Westgate Example of Shabab Tactic Shift; No Strategic Change

Ever since the Kenyan army took Kismayo about a year ago, a large-scale terrorist attack against Kenya was in the horizon.

As I have written in earlier articles, foreign strikes by the Shabab are imminent only when their overall leader, Abu Zubayr aka Ahmed Godane, announces a threat against a foreign target. He made threats against Uganda a few days before the Kampala attacks in 2010; likewise, he threatened Kenya almost a year ago when its troops took Kismayo.

The main reason a strike could not be launched when he made the threat was because of internal dissent. Since his threat, he purged the Shabab of all opposing voices, both extreme and moderate.

Dozens of well-known and not-so-known Shabab members have been executed and imprisoned from February of this year – from Abu Zubayr’s own deputy to the head of the Shura (their version of the parliament), down to foot soldiers that made anti-Abu Zubayr comments at tea shops.

The Shabab foreign policy has always been to attack countries directly involved in combating them inside Somalia. Some of the rebels purged from the Shabab wanted to escalate and attack western countries not militarily involved in the Somali war. The attack in Nairobi is therefore neither a change in the foreign policy of the Shabab nor unexpected.

Earlier this year, the non-Somali Shabab were unhappy with having an ethnic Somali leading the foreign operations department. If it is true that most of the attackers of Westgate are ethnic Somali, it will be the only surprise as Shabab used mostly non-Somalis for earlier attacks in Kenya and Uganda and one that could mean the “Africans” (the non-Somali East African Shabab) are still upset at their lack of real power inside the Shabab.

Shifting Tactics

The Westgate attack is just the latest of a string of Shabab attacks in which they use “martyrdom” commando raids to strike at target locations and end with detonating explosives on their bodies. The first notable such attack was in late 2010 when Shabab attackers in government uniform attacked Hotel Muna in Mogadishu, killing about a dozen MPs and other guests. That was followed by an attack on the airport. It soon became their choice of attacking high value targets.

A commando suicide attack was carried out against the current president days after he was elected in September 2012, then it was the Supreme Court in Mogadishu, and finally the UNDP building.

These kinds of attacks are almost unstoppable in Mogadishu as they start with a car bomb followed by attackers disguised as first-responding government troops. The only thing that can be done is increasing the layers of security, which drains resources – a probable secondary aim of the Shabab as they increasingly use commando suicide attacks as a tactic.

In attacking a place frequented by expatriates and dragging out the attack for more than 48 hours for prolonged media attention, the Westgate attack’s main aim may be to destroy the image of Kenya as a safe place to do business or to go visit. Creating inter-religious tension and causing a backlash to the anti-Shabab Somali community in Eastleigh may be a secondary aim.

This may not be true for Kenya, but suicide commando attacks may become commonplace in Mogadishu as the Shabab reverts to asymmetrical warfare to be better positioned to carry out its mission statement – the reason its leaders said they ordered a retreat from Mogadishu in 2011.

No matter the rhetoric, the war with HSM will not end in the near future. Whether we like it or not, a purely military solution is impossible. The Shabab have a robust media machine that preaches and defends its ideology. Their dead leaders recruit from the grave. A more comprehensive response is necessary to face this challenge.

And financially, they are doing just fine: the charcoal their financiers had in the Kismayo port when it fell was sold (despite the ban on Somali charcoal exports); the charcoal exports continue. And, as expected, some businessmen are still paying them the annual Zakah in areas they lost control of.

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Rebels In Losing War Against Shabab Leader

In late June, telecommunications was temporarily taken down by the Shabab in Barawe as hundreds of fighters from the Jabha (the trusted guerrilla units) came into the city to arrest some members of the Shura (the group’s consultative council) and others that had been openly opposing the supreme leader, accusing him of oppressive dictatorial policies. After a brief fight, the group’s most extremist members lay dead including the veteran Jihadi and the group’s number two man and founding member, Ibrahim Afghani; others such as Hassan Dahir Aweys and Mukhtar Robow Abu Mansur ran for their lives.

The rebels, made up of almost every faction in the Shabab, were apparently in the process of declaring themselves independent from the Shabab. But since declaring a new group was outlawed by the General Leadership in early 2012 to pre-empt ex-members of Hizbul Islam that were on the verge of breaking away then, the rebels’ death warrants had been signed even before they had openly rebelled.

