Inside Somalia’s second battle against al-Shabaab


Somalia's military patrol following an operation against al-Shabaab on June 22, 2021. Recently, Somalia's military unusually withdrew from a clash with al-Shabaab that they have been winning.

Photo credit: Somali Army | Handout | Anadolu Agency via AFP

A new battle ensued last week in Cowsweyne settlement, Galgadud region in Central Somalia. It was one of the many confrontations between Al-Shabaab militants and the Somali National Army (SNA).

Then a question followed: Why did the army retreat so fast?

Former Somali President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, currently a member of the Lower House of the Federal Parliament, on Monday strongly demanded investigations after troops unusually withdrew from a clash they have been winning.

To the SNA, the withdrawal was tactical. Maj-Gen Ismael Abdimalik, the commander of 62th division, told the media that some units retreated to avoid further losses. Yet the SNA also captured El-Bur town next door, in a coalition with local clan militias.

What makes the capture of El-Bur town a hit for the government is that the district is extremely strategic for Galmudug State and is one of the oldest settlements in Galgadud region since the colonial era, but have been under the control of the extremist group over the past decade and a half.

This has been the story of Somalia’s fight for its peace for the last year: Winning, losing and winning again against al-Shabaab. When President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud came back to office in May 2022, he declared war on al-Shabaab. Now he says the first phase is over and a new one has begun.

Experts think the biggest problem has been Somalia’s inability to establish state control in areas where it has liberated communities from al-Shabaab.

“It looks like the first phase of the offensive brought some success,” said Dr Hawa Noor, an independent researcher on security, based in Germany.

“What is important is for the government not to abandon the territories it overtook, but keep the work going there by enhancing service delivery, addressing grievances of the people while at the same time not creating a vacuum (in terms of present security forces) that can be occupied by al-Shabaab.

“Al-Shabaab thrives by staying close to people's concerns and this is what the government has to work hard towards. Security forces maintenance of good behaviour is just as crucial,” she told Nation.Africa.

This week, Somali President Mohamud was enthusiastic about the anti-Al-Shabaab campaign.

“Whether one battle is lost or misinformation is spread, the war will continue,” said Mohamud.

“Despite spread of false information, our military campaign against Al-Shabaab will continue till we achieve a final victory, which is closer,” he added on Tuesday in an address to the nation.

Mohamud spoke from Dhusamareb, the capital of Galmudug State, 511km north of Mogadishu, where he has operated from since August, symbolically bringing his presence to the battlefront.

In Galmudug State, the government has been encouraging volunteers to join the fight. The results have been mixed, however, indicating the unpredictable nature of the war.

Mohamud has since appointed new leadership for the army, General Ibrahim Sheikh Mohydin and General Ahmed Adan Ali, becoming the army chief of general staff and the commander of the infantry division.

Gen Mohydin and Gen Ali replaced former commanders, Generals Odowa Yusuf Raghe and Mohamed Tahlil Bihi.

To turn the war against the extremist into a national objective, Mohamud hosted federal state leaders in a National Consultative Council (NCC) in August.

“The NCC collectively agreed to energise the preparation of the federal government and member states towards the liberation of Jubbaland, South West and the swathes of territory west of Shabelle River,” they said last week.

But the second phase could be challenging. First it comes as more African Union peacekeepers prepare to withdraw another batch of 3,000 troops from Somalia by the end of September.

And the support of clans in Jubbaland and South West is lukewarm for second phase of the offensive dubbed ‘Black Lion.” Some experts think Jubbaland and South West are important because they also directly affect neighbours who may want to be involved to secure own borders.

“Beyond funding the fighting, international partners need to help Somalia stabilise liberated areas. Basic infrastructure, including resources for local governance, will build communities’ resistance to the Al-Shabaab,” said Abdirasak Aden, a former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information, now executive director of Farsight Africa Research and Policy Studies, a local think-tank.

“Simple things like local courts have been absent, leading the militants to fill the void.  Job creation, to keep youth from joining the terrorist ranks, is needed.

In Jubbaland, Abdallah Ibrahim, the director of the East Africa Centre for Research and Strategic Studies, says that clans in the south are not yet sure if the government will fully control liberated areas, reflecting on low civilian involvement.

“They fear that the government may fail and al-Shabaab will take revenge so they are not fully with the government. The success of the second phase will depend on how the government manages the areas under their control by providing sustained security and services,” said Mr Ibrahim.

Al-Shabaab have shown they can be determined to win back lost territory, with deadly attacks. When troops withdrew last week in Galmudug, it coincided with the killing of Ibrahim Hilowle Hussein, the local commander of the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) in Dolow district of Gedo region, Jubbaland State. Mr Hussein was shot by his wife whom he married recently, but who is suspected of having ties to al-Shabaab.

Rashid Abdi, the Chief Analyst of Horn of Africa at the Sahan Research Institute, said that Somalia’s important task is to strengthen structures of its army, including to get professionals who won’t be turncoats. 

During the first phase of the offensive against al-Shabaab, Somali security forces regained control of over 215 locations previously under al-Shabaab’s control, mostly in Hirshabelle and Galmudug states. Then it lost some.

The “Black Lion” operation started in June involves the Federal Government of Somalia and the front-line states of Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya who had pledged to contribute 30,000 troops among themselves.

The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), an organisation that collects data on political violence around the world, said in its latest report that political differences due to power-sharing disputes in Jubbaland and Puntland, however, undermine the operation.

In Jubbaland, the ACLED report says that the federal government has been trying to recruit the Marehan sub-clan militias in the Gedo region, but the government of Jubbaland President Ahmed Mohamed Islam (popularly known as Madobe) is concerned that it would whittle power from his Ogaden clan.

On August 29, the African Union and United Nations held a Joint Technical Assessment of the pending withdrawal to ensure that the hard-won security gains are not reversed.

Acting head of the AU peace support operations division Zinurine Alghali said that all stakeholders must ensure that efforts that have gone towards stabilisation of Somalia are not lost.

- Additional reporting by Aggrey Mutambo