Somalia: The Phantom Terror


October 14, 2020: In Mogadishu the security situation has improved to the point where many street barriers, installed to discourage suicide vehicle bomber attacks, have ben removed. For the last few years the barriers have been a major annoyance for anyone driving through the city. Much of the al Shabaab presence has been eliminated in Mogadishu and the Islamic terror group has concentrated in their operations down south, near the Kenyan border and Kismayo, the second largest port.

Al Shabaab is still dangerous. Since 2017 their attacks have caused over 5,000 casualties, about 40 percent of them fatal. The primary weapon in that period has been large bombs and most of the victims have been civilians. This is to remind everyone that al Shabaab is still around, still dangerous and must be respected or else.

Al Shabaab has ceased to be very religious and is now mainly a criminal enterprise with a thin veneer of religious fanaticism. The original al Shabaab was worn down by nearly a decade of defeats. Between 2006 and 2011 al Shabaab was a major force throughout Somalia, but by 2012 that power had been broken by a large peacekeeper force supporting local, usually clan, militias in reducing al Shabaab power. The peacekeepers will begin withdrawing in 2021.

Al Shabaab is surviving because it is paying more attention to money. Al Shabaab leaders have always paid attention to finances, something unsuccessful Islamic terror groups generally put less effort into. It’s a Somali specialty to pay attention to the financial opportunities and that is one of the factors that fuels corruption in the Somali government. All that foreign aid is considered fair game for whoever can grab it. Donor efforts to reduce the corruption often meets with indifference masked by insincere agreement to cooperate. The money keeps disappearing before getting to where the donor specified it should go. The looting of the donor funds has become so lucrative that even al Shabaab is recruiting government financial officials to aid the Islamic terrorist efforts to get a share of the looted aid funds.

Many Somalis realize that al Shabaab is unlikely to gain control of the government or most of the country. But as a determined and heavily armed criminal gang, the financial opportunities are still enormous. It’s like the ancient Chinese description of a government bureaucracy; “the object is not to win or lose, but to keep the game going.” Among Islamic terrorists who have survived for a while and operated in different countries, al Shabaab has a reputation of being more mercenary than religious zealot. This is one reason al Shabaab has been hostile to foreign Islamic terrorists, who are more likely to find acceptance in the smaller, and much less prosperous and successful Somali ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) faction up north in Somaliland.

The downside of this mercenary version of al Shabaab is that the leaders who are more effective at raising and managing money end up with more power. In true Somali fashion this has led to disputes between al Shabaab leaders. Some of this tension is caused by al Shabaab expanding into Kenya, where the ethnic Somali Kenyans often do not get along with the Somalia Somalis. Nothing serious so far. The financial pressure and factional anger are building and, unless a settlement is reached, there will be another spasm of self-destructive violence that will weaken but destroy al Shabaab.

While al Shabaab depends on Kenya for smuggled goods and recruits from the large Somali refugee camps, seaborne trade and smuggling via Yemen has resumed. Yemen has traditionally been the major trading partner for Somali outlaws. Kenya was OK for raiding but for doing business, Yemen was the place to go.

The Yemen connection was never completely severed by the civil war that broke out there in late 2014. For a few years the Arab naval blockade was very disruptive to lucrative smuggling activities. This included people smuggling (Africans headed for Saudi Arabia and points north) as well as imports of weapons and other contraband. A shortage of conventional explosives forced al Shabaab to shift to improvised versions using ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Bombs built with this type of explosive were bulkier and the actual explosive material (ammonium nitrate and fuel oil) was a slurry, not a solid. This type of explosive was less suitable for small bombs but excellent for large ones. That led to the increased use of large bombs, either planted or in a vehicle driven by a suicide bomber. These bombs were more about terror than anything else and most of the victims were civilians. Such weapons don’t win wars and generate a lot of civilian hostility. That works for al Shabaab, which is running a criminal enterprise that functions more efficiently if local civilians are terrified and unwilling to anger al Shabaab.

October 13, 2020: In the southeast (Lower Shabelle) soldiers acting on a tip captured an al Shabaab prison where uncooperative local civilians were held. Eleven of the al Shabaab gunmen guarding the prison were killed. The prisoners were unharmed and set free.