As serious as the developments may be, Harakatu Shabab Al-Mujahideen is as far from complete disintegration today as it was in August 2011 when it had withdrawn from Mogadishu and the wishful-minded predicted their complete demise as a result. The main reason for this is that despite the stature of the rebels, there is no regional military or intelligence commander on their side. And on the forums and Somali Jihadi sites, the peanut gallery seems to be firmly on the side of the supreme leader, Abu Zubayr.

In Islamic teachings, Bughaat (Muslims rebelling against a leader they have given their pledge of allegiance) are to be fought if they fight back but their dead are considered Muslims and buried in the Muslim cemetery. That is why the Shabab military spokesman prayed for Afghani and company, claiming that they had resisted arrest and not killed execution-style as reported by some Somali sites.

Most top and mid-level commanders of the Shabab security forces are apolitical when it comes to internal issues and take orders from whoever is in charge. This works well for the incumbent; Abu Zubayr can count on them to have his back as long as he is the leader.

I am interested in the fact that some of the rebels were frustrated by the lack of escalation of the foreign front by Abu Zubayr. This means that the faction that opposes escalation of the foreign front appears to have won. Even if Mukhtar Robow manages to rally his large clan behind him and force Abu Zubayr to accept some sort of compromise, this would probably not change much in the group’s foreign tempo; Mukhtar Robow is actually a moderate when it comes to foreign attacks; for instance, he seemed surprised when the Kenyans invaded in late 2011, explaining that the group used to stop even freelance fighters from crossing the border to loot from the Kenyan army because “we weren’t at war with Kenya”.

In 2010 Abu Mansur the Somali had disagreements with the Shabab leader, but had buried the hatchet after arbitration. I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened again, especially now that his co-conspirators have been dealt with.

While Shabab operations against allied forces may be reduced by operations against internal Somali and non-Somali rebels in Lower Shabelle and Bay/Bakool regions, the group will continue to operate normally in other regions and probably increase operations in the Kismayo area as the Kenyan occupiers of that city push warlords and some clans into the arms of the Shabab. To demonstrate that the internal power struggle has not diminished its capability, the group may launch more of the “martyrdom” commando raids inside Mogadishu.

It is going to be a long Ramadan this year.

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About The French Raid

French Special Forces attacked a Shabab-held town in Bulo Marer, just near Marka in Lower Shabelle region, in an attempt to free the French intelligence agent, Denis Allex, held by the Shabab since 2009. He was initially kidnapped by Hizbul Islam together with another agent who would be released weeks later by his captors after payment of millions of dollars in ransom money, according to Shabab, former Hizbul Islam, and government officials.

The kidnap operation was masterminded and led by a nephew of then-Interior minister in the TFG and Islamic Courts Union deputy leader, Sheikh Abdulqadir. Almost all the kidnappers were in the government security forces. Clearly, their loyalties lay elsewhere.

The interesting thing is that when the ICU joined the TFG, they not only took the most powerful positions in the security and intelligence services, but also most of the rank-and-file. This provided the groups that would decide to continue fighting with a vital entry point through which they could infiltrate double agents that would provide intelligence and facilitation of operations in government territory. That entry point is still open today.

The Shabab, being in character, forcibly took Denis from the Hizb soon after his capture. According to a source who had first-hand knowledge if the incident, the Shabab encircled the house in the Nationlink area near Bakara market where the hostages were being held and threatened to storm it if the Hizb did not give them one prisoner. The Hizb members who had kidnapped the Frenchmen were ready to fight to keep their hostages but Hassan Dahir is said to have personally intervened to appease the Shabab. Hizbul Islam was stronger than the Shabab at that time, by the way – it is Hassan Dahir’s indecisiveness and Shabab-appeasement that would eventually lead to the group’s demise in late 2010.

Understandably, the Hizb members who were keeping the prisoner, led by Ise Kamboni of the Ras Kamboni Brigade, decided to take their ransom payment without causing a fuss lest the Shabab threaten their only remaining hostage. That the French spy had escaped was a fictional story that is widely known as such here; it surprises me how gullible western media is by believing in the BS that he had escaped deep from insurgent territory at night and walked by himself to Villa Somalia.

The unexpected ransom-taking caused tensions within the insurgent community, and Ise Kamboni escaped with his loot; his associates were kidnapped by some of the original kidnappers who had not received their share – the story gets longer after that.

