The Horn of Africa region is on cusp of a seismic power shift. The region has a rendezvous with destiny on December 31, 2024 when the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (Atmis) is expected to finally pull out of Somalia.
But the billion-dollar question is whether the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabaab Islamic insurgency will emulate the Taliban in Afghanistan, which exploited a botched transition to swiftly takeover in Kabul on August 15, 2021.
Like the Taliban before the United States and its allies withdrew their troops, al-Shabaab has lost control of all major regional, state and national cities and towns. But its fortunes can change dramatically if its military, intelligence, economic and strategic communication capacity is not degraded, and the Somali National Armed Forces and Government institutions speedily enhanced.
The clock is ticking towards the December 31, 2024 exit of Atmis. In December 2022, Atmis, which consists of troops from the East African nations of Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda reduced its troops from 22,000 to 19,000.
Formed on April 1, 2022 as successor to the African Union Mission to Somalia (Amisom), Atmis has no more than fifteen months to prepare the handing over of the security responsibilities to Somali National Armed Forces, guided by the Somalia Transition Plan.
Atmis exit from Somalia must draw insights from the Afghanistan situation. The Taliban takeover raised concerns that it could encourage similar heists by other Islamist militant groups. The hasty retreat of the United States and its allies, including the withdrawal of its 2,500 troops supporting the Afghan government enabled the Taliban takeover in Kabul in August 2021.
Taliban exploited America’s hasty exit to make quick territorial gains in the countryside, enabling it to quickly capture towns and cities. Handing over security to the Somali government without degrading al-Shabaab as a force and building a strong professional Somali military could witness a repeat of the unravelling in Afghanistan. Al-Shabaab can exploit the hasty transition by Atmis and international partners to reclaim territories and install a Caliphate in Somalia.
Ahead of Atmis’ exit, one of the most enduring lessons from Afghanistan is the need to degrade and wipe-out al-Shabaab economic, intelligence, military and strategic communication capacity during the transition. Since its inception in 2006, al-Shabaab has styled itself along the lines of the Taliban in almost all aspects. Like the Taliban, al-Shabaab’s military offensive has been driven by five factors: IED capability, illicit supplies of weapons and ammunition, multiple funding streams, a superior intelligence and strategic communication capabilities. Atmis and partners have to carefully balance between the imperatives of (re)building a Somali national army and, that of destroying al-Shabaab’s capabilities — a tall order by all measure.
Like the Taliban, al-Shabaab has employed multiple funding streams across Somalia and the region, generating a significant budgetary surplus. Over 78 per cent of its revenue collection estimated at $180 million-$300 million per annum goes to the military and intelligence wing. This gives al-Shabaab the ability to deploy various strategies, replicating Taliban’s wholesale incentivised surrenders and deals with clans and warlords. Despite an existing arms embargo on Somalia, al-Shabaab continues to receive an average of four illicit shipments of weapons and ammunition per month to Somalia, enabling it to challenge the state’s monopoly of violence and to carry out attacks inside Somalia and against troops contributing countries.
As with the Taliban, the al-Shabaab’s intelligence wing known as Amniyaat has been the driving force in countering Atmis and its partners. Amniyaat’s operatives have infiltrated government institutions and security apparatus, with its counter-intelligence and targeted assassinations continuing to hobble government efforts. With this superior intelligence capability, al-Shabaab can plan its rebound, and like the Taliban, make territorial gains.
Taliban’s effective strategic communication capacity, especially the online social media, is one of the major factors that contributed to its rebound and success. Al-Shabaab has honed its strategic communication as a central pillar of its strategy and source of information superiority, enabling it to punch way above its military weight. Described as “forward-looking, fast-paced, aggressive, and by and large successful”, al-Shabaab’s communication strategy has been so effective that its posts and media releases and announcements are often viewed by the mass media fraternity as “more authentic, realistic, timely, and truthful” than those of governments in Somalia, regional states and international partners.
Like the Taliban, which deployed suicide attacks, IEDs and VBIEDs to target military bases and government officials, al-Shabaab has used IED capability in a war of nerves against Somali Security Forces (SSF) and ATMIS troops. Al-Shabaab’s bombings and hit-and-run attacks have increased since the launched of the ‘total war’ against the group — which has always considered itself as “Somalia’s government in waiting”. The group has resorted to a war of nerves, a form of warfare characterised by psychological manipulation, involving tactics intended to demoralise, frighten and unnerve opponents in order to prompt surrender. The aim is to enhance its visibility and project its power and influence against efforts to weaken it. It has taken the war to Atmis troops contributing countries.
On May 3, 2022, Al-Shabaab jihadists armed with guns and explosives stormed an Atmis military camp in El Baraf, Middle Shabelle region, killing 22 Burundian peacekeepers. Squeezed in Somalia after June 2022, al Shabaab militants have turned northern and coastal Kenya into their playground. On September 20, Ethiopia thwarted another attack, killed around 462 Al-Shabaab fighters in southwestern Somalia. On May 26, heavily armed Al-Shabaab militants stormed an Atmis base in Buulo Mareer in Shabelle, with vehicle-borne explosive devices and suicide bombers, killing 54 Ugandan soldiers and kidnapping others.
Like the Taliban, which exploited loyalty towards traditional ethnic, tribal and even familial ties in Afghanistan to negotiate the surrender of many troops, al-Shabaab is playing on clan loyalties across Somalia to derail the transition. In Afghanistan, President Ashraf Ghani failed to create an effective national consensus and to convince local warlords to back his government. President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has to succeed in forging a broad consensus of all Somali clans.
Some international partners have been pushing for talks between al-Shabaab and the government, leading to a pact similar to the February 2020 US–Taliban deal. As in Afghanistan, this can only give al-Shabaab the legitimacy it needs to take over in Somalia. Today, al-Shabaab is on its backfoot, but a hasty and botched transition can enable it to stage a Taliban-like takeover in Somalia.
Prof Kagwanja is Chief Executive at the Africa Institute and Adjunct Scholar at the University of Nairobi and the National Defence University-Kenya.