October 12, 2020: The government awarded Turkey the 14-year contract to develop and operate the port of Mogadishu. Turkey has a track record of successful projects in Somalia. These include a major hospital, a military training center as well as road maintenance and rebuilding the Mogadishu airport. The main competitor for the port contract was the UAE, which currently manages the port. The UAE lost out here because they had already signed deals to rebuild and manage ports in the two autonomous parts of Somalia; Puntland and Somaliland. This angered the Somali government, which wants to make Puntland and Somaliland part of Somalia once more. The UAE also has a problem with its tolerating the continuing illegal export of Somali charcoal to the UAE and other Gulf states. Al Shabaab controls, or taxes much of the charcoal production and exporting.

For over a decade Turkey, Qatar and the UAE have been competing to buy control of Somali coastal assets. A further complication is that Qatar and Turkey are allies of Iran. Turkey has long provided some aid, mainly military training for the Somali army. Qatar is believed to provide aid in the form of bribes for specific politicians. This eliminates the more normal payment method whereby money is provided as foreign aid and most of it is stolen by politicians. The U.S. alone has seen over a billion dollars’ worth of aid disappear like that. There are rumors that Turkey will begin using its training facility and connections throughout the Somali military to recruit mercenaries for the Turkish Libyan invasion force. Rumors are still rumors, even in Somalia but dirty business and massive corruption are a fact.

October 7, 2020: In the northwest (Middle Shabelle), 30 kilometers north of Mogadishu, al Shabaab used a roadside bomb to attack a passing army vehicle near the town of Balad. This left six soldiers dead and four wounded.

Outside of Mogadishu al Shabaab attacked the Jazira army base, killing or wounding several soldiers and damaging or destroying six vehicles. The attack was repulsed and al Shabaab took their dead and wounded with them.

September 26, 2020: In the southeast, a cross the border in Kenya (Mandera county) Kenyan border guards exchanged fire with Somali soldiers for several minutes before the Somali soldiers and civilians left the area. The incident began when a group of Somali civilians gathered at the crossing and threatened the Kenyan border guards. The Somalis believed Kenyan counter-terror forces had kidnapped some local Somalis. The Kenyan border guards fired into the air and nearby Somali soldiers fired on the Kenyans, who fired back. Several Kenyan civilians were wounded.

September 25, 2020: In the southeast (Lower Shabelle) soldiers attacked an Al Shabaab camp, killed sixteen of the Islamic terrorists and freed forty children. Al Shabaab takes children to use as suicide bombers, gunmen or cheap labor. Any that do not cooperate are killed.

September 15, 2020: Maritime security organizations warn that Somali pirates remain a threat. Since 2019 there have been no attacks on large ships moving through the area to the Suez Canal or the Persian Gulf. Most of these large ships still hire armed security teams (usually of four ex-soldiers or policemen) to spend about a week on the ship, ready to respond quickly to any approaching threat. The last time any large ship as fired on was in 2018, when it happened three times. The security teams will still occasionally fire warning shots at approaching speed boats full of armed men. If the warning shots don’t work the security team marksmen will put a few bullets into the approaching boat, which is all it takes to get that boat to head elsewhere. The pirates still prey on the more vulnerable fishing trawlers and small coastal freighters, often wooden dhows. These ships are not seized because the pirates have found that you cannot get a large, or often any ransom for these boats, or even for their crews. Attacking these boats is just about robbery and taking anything portable off the ship. There is some danger because some of these smaller vessels have armed men on board and some are protected by powerful Somali groups ashore. The coastal freighters serve Somalis and the pirates have to operate out of one of the small coastal towns. As a result many coastal freighters are effectively off limits.

The pirates have fallen on hard times since 2012, the last year they captured a large ship that could yield a multi-million-dollar ransom. From 2005 to 2012 the pirates took over 3,600 hostages from captured ships. The last of these hostages was finally released in mid-2020 and piracy has been much reduced. But it still exists and is usually carried out by local fishermen/smugglers who are armed and willing to take risks for the chance of a major payday.


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