Somalia Islamist Attacks Test Goal of Al-Shabaab Defeat by 2016

Wreckage in Mogadishu
Soldiers patrol around the wreckage of a suicide car bomber in Mogadishu, yesterday. Photographer: Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP via Getty Images

A wave of attacks by al-Shabaab militants in Somalia, including on an African Union base last week, shows the threat still posed by the al-Qaeda-linked group that the government has vowed to defeat by 2016.

Al-Shabaab said it killed at least 30 soldiers in the June 26 raid on Leego base in southern Somalia. The AU confirmed the assault, without giving a death toll. The violence, which came the same day as attacks by other extremists on a French factory, a Tunisian beach and a mosque in Kuwait, underscores the limited success of Somalia’s army and African troops in checking al-Shabaab’s seven-year-old insurgency.

While they’ve lost control of key towns, “al-Shabaab has consistently shown its ability to strike in urban areas and regroup in rural bases,” Ahmed Soliman, Horn of Africa analyst at Chatham House, the London-based research group, said by e-mail. “It will take much longer to defeat the group and require Somalia’s security services to be significantly improved.”

Regaining control of Somalia, wracked by more than two decades of civil war, is crucial to the government’s plan of inviting foreign investors to kickstart the economy. Oil and gas output may begin by 2020 after exploration work showed the potential for large offshore deposits, while companies including Royal Dutch Shell Plc, Exxon Mobil Corp. and BP Plc are in talks about returning, according to President Hassan Sheikh Mohamed.

The conflict has drawn in troops from countries such as Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Burundi as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia, or Amisom.

Attempted Bombing

Also last week, 10 people, including two assailants, were killed in an attempted bombing of vehicles carrying United Arab Emirates diplomats in the capital, Mogadishu. Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the June 24 attack -- at least the third around the city in about five days -- in which the delegation itself escaped unharmed.

Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke said this month that al-Shabaab, which seeks to overthrow the government and establish a strict version of Islamic law, could be militarily defeated by the end of the year. Some of those living south of Mogadishu, home to former militant strongholds, don’t share his optimism.

As the fighters routed Somali troops and stormed the village of Mubarak last month, 67-year-old Fatuma Abukar says she fled to a nearby forest for the fourth time.

Al-Shabaab held the settlement in the Lower Shabelle region for five hours, rounding up people they suspected of government loyalties -- the same measures taken during their four-year occupation that ended in late 2012. When army reinforcements massed on Mubarak’s outskirts in late May, the militants fled.

Hide, Seek

“It’s as if they’re playing hide and seek,” the mother of eight said by phone on June 8. “When the government forces are coming al-Shabaab just leave, and vice-versa.”

The militants are given “free reign” outside the larger offensives by African Union forces, according to Stig Jarle Hansen, associate professor at the University of Life Sciences in Oslo and author of ‘Al-Shabaab in Somalia: The History and Ideology of a Militant Islamist Group.’

Al-Shabaab “can bully villages when Amisom is not there, ensuring that villagers have weak incentives to be loyal to Amisom and, or the government,” he said in an e-mailed response to questions.

“They are both a hidden network, but also a guerrilla organization. They keep afloat in government-controlled areas partly because of the irregular payment of government police and forces, which enhances corruption.”

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