From the start, the Shabab were not interested solely in financial gain from their hostage, but had political demands – namely the stoppage of French military and intelligence assistance to the Somali government. The French would not budge and seemed to have increased assistance to the Somali government since 2009. This meant that eventually, the Shabab would either agree to take money – which they clearly haven’t – or kill their hostage as their demands are not met.

Back to Saturday’s disastrous French attempt to rescue Denis. For such an operation, one would need to have spies on the ground to verify the presence of the hostage. The Somali government’s spy agency would be the perfect one to provide agents to assist with such an operation. Given the fact that the Shabab have been infiltrating agents into the government intelligence apparatus for the past 4 years, it is likely that they may have misled the French and led them into a trap. How else does one explain attacking a completely wrong compound that would immediately be descended upon by dozens or perhaps hundreds of Shabab fighters heavily armed and with antiaircraft technicals according to reports from the city?
The French seem to have been caught by surprise and admitted that they had underestimated the firepower the Shabab would have in the little town. True, the town is usually not very protected – the fact that it was unusually heavily-militarised suggests that the Shabab had prior knowledge of the raid or may have led the French there themselves.

The French defence ministry’s claim to have killed 17 Shabab fighters seems to be far-fetched. When your forces are repelled at least twice in a couple of hours according to eyewitness reports – one in the initial raid and the second raid apparently to rescue the soldier they left behind – you are in no position to know the damages you caused. The only confirmed killed are at least 8 civilians reportedly killed in the homes by French firepower. Other stories allege a more disturbing, heavy-handed approach by the French that indiscriminately opened fire at anything that moved.

The only sure result of the operation seems to be the addition of a new DGSE hostage in the hands of the Shabab. The French defence ministry may have prematurely presumed that Denis was killed in the operation, but things don’t look good for him going forward.

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Shabab and torture

Somalis say that the fly that keeps flying into cold water is bound to find its way into hot oil. This story is about an individual who had been a member of the Shabab until karma caught up with him. I will call this former Shabab individual “Ali” to help protect his identity.

Ali was perhaps the most extreme Shabab member I have ever met. Before joining the Shabab in early-2009 – when the Shabab ranks swelled with opportunists and extremists from less-extreme groups that decided to either join the government or demobilise – he had been a member of a Jabhatul Islam (the fighting arm of Al-I’tisam) battalion that would demobilise as the Jihadi on Jihadi civil war was about to start. He was the bodyguard of a top official in that battalion whom I advised to demobilise or be prepared to fight the Shabab – only the blind could not see the Shabab sharpening its knives, and that turned out to be almost all the other Jihadi groups who were too naïve to see their comrades-in-arms gear up to slaughter all rivals.

Being a yes-man, Ali quickly gained the trust of the Shabab and was attached to foreign fighters in Mogadishu when I met him again in 2010. He would go shopping for them and was basically their errand boy, but he had a strange sense of pride that he was chosen to cater for the foreign fighters.

He would debate with me about me being “a sitter” – someone who had abandoned an obligatory Jihad. He would then go ahead to misquote the Quran to prove his point as I would mock his little understanding of the book he claimed to be protecting. I swear I know 12-year-old girls that know and understand the Quran more than he does.

He upped the ante and started accusing me of being a spy – a common Shabab practise to silence opposition. But unfortunately for him, I knew the Shabab more than he did and thus knew that only the security department could arrest a potential spy. The fact that the commander of the Somali Shabab in the area knew me also meant I was not in danger. In the end he just decided to stop arguing with me, and that was that; I did not hear from him until late last year.

Ironically, the Shabab security department arrested him for being a spy and held him in safe houses in Mogadishu, Baidoa, and finally in Marka. He claims to have been severely tortured together with other detainees into confessing to espionage crimes they did not commit.

According to Ali, the Shabab interrogators would whip detainees, electrocute them, and also remove their fingernails if they refuse to confess to outrageous charges. Once one accepts to make a confession, a camera crew is called to record his confession and then he is presented to a judge. The Shabab judges apparently only consider live confessions, and almost none of the detainees would make confessions to the judge, prompting new, more vicious torture tactics to be administered by the Shabab security operatives.

Ali claims he was taken to the judge twice and retracted his confession when he was taken to court. In the end, they had it with him and released him to his clan, battered and malnourished.

If you torture people, they will tell you what you want to hear. That would rarely be the truth: they will tell you whatever they think will stop you from continuing to punish them. Torture is a sadistic practice that can not be justified in the pursuit of information or confessions as shown in this and countless other stories.

