Feisal Omar/Reuters
A peacekeeper from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) carries a rocket-propelled grenade launcher as he stands guard after capturing the former private Elmaan seaport from Al Shabab insurgents without resistance, 19 miles east of Mogadishu, September 4.

In Somalia, battle looms for militants' last major stronghold

Air and sea attacks around the key Somali port city of Kismayo this week point to a long-awaited offensive by the African Union Mission in Somalia against seasoned Al Shabab fighters.

Air and seaborne offensives around Kismayo, the last major stronghold of Somalia’s Al Qaeda-linked Islamists, suggest that the start of the long-awaited battle for the city is imminent.

Sustained artillery strikes, launched from Kenyan Navy warships, hit areas north of the city’s port and its airport on Tuesday night, and there were reports of extra Kenyan fighter jets patrolling the sky above.

Earlier the same day, small-arms battles took place in Mido, 50 miles north of Kismayo and the latest in a series of towns wrestled from the militant Al Shabab in recent weeks.

But Kismayo is by far the biggest target, still hosting senior Islamist commanders, battle-hardened infantry, and non-Somali Muslims drawn to fight for radical Islam.

Most important, Kismayo’s Indian Ocean port allows imports of both weapons and logistical supplies, and exports of charcoal, Al Shabab’s main source of revenue. (See map here.)
Kicking the Islamists out of the city was one of the highest-priority military aims of the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) when they were ordered over the border into their anarchic neighbor close to a year ago.

Now, the Kenyans say they are waiting only for the green light from African Union military commanders in Mogadishu. Kenya’s forces officially joined the AU Mission in Somalia, AMISOM, in July.

“Our plan is in place, it is ready, but we cannot for sure say the date of the start of the invasion of Kismayo, because that is out of our hands,” says Col. Cyrus Oguna, spokesman for the KDF.

“That decision will be determined by the African Union commanders. Kismayo is a very significant target as it is the only large port that Al Shabab still controls.

“Taking it truly will disrupt their commercial activities," he continues, "and therefore their military capabilities.”

Preparations and evacuation

People living in Kismayo have reported preparations for the invasion for the last three months, including orders that clan elders must provide 150 fresh recruits each to be trained to defend the city.

“Shabab troops are patrolling in battlewagons and calling people to join the fighting, and telling young men to prepare to go to the frontlines,” Mahmoud Jamac, a resident of Kismayo contacted by telephone, said Thursday. “Foreign fighters are here. It’s terrifying, increasing numbers of people in the town are evacuating.”

Close to 60,000 people have already fled Kismayo to camps for displaced people in rural areas surrounding the city, according to a spokesman for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Nairobi.

“In August and the start of September there have been 1,380 freshly displaced people,” she said. “It is not a huge number, but that’s a function of the fact that there’s nowhere safe really for anyone to run to.”

The list of towns falling to the allied forces has grown steadily since Al Shabab retreated from Mogadishu last August: Afmadow, Afgoye, Daynile, Marka, and Mido all fell in May, June,  and July.

Now, “it’s not a case of if, but when Shabab loses Kismayo,” says Abdirashid Hashi, Horn of Africa analyst at the International Crisis Group in Nairobi. “They can’t put up a fight against the Kenyan and AU armies.”

Senior Al Shabab figures were seen Thursday telling the city’s population that Islamist forces were “eager” to defend them, but needed help.

“You can see the victories of our mujahideen, they killed the enemy of Islam, the enemy of this country, and seized their weapons,” Abdirahman Hudeyfa, Al Shabab’s most senior political leader in Kismayo, told crowds gathered in the city, according to radio reports of the event.

“We brought these weapons we have seized from the enemy here because we want to show you how we are eager to defend our people and the town.”

Andrews Atta-Asamoah, conflict prevention senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa, said he would be “surprised” if Al Shabab does not attempt to defend Kismayo.

“For purely economic reasons, as it is the source of almost all their revenue,” he says. “But I think it actually is a mistake to stay and fight there. They will need to pool all their resources from around the country, because everyone else, the KDF, Amisom, all forces, have said that they will take Kismayo once and for all.

“In the face of that firepower, Shabab risks being crushed completely.”

Instead, Mr. Atta-Asamoah argues, more experienced guerrilla commanders in the Islamists’ ranks will advise a quiet retreat in order to save resources and rethink tactics.

“If Shabab leaves Kismayo without fighting, immediately you are seeing its death as a force holding territory and the birth of its new strategic focus on hit and run attacks, and that is far harder to fight against,” he adds.

Abdiaziz Abdinur contributed reporting from Mogadishu, Somalia. 

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