Al Shabaab and the local ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) franchise are increasing their extortion efforts against Somali businesses. Al Shabaab attacks in Mogadishu and against the security forces continue but are not escalating towards regaining control of much territory, at least not yet. The time when the Islamic terrorists controlled a lot of the country ended in 2011 when al Shabaab, after increasing the areas it controlled since it first appeared in 2006, lost control of Mogadishu and much else over the next few years. Al Shabaab has been on the defensive ever since but has taken advantage of the increased economic activity (GDP up 3.5 percent in 2017 and over three percent in 2018) throughout Somalia to resume their extortion efforts. There is more to steal and al Shabaab wants all it can get.
This has been having some success and al Shabaab has more money to fund more operations. While al Shabaab depicts itself as a patriotic organization seeking to cleanse Somalia of non-Moslems, foreigners and corruption that effort is made possible by money and lots of it. Al Shabaab uses corrupt and criminal practices to obtain as much cash as it can because veteran al Shabaab members must be paid and new weapons and other equipment are easier to purchase than to steal from militias or security forces. The extortion is often carried out by establishing road checkpoints and demanding money to let commercial traffic through. Al Shabaab will contact the businesses that depend on these routes to arrange fees their vehicles must pay to make sure the shipments get through. The security forces often disrupt these checkpoint operations and al Shabaab has to demand no more “taxes” than the merchant can afford. Sometimes the fees are collected in Mogadishu and the checkpoints are told to let certain shipments pass. The security forces have a hard time stopping this because banditry has been common in Somalia forever and as local strongmen get paid off al Shabaab can avoid many attacks by the security forces.
In the south Kenyan, peacekeeper commanders continue to take bribes to allow al Shabaab controlled charcoal production and exporting to Dubai. When al Shabaab lost control of the southern port of Kismayo in 2014 it saw its income plummet by more than half. Since then al Shabaab has established other income sources, mainly smuggling in areas it controls, along with extortion and anything else it can get away with. The charcoal operations is worth about $15 million a year to al Shabaab, which comprises over a third of the income that currently keeps the al Shabaab going. So far Kenya has been reluctant to crack down, apparently because some prominent Kenyan families are involved. At least that is usually the main reason for ignoring clear evidence of corruption.
Pirates are still present off the coast but are not considered a threat to vital shipping anymore. During 2016, in large part because of increased seaborne attacks by Abu Sayyaf off the southern Philippines, Southeast Asia replaced the coasts of Somalia and Nigeria as the area with the worst piracy problem. In 2015 there were 178 attacks on ships at sea worldwide but none off Somalia and less than a hundred off Nigeria. The most active area was Southeast Asia. In 2016 Southeast Asia accounted for over 35 percent of the pirate attacks worldwide.
This shift in pirate activity was not sudden. Worldwide piracy has been declining since 2012 because most of the Somali pirates were shut down. At that point, activity shifted back to the coasts of Malaysia and Indonesia and areas near the Malacca Strait. In the first eight months of 2015 some 80 percent of the pirate attacks on the planet occurred in this area. That came to nearly ten attacks a month. Nearly all of them are robberies of the crew and stealing of portable valuables. The crewmen are usually not hurt and based on their experience it appears most of the pirates come from Malaysia and Indonesia and were largely amateurs. There were some professionals in action in 2014. These fellows were able to hijack ships long enough for cargo to be transferred at sea to someone who could resell it and this provided far more money for the pirates than the more common robbery incidents. But those professional pirates are gone, in part because theft that large left a data trail that police and intelligence agencies could pick up and follow. In 2015 Malaysia and Indonesia joined forces to run more helicopter and warship patrols through areas where most of these less costly robbery attacks were taking place. This sort of quick reaction patrol could move in quickly enough to catch pirates before they and their loot could disappear into one of the many coves or villages that dot the Malaysian and Indonesian coasts. Police also went after the middlemen (“fences”) who buy the valuable (and portable) electronics these “grab and go” pirates prefer. If you find the fence you can often find his suppliers. In any event, these robber pirates are more numerous and being amateurs can quickly drop out and, as far as the police are concerned “disappear.” Some of these small time pirates are believed to have been in the business, on and off, for over a decade. The police want to make some arrests and well-publicized prosecutions (and convictions) to discourage many of these amateur pirates from returning to robbery.
