The recent election of President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo, a Somali-American technocrat who previously served as the country’s prime minister, has raised Somali expectations of putting an end to the menace of jihadi group al-Shabaab. From his 2010 tenure as prime minister, people remember Farmaajo as a man of integrity who cracked down on corrupt politicians and revived public morale, albeit briefly (his tenure was less than a year). During his presidential campaign, the Somali police referred to him as the ‘salary-payer’ candidate, a show of confidence in his leadership. It is steps such as these – honoring police salaries, inspiring radicalised youths to disarm, speaking out against endemic corruption through naming and shaming and, more broadly, fostering good governance practices – that many are pointing to as the key to defeating the al-Qaeda affiliate, which has long ravaged and destabilised the country.
As he assumes office, the president inherits a wide array of challenges that include weak security institutions, an underpaid and undertrained army, and reemergence of the ever-more potent al-Shabaab. Increased terror attacks flourished under his predecessor’s watch. The country’s own survival is heavily dependent on troops contributed by the African Union Peacekeeping Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). This month, AMISOM celebrates its 10-year anniversary of deployment. Although the mission has made considerable progress in stabilising the country, forcing al-Shabaab out of major cities and disrupting the group’s safe havens and supply chains, it has failed to create an atmosphere in which Somali troops can take the lead and pave the way for an exit strategy. But the continued military operation and its ever-expanding mission have raised questions of its sustainability. Last week, the head of AMISOM, Ambassador Madeira, was quoted as saying, “It’s time we made it known that AMSIOM is not going to stay forever.”
Since 2007, al-Shabaab has reportedly carried out more than 360 attacks, with unprecedented casualties both in terms of human loss and destruction of private and public institutions. Also, and in less than a decade, the al-Qaeda affiliate has evolved from a ragtag militia fighting 2006 Ethiopia’s occupation to a lethal, organised, semi-guerilla army. Today, al-Shabaab, which affiliated with al-Qaeda in 2012, does not occupy a large swath of territory, and perhaps it is not interested in holding one. It is very useful for the group that, while on the run and in hideouts, it can stage asymmetrical attacks inflicting mass casualties. An adaptive and agile organisation, it has changed its tactical operations and reverted to staging complex attacks on public places, government institutions, coffee shops, and public markets without engaging in a direct confrontation with troops.
Although al-Shabaab is not close to defeat, the group is on the back foot and retreated into society. Its internal cohesion has been decapitated by American drones, which have killed many of its key figureheads, such as Ahmed Godane. Not only has the death of the likes of Godane left al-Shabaab with gaping holes, this has created internal discord among the top echelon and regional commanders as to future of the organisation. Some of the hardcore hardliner factions have formally paid allegiance to ISIS, and that has further deepened the internal rift. The second major al-Shabaab camp, currently led by Godane’s successor, Ahmed Omar, wants to scale up the asymmetric and insurgent warfare, since it defines the group’s existence – and sees the only path for it to remain relevant – in the counter-insurgency context.