Somalia Onshore: Where next for the transitional government, al-Shabab and the pirate industry?

Somalia Onshore

Where next for the transitional government, al-Shabab and the pirate industry?

by Natznet Tesfay

Mogadishu 2010 (c) Siegfried Modola
Mogadishu 2010 (c) Siegfried Modola

Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) increasingly relies on outside support for its survival, which is creating fractures within this coalition government. Disagreement over the degree and nature of support that is necessary and appropriate has left the TFG disorganised and unlikely to succeed in asserting its political and military authority over Somali territory. Although its alliance with a moderate Islamist group and an increase in the African Union peacekeeping mission’s strength, will make its current military offensive in the west more successful, it is far from consolidating control of the country.

Mogadishu Port 2010 (c) Siegfried Modola

At the same time, al-Shabab has increased its territorial control to much of central and southern Somalia and is stepping up recruitment of foreign jihadists. This means intensified fighting over territorial control in southern and central Somalia is likely over the coming three months, but also that the risk of al-Shabab sponsored attacks in neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia has increased.

There is still no convincing evidence that al-Shabab is engaging directly in piracy but they are showing greater interest in acquiring the necessary skills to be able to use the high seas to forward its own agenda. Its military campaign has been costly both financially and in terms of human resources, and the movement is increasingly divided internally. The new military push by the TFG will increase this strain and likely make new strategies for recruitment and revenue generation more pressing. Nonetheless, established pirate groups are resisting the entry of al-Shabab into their market and in most cases, increased al-Shabab control on-shore means constrained pirate activity rather than an upsurge.


The Transitional Government and Territorial Control

 The TFG will struggle to maintain cohesion and rifts will increase in the lead-up to 2011 elections. Intensification of the political competition increases the likelihood that political actors will look to piracy.

The TFG, established in Djibouti under current President Sharif Ahmed in December 2008, has been ineffective in regaining control over much of the country from armed Islamist groups such as al-Shabab and Hizbul Islam. Internal disputes within the TFG have further weakened the government’s ability to fight insurgents. In June 2010, four key ministers resigned, and in September Prime Minister Omar Sharmarke left the government over disagreements about the draft federal constitution. The new prime minister, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, does not have unanimous support in parliament, and further resignations and clan divisions over the new constitution are likely before the August 2011 presidential elections when the TFG’s mandate expires. Politically, there is likely to be a struggle for power between moderate and hardline factional elements of the TFG which, because of its ideological differences, has been unable to take advantage of growing rifts within al-Shabab.  The political wrangling has impaired the TFG’s military capability as infighting has also prevented it from exploiting the military advances and territorial expansion made by TFG-allied forces since June 2010.

Intensification of competition for political power and deepening ideological cleavages significantly increase the likelihood that key political actors will mobilise militia to extort political backing ahead of the 2011 vote. Such politicians will be likely to participate in piracy, such as allowing pirates to operate from ports under their control, as a means of raising revenue to arm and fund aligned militia. As a result, a spike in piracy activity will likely follow.

A new military push by AMISOM and TFG forces in the south will weaken al-Shabab financially and militarily. It is likely to seek support from other Somali Islamist groups at home and abroad, and change its military tactics.

In Mogadishu, the TFG and allied African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces have been under increasing strain over the past year from mortar, rocket and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks. The African Union mission is expected to reach its original target deployment of 8,000 in the next three months, and the AU has approved a new target of 20,000 set by the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). If the AMISOM troops are promptly deployed, the reinforcements would significantly strengthen the beleaguered TFG’s military capability. However, deployment is notoriously slow and pledged troops often fail to arrive.

Nonetheless, a new offensive by TFG forces against al-Shabab, supported by AMISOM, has been underway since mid-October 2010. The TFG is mounting attacks in the southwest regions of Hiraan, Bakool and Gedo. On 17 October 2010, al-Shabab lost the key trading town of Bula Hawo in Gedo region (on the Kenya-Ethiopia tri-border) to TFG forces. This victory was significant for the TFG which hitherto only controlled parts of Mogadishu and, since the peace pact with moderate Islamist militia Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama’a (ASWJ), Galgadud in the centre. The TFG has been boosted by the alliance with ASWJ whose fighters provided much needed military reinforcements. Further attacks are likely in these regions, as the TFG seeks to expand its territorial control.

However, the offensive as well as the increased commitment of foreign troops, has boosted support for al-Shabab’s nationalist and jihadi rhetoric among other Somali Islamist groups, both within the Somali territories and its diaspora, particularly in Kenya. Since the withdrawal of pro-TFG Ethiopian troops in January 2009, al-Shabab has expanded its territorial control to cover much of central and southern Somalia where they have imposed shari’a law. This has provided increased security and stability in areas under its rule and as a result increased its local, particularly clan, support base. They are now likely to increase attempts to defeat the TFG and its foreign backers. On 24 August 2010 it announced a “massive, final war” against the “invaders”, but despite a brief increase in audacious attacks after that date, it has been unable to consolidate its control.

In the six-month outlook, al-Shabab is likely to stage further attacks on foreign personnel and assets within Somalia, including Somaliland and Puntland. However, attacks are likely to take the form of suicide bombs and remote-controlled improvised explosive devices as the group faces depleting resources and will likely focus bulk of weaponry and manpower in repelling the TFG renewed offensive.


Al-Shabab Strategy

 Al-Shabab sympathisers are likely to launch attacks outside of Somalia, as the group concentrates on activities within the country.