Puntland In Peril
In the north, the autonomous region of Puntland is having some serious problems with the local ISIL group. These ISIL men had fled to Puntland to over the last few years to get away from Somali security forces and al Shabaab efforts to wipe them out. Over the last year, a growing number of ISIL fighters who escaped the ISIL defeat in Syria and Iraq have been showing up. This year the ISIL threat in Puntland has been more frequent and the Puntland government is seeking some help that it can live with. In 2015 Puntland was offered some of the foreign military aid going to rebuild the Somali armed forces. While this seemed fair and a good use of military aid it was never implemented because of continuing negotiations to get Puntland and Somaliland to rejoin Somalia as federal states. In theory, this is a good idea but the people of the north feel Somali is still too corrupt and poorly governed for even a federal form of government to work. Eventually but not yet. All is not perfect in the north. Since the 1990s the two statelets that comprise northern Somalia (Puntland and Somaliland) have been having some internal problems but much less so than in Somalia. Northern Somalia has been better governed since breaking away from Somalia in 1990 to form Puntland (2.5 million people) and Somaliland (3.5 million). The other two-thirds of the Somali population to the south has been in perpetual chaos since 1990 and the establishment of a lasting central government is still a work-in-progress. Puntland gets some help from the United States and may need more to cope with the growing number of ISIL gunmen.
December 4, 2018: In Mogadishu, a local journalist was killed when someone put a bomb in his car and detonated it when the victim got in. Al Shabaab was suspected but journalists are often killed if they report on corrupt politicians or clan leaders.
December 2, 2018: American diplomats have returned to Mogadishu after 28 years. Not with an embassy but with a diplomatic mission (sort of a consulate) in a heavily guarded international compound near the airport. Most of the American diplomatic personnel assigned to the Somali operation, including the ambassador to Somalia, will continue to operate from the American embassy in Kenya.
Elsewhere in Mogadishu a Ministry of Internal Security official was killed when someone put a bomb in his car and detonated ir when the victim got in. Al Shabaab was suspected.
December 1, 2018: The federal government has agreed to allow local elections in South West state to be delayed again, to December 19. This election was supposed to be held November 17 but was delayed to the 28th, then again to December 5th. The cause of all the delays is officially that local voting facilities are not ready. The delays are really about the federal government objecting to former al Shabaab leader Mukhtar Robow trying to run for president of the Southwest State of Somalia, The federal government believes Robow is ineligible because he had not complied with all the terms of his surrender and amnesty deal. Al Shabaab also wants to prevent Robow from getting elected because that would make al Shabaab appear less legitimate in the eyes of many Somalis.
These state presidential elections have to be carried out by 2019 and Robow has a chance of winning. This ban is all about Robow refusing to renounce Islamic terrorism or support for an Islamic religious dictatorship has the best form of government. Robow never denounced al Shabaab but surrendered to the government in 2017 to avoid getting killed by rival al Shabaab factions. At the start of 2018 al Shabaab officially declared one of their former senior leaders, Mukhtar Robow, an apostate and called on all good Moslems to try and kill him. That was because of how Robow organized his departure from al Shabaab. In mid-2017 Robow effectively aligned himself and his al Shabaab faction with the government. These negotiations were kept somewhat quiet but by late June 2017, it became difficult to conceal. That was when several hundred additional troops passed through Hudur, the capital of the Bakool region in central Somalia. The soldiers were there in case fighting broke out between Robow and other al Shabaab factions that wanted to kill him for negotiating with the government. Robow has been feuding with other al Shabaab leaders since 2010 over strategy and since 2013 has essentially declared that his al Shabaab faction (from his Rahanweyn clan, which dominates the region) was going to defend clan territory and do little else for al Shabaab. That meant al Shabaab men could move through Bakool but government forces would be resisted.
Back in 2012, the U.S. had offered a $5 million reward for anyone who would make it possible to capture or kill Robow. But in mid- June 2017 that reward was quietly withdrawn and by August the U.S. made peace with Robow. This soon led to several al Shabaab leaders demanding that al Shabaab mass its depleted forces and punish Robow for this suspected betrayal. Many al Shabaab still blame Robow for the loss of Mogadishu in 2011. That mess began in 2010 when Robow (then al Shabaab deputy commander-in-chief) split with the group and withdrew his forces from Mogadishu. That also meant he was no longer the spokesman for the group or the deputy commander. The weakened and disorganized al Shabaab forces were then much less able to resist the pro-government clans/peacekeeper offensive to take control of the city.
