekeeping mandate to include pre-emptive actions.
This push against Al Shabaab has been in the works for some time, awaiting the deployment of thousands of recently-trained soldiers of the UN-recognized Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and fighters of the “Sufi” Ahlu Sunna Waljama’a militia that is opposed to Al Shabaab. The TFG forces have been trained in neighboring Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti with support from the European Union. Elements of the Ahlu Sunna militia have trained in Ethiopia. The apparent strategy behind the offensive is to spread the Al Shabaab insurgents thin and attack them in several places at once, according to security analysts.
The political uncertainties in North Africa (Egypt, Libya and Tunisia) and in Yemen reportedly hastened the launching of the anti-Al-Shabaab offensive. African Union officials fear the cutoff of Libyan and Egyptian funding for its operations, and the African Union and policy makers in the region are quietly expressing their concern that more radical Islamic Arab fighters and resources might flow to Al Shabaab as extremist groups seek to exploit the political uncertainties in North Africa and Yemen caused by the recent uprisings. So, there has been a decision to act against Al Shabaab sooner rather than later. African Union officials are hoping that the United States and the European Union which have already contributed well in excess of $400 million to the African Union mission in Somalia, will increase their contributions to make up for the likely decline in Egyptian and Libyan financial support to the African Union.
As part of the offensive, the Ethiopian military has once again deployed its forces inside Somalia – this time in support of the TFG forces and the allied Alhu Sunna militia. The Ethiopians are supporting Alhu Sunna in its actions in the Gedo region where Somalia borders Kenya and Ethiopia and against an Al Shabaab stronghold in Elbur District in central Somalia. There Ethiopia forces have reportedly set up camps. Ethiopian forces are also reportedly supporting TFG forces in their effort to retake the strategic town of Beletdweyne near the Ethiopian border. Somali news sources report that pro-TFG forces are making headway against Al-Shabaab in the Gedo Region and in Mogadishu.
Al Shabaab spokesmen have threatened Kenya with terrorist attacks for its support of the TFG and Ethiopian forces, and the Kenyans take Al Shabaab threats seriously, placing Kenyan security forces on high alert. In recent days, Kenyan security forces arrested two Somali Americans and a Pakistani, concerned that they came into Kenya to carry out the Al Shabaab threats. With its robust tourism industry, Kenya’s economy is very vulnerable to the after effects of terrorism, and Al Shabaab has shown its willingness to commit terrorist acts in neighboring states. In 2010, Al Shabaab set off a series of bombs in Kampala, Uganda, during World Cup viewing parties that left 76 civilians dead. Because of its vulnerabilities, Kenya has historically avoided an aggressive stance toward radical organizations inside Somalia.
Kenya acknowledges that it sealed its border with Somalia to prevent Al Shabaab fighters from finding safe haven inside Kenya. However, it denies Al-Shabaab claims that it allows the Ethiopian military and pro-TFG forces to transit through its territory.
Ultimately, there is unlikely to be a military solution to the Somali conflict. The great curse of Somalia is that it lies near the oil-rich Middle East and all sorts of interested parties have played their hands to ensure that the country remains unstable for geopolitical reasons. Since the collapse of the Somali state in 1991, these state and non-state actors have included Al Qaeda, Iran, Sudan, Eritrea and a shadowy network of financial backers and charities in Middle East countries. As a result, arms, money and fighters will likely continue to flow in to support one faction or another of Al Shabaab. So, if defeated, factions of Al Shabaab can regroup and find the little support that they need to keep up their insurgency.
Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is that if militarily-weakened, factions of Al Shabaab will go to the negotiating table to pursue power-sharing arrangements. So, the current military offensive underway against Al Shabaab might create conditions leading to a political settlement
Gregory Alonso Pirio holds a Ph.D. in African History from UCLA and is a consultant and author of African Jihad.