 The TFG offensive is likely to stretch al-Shabab’s finances and resources, which means the movement is less likely to launch direct attacks outside Somali territory. However, the risk of attack by affiliated anti-government groups such as the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) in Ethiopia, and Islamist sympathisers in Kenya’s coastal regions, is likely to rise. An EA source based in the southern port of Kismayo reported in October that al-Shabab had been training young disaffected Muslim youth from Ethiopia and Kenya. Upon returning to their respective countries, these proxy forces expand al-Shabab’s operational area as they can now be directed to carry out attacks and are less likely to be detected by local security services.

The Kampala bar bombings of July 2010 demonstrated al-Shabab’s capability of carrying out attacks beyond the territory that it controls through the use of sympathisers. Ethiopia and Kenya are the most obvious targets for other al-Shabab sponsored attacks outside of Somalia.  In August 2010, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi hinted that he may consider sending troops to assist struggling AMISOM peacekeepers, despite a rule barring Somalia’s neighbours from contributing forces. The first deployment of Ethiopian forces from 2006-2009 caused public outrage and as a result increased popular support for the anti-government forces.

However, Kenya is less of a priority target as it serves as a conduit for al-Shabab’s supply chain routes. A US national arrested in July 2010 for attempting to join al-Shabab reported that some recruits were reaching Somalia by speedboat from Kenya. Also al-Shabab receives significant financial support from Kenya-based Somali businessmen – support that would likely be curtailed in the event of large-scale attacks in Kenya connected to al-Shabab. In addition, unlike Ethiopia and Uganda, Kenya has not deployed troops to Somalia and has defied the West when in October 2010 it refused to continue hosting pirate trials, claiming the security risk was too great.

Implications for Piracy

As all sides struggle for control, there is a significant likelihood of greater recourse to piracy to obtain funds and support.

The cumulative effect of al-Shabab on piracy will depend on whether al-Shabab is successful in creating a coalition anti-government force, and on its financial and material resources. Current divisions within the movement indicate securing a strong foundation in either will not be an easy task. Al-Shabab’s expansion within Somalia has removed piracy hubs from areas within its control, most notably Haradheere. For example, in April 2010, it engaged in fighting with Haradheere-based pirates. As a result, in 2010 pirates have mostly been operating from Galmudug and Puntland. However, a growing alliance with Puntland Islamist rebel leader Sheikh Mohamed Said Atom, who is allegedly a major supplier of arms to al-Shabab and has declared allegiance to the organisation, suggests pirates’ operating areas are likely to be constrained even further. Until now, al-Shabab’s attitude towards piracy has been equivocal, often fighting pirates for retaliation rather than an ideological opposition to piracy itself. According to EA sources, this has largely been driven by al-Shabab’s high extortion demands, i.e. demanding a larger cut of ransoms than pirates deem fair. It is the seeking of funds that could mutate al-Shabab’s operations into actual involvement in piracy in order to generate income for costly military campaigns.

Joint efforts by Puntland and Somaliland administrations to tackle insecurity caused by piracy will receive a boost from the return of the UN system to these regions but it will still be difficult to control.

Over the past year, pirate groups have adapted to offshore developments, such as the enhanced naval presence in the Gulf of Aden as well as onshore dynamics, particularly the Islamists’ increasing control of southern Somali coastal regions. Both have led to a shift in the composition of pirates groups, as well as in their operating bases. While pirates previously belonged to four known groups, the Merka Group, National Volunteer Coast Guard, Somali Marines and Puntland Group, they have reportedly de-centralised into loosely-formed clusters, which draw from a wider constituency for greater logistical, financial and armed support. Additionally, piracy has become increasingly professionalised as the ‘industry’ has expanded to generate income and employment for local inhabitants. Beyond investment into local economies, pirates have also begun to employ highly educated Somalis, including lawyers, to launder ransom money and buy properties, with Nairobi developing as a preferred destination for these illicit funds.

While pirates are commonly disadvantaged young men from fishing communities and clan militia members, the groups are generally aligned with a member of the local leadership, as in the case of Somali Marines’ loyalty to clan warlord Abdi Mohamed Afweyne. In Puntland, former government officials have accused high-ranking members of the government of maintaining connections, most likely clan affiliations, with pirate groups operating out of the region. The recent shift in operating hubs northward, due to Islamists uprooting pirates from the southern ports of Kismayo, Merka and Haradheere, lends credibility to this claim, as Hobyo and Garacad are the last remaining significant pirate bases outside Puntland territory.  On 21 April 2010, Puntland agreed to spearhead an anti-piracy campaign in collaboration with the TFG, but limited finances and resources have stymied the operation. In September 2010 it agreed to a similar operation with the Somaliland government. The re-entry of the UN to assist the Puntland and Somaliland administrations is expected to bolster these campaigns in 2011.


Analysis by Natznet Tesfay

Deputy Head of Africa Forecasting

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All photographs courtesy of Nairobi based photojournalist Siegfried Modola: Mobile: +254 (0) 725768280

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One Reply to “Somalia Onshore: Where next for the transitional government, al-Shabab and the pirate industry?”

  1. Simon

    Some of the facts and details are quite vague in this piece, with scant reference to the specific process that has been developing to achieve a single Coastguard programme for Somalia, through cooperation between Somaliland, Puntland, the State of Galmudug and the TFG. The key aspect is the repeated presentations of Intent and Agreements between the Somali Government parties that support and endorse the Kampala Agreement, which followed the Letter from the TFG stating the International Community (UN IMO-CGPCS)can engage with the Somali States directly. This was also supported by the MOU between Puntland and the TFG, which was presented to the CGPCS at the Conference on the 10th May 2010 as was a declaration that Somaliland would work with the other Governments to combat Piracy and establish a mutually beneficial Coastguard plan. This was again pressed at the Conference in October 2010, but progress to International Community Funding continues to be very slow.

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