Ali claims that the foreign fighters “suspected” him and were the ones who reported him. Naturally, he now hates them and the Shabab as a whole. He refers to the Shabab as “dhaalimiin” (tyrants, oppressors). Yeah, who woulda thought that?

Interestingly, he still thinks of the Somali government as an apostate regime. He argues that the Shabab being oppressive does not mean that the government has any Sharia legitimacy, despite having perhaps the most Islamic constitution in Africa (the argument is that because the process that led to the constitution is unislamic, the product can never be Islamic according to Shariah. Furthermore, the democratic system of government is considered apostasy by almost all Salafists – the ones that allow partaking in democratic elections cite the need to block secularisation)

Clearly, you can remove the man out of the Shabab but not the Shabab ideology out of the man. And yet, former Shabab members are still being admitted into government security forces. To achieve long-term security in Somalia, former Shabab members should be discharged from the security forces and reintegrated back into society.

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A night with stoned govt security forces on the frontlines against the Shabab

Sometime in the past two weeks, I spent the greater part of a night with a unit of Somalia’s internal spy agency, the National Security Service Agency (NSSA).

The idea was to see them in action, so I went with them on their nightly patrol in the neighbourhood. To onlookers, I would say they were detaining me – in Mogadishu, being cosy with the feared and ill-repute internal spy agency is a liability; the kind that may cost you your life.

The unit’s commander was interested in chatting with me as they were doing the patrol. Apparently, the night patrols are a sham: the idea is to make it look regular and that people are being randomly stopped and checked, all the while going for somebody pinpointed by a local informant.

Just when I was starting to think they were a little smart, they rounded up everybody at the café where the suspect was supposed to be hanging out, produced a paper in which the name of the suspect was written (how hard is it to memorise a name?), and started asking the people their names, as if the suspect would be honest to them. Turns out, no one was arrested that night.

Back at the “safe house” (known by everybody in the district), there were a couple of men who had been arrested. Guess where they were being held at. No, not there. They were hanging out with the operatives. They chewed Khat with them, smoked weed with them, and chatted the night away with them.

And that is not what alarmed me.

The NSSA operatives, who by now were very high, would leave their guns around the prisoners and go to the bathroom or wherever. It was really pathetic. If any of the prisoners was indeed a Shabab member, I doubt I would be typing this now: I imagine he would grab any of the guns that were lying around and spray the whole room with bullets, and easily escape.

One of the prisoners was from a Shabab stronghold. Despite his smoking of weed with them, the operatives still kept threatening to send him on to the main prison where he would not be easily released and may be forced to pay to be released. He broke everybody’s heart by crying. Even the NSSA guys seemed to be touched and seemed to try to console him, telling him that everything would be fine if anybody in the neighbourhood came for him in the morning.

As I left them in the early morning, I had mixed feelings about the local NSSA guys. They did not seem corrupt, were not trigger-happy, and not eager to antagonise the people in the district. However, they came off as very ineffective to me, making me wonder why the Shabab is not more active in the district. But again, no one poops in his bed, if you know what I mean.

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Shabab Prepared for Decade of War

On Friday, the Shabab spokesman, Ali Dhere, spoke to the Islamic Radio Al-Furqan about the group’s long-term strategy in dealing with the onslaught from the 5 African militaries bolstering Somalia’s weak military.

As already apparent from the group’s actions – and as I have pointed out earlier in this blog and elsewhere – the Shabab have time as their best friend and do intend to stay alive until the foreign invaders get tired and leave.

However, the Shabab have kind of undermined their position in my opinion by announcing their expected timeframe for the withdrawal of AMISOM.

Ali Dhere started his announcement by claiming that the Shabab destroy up to 30 allied vehicles per month and kill an average of 3 enemy troops daily, therefore “90 soldiers are killed per month… And they are not sand we are digging up [that have no end]… these are human beings [that will eventually be finished].”

“…An enemy who has invaded a foreign land – if the people of that land do not disgrace themselves [by not fighting them] – cannot stay more than 10 years, according to our calculations and as we have seen from the most powerful and richest of invaders. A sufficient example is [the occupation of and eventual withdrawal from of] the Americans in Vietnam, the Russians in Afghanistan, the Americans in Iraq, and America with its western allies in Afghanistan”

So there you have it: the Shabab expect AMISOM not to stay for more than 10 years. It makes sense to assume that the group expects each country in AMISOM not to stay in Somalia for more than 10 years. In that case, what would happen if new countries kept coming in to replace the ones that may choose to withdraw?

