What does Al Shabab's withdrawal from Somalia's capital mean?
The Islamist group Al Shabab withdrew from Somalia's capital city, Mogadishu, this weekend, but whether that is a sign of success for the African Union mission and Somalian government is unclear.
On Saturday, al Shabab, southern Somalia’s Islamic rebel movement, pulled out of the capital Mogadishu. For months, Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and approximately 9,000 troops from the African Union Mission for Somalia (AMISOM) had been battling al Shabab block by block in the city. In July, Boubacar Diarra, the head of AMISOM, argued in Foreign Policy that the battle for Mogadishu demonstrated what the force could accomplish with donor support. Diarra did not reveal what AMISOM’s strategy would be after taking Mogadishu, except to say that if donors provided the means to increase the force to 20,000, AMISOM could drive al Shabab out of Somalia. Now that the conquest of Mogadishu is at least momentarily complete, a moment of truth has come for the TFG and AMISOM. What comes next?Skip to next paragraph
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First of all, it is not clear that al Shabab’s withdrawal from the capital presages their imminent defeat. The optimism Diarra projected in July is not shared, for example, by the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, whose recent report (.pdf, p.12) said:
The response of Al-Shabaab to military setbacks in Mogadishu, the central regions and the Juba Valley has been to aggressively expand its control over the southern Somali economy. Given its lack of popular support, political fractiousness and military limitations, Al-Shabaab’s greatest asset today is its economic strength. The Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea estimates that Al-Shabaab currently generates between US$ 70 million to US$ 100 million per year in revenue from taxation and extortion in areas under its control, notably the export of charcoal and cross-border contraband into Kenya. Given the corrupt and predatory practices of the Transitional Federal Government, many Somali businessmen find Al-Shabaab to be better for business, and from a purely commercial perspective have little interest in seeing the group displaced by the Government.
Al-Shabaab’s core leaders have also responded to domestic difficulties by seeking to align themselves more closely with foreign jihadist entities and to provide a platform for like-minded groups in the region. The July 2010 Kampala bombings were the first successful Al-Shabaab operation beyond Somalia’s borders. They also signalled a new and alarming trend, in which East African extremist groups inspired and mentored by Al-Shabaab, including the Muslim Youth Centre in Kenya, might represent the next generation of extremist threats in East Africa and the wider region.
Reuters’ Richard Lough argues that al Shabab’s withdrawal indicates that within its divided leadership, the “international wing influenced by foreign fighters who favor guerrilla tactics like suicide bombings…won the day.” This wing’s victory, Lough adds, “could herald a wave of al Qaeda-style suicide attacks.” Whether or not that prediction proves true, the widespread reports of divisions within al Shabab suggest the movement’s tactics may soon change, making a conventional military campaign against them more difficult.
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