Somalia: The Cell Phone Effect


July 11, 2016: Early today al Shabaab attacked an army base fifty kilometers southwest of Mogadishu. After using a suicide car bomb at the main entrance al Shabaab gunmen entered the base. The shooting went on for several hours. Over twenty people died, most of them al Shabaab. The Islamic terrorists promptly declared this a great victory but it was a failed attack and the local civilians noticed that.

Al Shabaab is making fewer attacks than in the past but is still managing to do enough to stay in the headlines and make some parts of Somalia sufficiently unstable that the Islamic terrorist group can maintain a regular presence and camps. Yet a lot of the al Shabaab violence is an extension of the traditional clan feuds and warlord politics that has characterized Somalia for thousands of years. The clan violence was never newsworthy but add the Islamic terrorism angle plus mentions of al Qaeda and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and you have the world’s attention. The UN certainly agrees and recently approved another year of support for peacekeeping in Somalia with an emphasis on eliminating al Shabaab.

Meanwhile al Shabaab has helped by fighting amongst themselves. The internal feud between al Qaeda, ISIL and nationalist (no international connections) factions has led to desertions, defections (of leaders siding with clans or the government) and lack of coordination. The turmoil in the leadership has been made worse by the American strategy of finding and killing key leaders. This has mostly been done from the air but on the ground American Special Forces (and other NATO trainers) have created some Somali commando units and recent raids have killed or captured some al Shabaab leaders. Al Shabaab also gets involved in clan politics, which is unavoidable and where al Shabaab started (as a coalition of clan factions seeking an “Islamic” solution to the chaos in Somalia) and can never be ignored. In many parts of the country al Shabaab has not only lost support of the local clans but been declared outlaws by local clan leaders and often are forced to move to less hostile areas.

Meanwhile the national army, something Somalia rarely had in the past, has survived and become more effective. That, plus the 22,000 peacekeepers, gives the national government a force of over 50,000 reliable fighters. While over half this forces is Somali soldiers and pro-government local militias, it has kept al Shabaab on the run since 2010. Actually destroying the Islamic terrorist organization has proved more difficult. The widespread corruption and unemployment (largely caused by the corruption) provide a steady supply of angry young men willing to “defend Islam”, improve their economic prospects and engage in some traditional mayhem. Despite the increasing likelihood of an early death al Shabaab leaders have adapted.

In many parts of Somalia a pattern has developed in which surviving al Shabaab groups move around, seeking areas where there is little organized resistance (from government forces or local clan militias) and establish a presence. Because of the arrival of cell phone networks after 2000 al Shabaab has a hard time hiding their presence even in the most remote areas. Eventually the government and the American UAVs find out and it is time to move to get attacked.

The cell phone is itself a key player in the two decades of civil war in Somalia. By 2000 clan militias and warlords had created enough stability to enable growth in commercial activity. For example, by 2004 three cell phone companies competed to provide service ($10 a month for free local calls, 50 cents a minute for international calls and 50 cents an hour to get on the Internet.) Each new cell phone transmitter installed required that the local clan chief or warlord get a payment. Everyone recognizes the value of the new phone service, after having gone without for years after the old government run phone company was looted and destroyed. As a result, phone company equipment really is protected by the clans and warlords, who do not want to lose their dial tone. The new phone service is cheaper and more reliable than the old government owned landline phone network. This is because there is competition, no government bureaucracy and no taxes (other than the necessary bribes and security payments). There is some fear that if a new government gets established well enough regulations and taxes will greatly increase the cost of service, and reduce reliability. Not yet and for years all of Somalia had better, and cheaper, phone service than any of the other nations in the region. But that’s another story. Even al Shabaab had to respect the cell phone network, even though they tried to shut down cell towers some of the time to avoid detection. Al Shabaab lost that battle. Cell phone service became one of the things nearly all Somalis would fight for.

The Unseen Battles

While al Shabaab can still carry out spectacular attacks the reality is that the Islamic terrorists are on the defensive most of the time. There are many more army, police and militia checkpoints on the roads, all them with reinforcements on call in case there is a major attack. American and Kenyan aircraft are often overhead watching. Al Shabaab cannot move freely and has a difficult time concentrating large (over a hundred men) forces for major attacks. When they do pull this off they usually fail and take heavy losses. Every week more al Shabaab members are arrested, usually at checkpoints while trying to smuggle bombs and other weapons. There are a growing number of raids on al Shabaab bases and safe houses that capture some Islamic terrorists but almost always seize weapons, bomb making materials and documents. This stuff doesn’t make the news, but it hurts al Shabaab big time.