The Shabab seem to have calculated that that won’t happen because they expect the western donors of AMISOM to run out of cash or the will to keep funding a mission that the Shabab seem to expect to have been considered a failure by then, much like Afghanistan today.

In Ali Dhere’s words: “The Africans [in AMISOM], who need aid and financial backing to stay here, have been here for 5 years… Their backers are being faced with financial and natural disasters such as the recent hurricane that God sent to the Americans… We can see victory in the horizon [in another 5 years]”.

If only they knew how cheap AMISOM is: it hasn’t cost the world in 5 years what Iraq cost the Americans in three weeks in 2003. I can see more outsourcing of wars by the west in the future. I hope future missions will be less merciless than AMISOM was in 2009-10 when it used to bomb civilian areas that were under Shabab control, as if it considered all people under Shabab rule as enemies. The mission did improve its record in subsequent years in the Mogadishu area (the Kenyans were perhaps the only AMISOM members in 2012 bombing civilians and insisting they were Shabab), but it has never been the perfect peacekeeping mission that one thinks about when one hears “peacekeeping mission”.

While the Shabab expect at least half a decade more of foreign interference according to their spokesman, they still control most of the towns and villages that are not on the main roads; even in government-controlled towns such as Marka, Afgoi, and others all across south and central Somalia, the Shabab still maintain local administrations in the villages just outside said towns. In fact, the allied forces attacking Shabab-held areas seem to be interested only in taking the main roads and whatever towns they happen to be passing through. The main Shabab bastions have always been off-road, and those will most likely be safely theirs in the foreseeable future.

Yes, the Shabab can manage to fight for 5 more years and more if need be. Sadly, given the low-budget nature of AMISOM, no one seems to be particularly eager to find a non-military solution despite the fact that the Shabab do have support in Somalia and have managed to fight for many years with mostly domestic backing.

As Al-Shabab decreases the number of its fighters and the big towns and cities it rules, it reduces its expenditure, increases efficiency of its reduced fighters who will mostly be the core reliable fighters, and be more of a pain in the ass to Somalia’s Federal government and its foreign muscle for many years to come.

Somebody asked me before Kismayo fell whether “that would be it”, that is, the loss that would make the Shabab “go”. My reply: the Shabab are here to stay. They are mostly Somalis; and as they have calculated, it is the non-Shabab foreigners that they expect to eventually leave.

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“On the Orders of the top [Shabab] leadership”, the Shabab Withdraw from Kismayo

I wrote last night (EAT) that holding Kismayo was more important to the clan allies of the Shabab than it was to the group itself – which has been favouring withdrawing in the face of an attack by more numerous enemies – and sure enough, it turns out that the Shabab leadership had decided that they had done enough in repaying the favours of their allies by fighting so long for Kismayo, and ordered a withdrawal from the city, according to the pro-Shabab amiirnuur.com.

The Shabab vacated all their stationary defense positions in Kismayo early in the morning on the cover of darkness, leaving without having their asses shot at – that would have been a messy retreat.

I don’t think this will hurt the relations with the pro-Shabab clans, as the surprise naval attack had opened up a new front to the Kismayo defenders, necessitating a withdrawal or risk being totally surrounded. The main allied force attacking Kismayo was still about 30 KM to the NE of Kismayo, making this a safe withdrawal.

With the large numbers of fighters the Shabab had been amassing in Kismayo and whom they managed to save together with their hardware(thanks to the large numbers of mutatawi’in – volunteers – that had responded to the call to defend the biggest Shabab city), the Shabab have indeed avoided another Mogadishu.

As can be recalled, defending Mogadishu was a very divisive issue within the Shabab, with many of their leaders – including the deceased Fadil Al-Komoree, Hassan Dahir, and the intelligence chiefs, to name but a few – opposing amassing troops to fight a numerically superior and better armed force.

The Shabab had made it look (as they did in Mogadishu) like they would stay to the end in Kismayo, but in the end the Shabab have done what I had expected them to do in the beginning and withdrew from Kismayo when it became clear it was going to be a war of attrition that they could not afford to wage.

And to illustrate that the Shabab have not totally left Kismayo, today a man who had rejoiced their leaving of the city was assassinated by “unknown gunmen” – codeword for Shabab security operatives.

The war for Kismayo has entered a new phase; this can hardly be declared a victory.

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