Robow's complaint was that foreign terrorists were increasingly taking over al Shabaab, sometimes killing those who objected. At the time six al Qaeda foreigners were members of the ten-man Sura Council (the al Shabaab supreme command) versus four Somalis. The defection of Robow meant al Shabaab lost about a quarter of its gunmen. That was when al Shabaab began recruiting more teenagers (who are easier to recruit but aren't as effective in combat) to replace the older, more experienced men they were losing to combat injuries, desertion and defection. Al Shabaab also has to contend with the fact that most Somalis now hated the Islamic radicals and were increasing demonstrating that attitude by fleeing areas ruled by al Shabaab.
In mid-2017 the Somali government did not want Mukhtar Robow to get killed by al Shabaab because that would cause more fighting in central Somalia and enable al Shabaab to continue moving through an area that is the safest route for al Shabaab from northern to southern Somalia. Robow negotiated a peace deal with the government and al Shabaab suddenly has a much more difficult time moving from north to south and, in effect, al Shabaab forces in the south (mostly near the Kenyan border) and north (mostly in Puntland) were isolated from each other and easier to defeat. Robow took advantage of the situation and made the best deal (for himself and his clan) he could with the government.
November 30, 2018: Some 160 kilometers west of the capital (Bay Region), an American UAV used missiles to kill nine Al Shabaab gunmen who were on the offensive in the area. In central Somalia (Galmudug) seven American UAV missile strikes during November have killed at least 53 al Shabaab men and destroyed base camps and equipment. Al Shabaab has been trying to establish a secure presence in Galmudug and the American UAVs have been supplying air reconnaissance and airstrikes to local security forces resisting the al Shabaab expansion. So far in 2018, the U.S. has carried out at least 37 of these air attacks in Somalia compared to 31 for all of 2017 and 15 for 2016. These air attacks are often a side effect of intel agencies (like the CIA) collecting intelligence (aerial surveillance and electronic monitoring) on Islamic terrorist activity in the region. This information is used to track changes in al Shabaab forces and capabilities and identify targets the Somali special operations forces can go after. These attacks are meant to disrupt al Shabaab operations or eliminate (capture or kill) their key leaders. These raids get noticed but the Somali special operations troops also carry out some surveillance missions which are purposely kept out of the news because these operations are mainly about future attacks.
November 26, 2018: Some 160 kilometers west of the capital (Galmudug), al Shabaab used a suicide car bomber and gunmen to attack a Shia religious compound. The attack initially killed a popular Shia cleric and fourteen of his fellow Shia. Most Sunni Islamic terror groups consider Shia Moslems heretics that must be killed. Another eleven people died as police arrived to deal with the gunmen and tried to disarm a second car bomb.
In Mogadishu, another al Shabaab suicide car bomb was detonated, killing eight and wounding 15, when the car was stopped by a police checkpoint.
November 22, 2018: Somalia has made its first contribution to a foreign peacekeeping operation. In South Sudan, IGAD (the East African Inter-Governmental Authority on Development) began deploying 1,695 additional soldiers as part the Regional Protection Force (RPF). Here is the initial breakdown by country: 499 (each) from Kenya, Uganda, and Sudan. Somalia and Djibouti will each deploy 99 soldiers.
November 20, 2018: In southeast Kenya, Somali gunmen kidnapped an Italian woman working for a foreign charity. The Somalis wounded five bystanders (most of them children) in the process. This took place 300 kilometers from the Somali border but because most of the Somali Kenyans live in coastal areas it is possible for Somali gangsters and Islamic terrorists to blend in. The last time a kidnapping like this took place was in 2012.
November 11, 2018: The EU (European Union) agreed to extend its military training efforts to the end of 2019 and spend about $2 million a month doing it. Over 200 EU troops are currently involved in a training effort that has been operating in Somalia since 2014. This is in preparation of the departure of 22,000 AU (African Union) peacekeepers by 2020.
November 9, 2018: In Mogadishu, al Shabaab set off four bombs outside a heavily guarded hotel in an attempt to get some gunmen inside. The bombs killed over fifty people but al Shabaab failed to get anyone into the hotel and all of the attackers were apparently killed.