July 9, 2016: In the south, just across the border in Kenya, over a hundred al Shabaab attacked a police base in the town of Diffu. The attack was repulsed but the attackers also managed to loot parts of the town and among other items taken were at least 13 assault rifles and over 10,000 rounds of ammo. The police suffered no dead but it is unclear how many al Shabaab were hurt as they had trucks with them to carry away (to Somalia) loot as well as their dead and wounded. Later in the day, west of Diffu, over a dozen al Shabaab men spent some time (before police showed up) stopping civilian vehicles and robbing passengers. One vehicle that did not stop was fired on, killing one person and wounding the other four.

July 7, 2016: The UN agreed to finance the peacekeeping operation until June 2017, with an emphasis on reducing al Shabaab as a threat.

July 4, 2016: Kenya and Israel signed several security and economic cooperation agreements. These included Israeli assistance in planning and building the security fence along most of the 869 kilometer Somali border. Construction was supposed to start in October 2015 but was delayed because of corruption (money to get the fence going had “disappeared”) and opposition from some of the pro-government militias on the Somali side of the border. Work sort of resumed in April. Many still believe the fence is unlikely to be finished because of high cost and the government corruption that cripples so many major efforts. The Somali militias were persuaded to accept the fence and the Kenyan government made it clear that the fence was necessary to reduce Somali Islamic terrorism inside Kenya. This has killed over 400 Kenyans since 2012 and voters most definitely back anything that can reduce the terrorist threat. The Kenyan government says it has the needed funds and has organized the workforce. There is still concern that the fence (wall, watch towers and fencing) would cost more than Kenya can afford as the most effective security wall was built by the Israelis at a cost of $2 million per kilometer. A less effective wall would slow down illegal border crossers but that would not keep determined Islamic terrorists out. Somalia accuses Kenya of planning to build some of the wall in Somali territory. The border was never precisely defined and that is a dispute that has largely been avoided because the frontier area is rural and it normally makes little difference where the border actually is. Kenya and Somalia appear to have settled that dispute. Israel has long been a pioneer in developing effective border security fence technology and many Arab countries use it (without mentioning where the tech came from). Kenya also agreed to increase information sharing with Israel on terrorism matters.

July 2, 2016: In Baidoa (250 kilometers southwest of Mogadishu) al Shabaab fired several mortar shells into the town killing two civilians and wounding 18 others.

July 1, 2016: In the south, just across the border in Kenya, several al Shabaab men fired on two passing busses killing six passengers (one of them a policeman).

June 30, 2016: Outside Mogadishu an al Shabaab roadside bomb being used to attack a truckload of soldiers missed the army vehicle and hit a nearby bus killing the 18 civilians aboard. Attacks like this turn more civilians against al Shabaab, which was probably why al Shabaab did not boast online about this attack. But the locals know who did it.

June 29, 2016: In Galguduud (385 kilometers north of Mogadishu) over a hundred al Shabaab fighters attacked an army base and were repulsed. The attackers lost at least 18 dead while five soldiers and a local civilian also died. Soldiers and clan militia pursued the fleeing attackers. Al Shabaab has been trying to establish a presence in Galguduud and the autonomous Puntland region to the north for years. Puntland troops and clan militias have pushed al Shabaab south into Galguduud and since early 2016 government and local clan forces have been fighting regularly. If al Shabaab cannot survive in Galguduud the Islamic terrorists there have no better place to go and that will diminish al Shabaab considerably, leaving the Kenya border region as their last base area.

June 25, 2016: In Mogadishu al Shabaab used a suicide car bomb and gunmen to attack another hotel used by foreigners and wealthy Somalis. Police were soon on the scene but not before 16 people died (including all the attackers) and 30 were wounded. Several prominent hotel guests died, including at least one senior government official. This is the second such attack in June and that makes people aware of the fact that Mogadishu is not as safe has it appears these days.

June 21, 2016: In the northeast (90 kilometers north of Mogadishu) the head of security for the Middle Shabelle region (the coastal area north of the capital) was killed by one of his bodyguards, who then fled. The bodyguard had belonged to al Shabaab and had defected. Al Shabaab took credit for the killing but it was unclear exactly why the bodyguard turned on his boss. There is often personal or clan politics involved in these killings.

June 20, 2016: In the south, just across the border in Kenya, al Shabaab ambushed a police vehicle killing five policemen and wounding four others.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close