The End of Al-Shabab in Somalia?

Are we witnessing the end of the revolutionary Islamist group al-Shabab, which has  terrorized large swathes of Somalia for so long? Conventional wisdom suggests that this is indeed happening.

The turning point seems to have occurred in August 2011 when African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) troops, together with the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) forces, pushed al-Shabab fighters out of the capital, Mogadishu.

In recent months AMISOM has remained on the offensive against al-Shabab fighters and AMISOM’s numbers have been augmented by troops from Djibouti and Kenya. In addition, Ethiopia, which is not part of AMISOM, has joined the fray against al-Shabab.

In recent months Ethiopian troops have captured Beledweyne and moved rapidly into the central regions of Hiran and Galgadud -- and further into the Shabelle River valley. Kenya meanwhile has liberated Gedo and Juba whilst AMISOM forces spearheaded by the soldiers of Uganda have pushed al-Shabab hundreds of kilometres from the capital.

At present, AMISOM seems to be preparing for one final push to capture the al-Shabab stronghold of Kismayo on the coast. The port city of Kismayo holds tremendous strategic importance. It is literally the financial lifeblood for al-Shabab. For some time al-Shabab has engaged in the deforestation of vast swathes of areas under its control, thereby contributing to the famine in this region. The trees are used to make charcoal which is exported to Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. Such funds are then used to fill the movement’s war chest.

Shutting down the financial lifeblood of the movement, by capturing Kismayo, is therefore one of the primary military objectives of AMISOM. On this issue, more needs to be done by the international community to stop Iran from supporting al-Shabab through Eritrea. Without funds, al-Shabab will find it difficult to function.

While al-Shabab is certainly on the ropes, it is far from down and out. Instead of engaging in conventional battles with AMISOM, al-Shabab fighters simply disappear to become part of clan militias. It then becomes exceedingly difficult for AMISOM to distinguish between clan militias and al-Shabab fighters. Moreover, given the fierce bonds of clan loyalty, there is little information being shared between clan elders and the AMISOM forces. Safely ensconced in these militias, al-Shabab has increasingly embraced asymmetrical warfare against both AMISOM and the TFG.

The major problem confronting AMISOM, though, is not military, but lies in the political sphere. The notoriously corrupt TFG has earned the ire of Somalis for literally stealing development aid. As a result, services are not being provided to areas liberated from al-Shabab control, thereby losing hearts and minds.