The al Shabaab group may at last be fighting for its own survival, writes Paul Keenan
Has the al Shabaab group in Somalia shot itself in the foot? The answer seems to be ‘maybe’ based on events since The Irish Catholic last reported (The enemy from within IC 11/8/11) on a group that has wrought devastation on ordinary Somalis trying to survive first famine and then floods in 2011, and all in the name of a sharia state.
At the time of that original report, al Shabaab could boast control of all of south and central Somalia together with the majority of the capital, Mogadishu, save for a few blocks tentatively held by the transitional government.
However, it was the group’s behaviour towards aid agencies attempting to reach the millions at immediate risk of starvation which brought international attention and condemnation towards the world’s leading ‘failed state’.
Denying the existence of famine on its territory, al Shabaab went further in suggesting that such talk was an invention of western powers and quickly clamped down on those aid agencies deemed ‘hostile’ (16 on November 28 alone in addition to 40 aid workers killed since 2008).
Last week, it was reported that the International Red Cross had felt compelled to suspend its aid runs to a needy 1.1 million people in the south due to al Shabaab blocks on such deliveries since mid-December. Then on January 12 militants killed a local aid worker and his driver in a rocket attack on their vehicle.
Yet these latest actions by the militants have taken place in a very different scenario, and could ultimately prove costly to the group.
Since August, al Shabaab has been forced to give up total control of the capital in the face of a concerted effort by troops of the African Union (drawn from Uganda, Burundi and Djibouti) to oust it.
Then, in October, Kenyan troops poured over Somalia’s southern border to put an end to al Shabaab’s raids into Kenyan territory, creating an army-controlled buffer zone which has existed since.
The Kenyan government has not ruled out a further push along the coast to the militant stronghold of Kismayo.
Two months later, further pressure for the militants came in the form of Ethipoian troops entering the town of Beledweyne, in western Somalia — backed by Somali troops — again with the aim of tackling the al Shabaab menace.
Facing battles on three fronts, it is tempting to believe that al Shabaab’s days are numbered, but this would be to dismiss the tenacity of radical Islamists, such as those in Afghanistan, who continue to fight in the face of a ‘coalition of the willing’ of more numbers than in the Horn of Africa.
Al Shabaab, too, has faced the individual threats to its ‘mission’ through suicide bombings, and grenade attacks on civilians in neighbouring Kenya.
But where Afghan fighters might be able to count on at least a modicum of support from ordinary Afghans in tribal areas in continuing their fight, the same can no longer be said of al Shabaab-controlled zones.
Throughout the worst months of famine in 2011, it was al Shabaab stealing the cattle of struggling farmers to feed its militiamen; al Shabaab, too, which ordered some starving people not to leave their villages, but to die on their own land, so as better to deny the existence of famine, and now the same fighters block desperately needed aid for the same victims. There is no longer — if there ever was — any good will for al Shabaab.
If there is a willingness by those African nations already involved in Somalia to push further beyond what may prove to be their own narrow interests and towards a unified effort against al Shabaab, and if this is properly backed by the international community, a positive outcome for Somalia may now be possible.
Addressing the United Nations Security Council in New York on January 11, America’s alternate representative for special political affairs, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, said as much.
”As difficult as it is for all of us in a time of severe resource austerity,” he said during his briefing on Somalia, ”it is imperative that the international community seize the moment in Somalia. We must come together and rise to meet these new challenges. It would be foolish to turn our backs on our collective successes thus far. That is our responsibility.”
In this, the ambassador was not forgetting those who have been the one constant in the Horn of Africa, the victims of its famine.
”Although famine conditions have eased in some parts of the country, 3.7 million Somalis are still in need of humanitarian assistance. Nearly one million Somalis live in exile, and 1.5 million are displaced and experiencing famine conditions,” he said.
In the ambassador’s words lies the truth that when the war against al Shabaab is won, the war against famine in Somalia must begin in earnest.