Al Shabaab in Somalia: The current phase of violence.


In the previous two weeks we looked at the civil war in Yemen, noting that the war has had a direct impact on creating and sustaining the humanitarian crisis in the country. Looking south, there is Somalia, which is also undergoing a humanitarian crisis, is food insecure, and is heavily dependent on foreign aid. In a country of over 14 million people three million are in an ‘emergency need’ of food, while another 6.2 people are in ‘dire need’ of food. The last famine in 2011 killed 250,000 people and the current hotspot for violence and potential famine is in the south. The reason for the food shortages is two severe droughts, the reason foreign aid cannot get through is conflict and roadblocks put up by the jihadist group al Shabaab and the clans that dominate Somali politics.

Somalia has been in a state of conflict since 1991 and has been subjected to repeated outside intervention and for a period of time was a failed state as opposed to the recovering state that it is today. The battle against al Shabaab is the latest phase of the civil war that has raged mostly in the south of the country. The self-declared state of Somaliland and semi-autonomous region of Puntland, both in the north, have been comparatively peaceful. The establishment of a divisive Transitional National Government (TNG) in 2004 was followed by the formation of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a group of Sharia courts, who became a major rival to the TNG and by the end of 2006 they controlled most of the south of Somalia. ICU success led to rival secular warlords in Mogadishu uniting in the battle against the ICU but they were defeated. The TNG allied with Ethiopia and the US in order to defeat the ICU and their leaders have either left the country or reconciled with the government, with the exception of al-Shabaab, who broke away and declared allegiance to Al-Qaeda in 2012. Since this time they have battled the troops of the TNG and the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISON) and faced airstrikes and the special forces of the US. Between 2011 and 2012 Kenya launched an incursion into Somalia in alliance with the TNG against al Shabaab, leading to the group being forced out of the cities. Ethiopia also deployed troops in limited numbers and has since joined AMISON, alongside Kenya after their incursion ended in an al Shabaab defeat. AMISON currently has troops from Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti, and Sierra Leone. The US also targets al Shabaab due to its alliance with Al-Qaeda.

While al Shabaab is on the back foot the continuation of Somalia’s torturous path to peace is not guaranteed. The country is heavily dependent on foreign military support in its battle against al Shabaab, who remain intransigent and capable of launching attacks such as that in Nairobi in 2013, when 67 people were killed in a shooting at the Westgate shopping mall. There are also overlaps with the conflict in Yemen, as al Shabaab has many foreign recruits, including from Kenya, and a large number have transited to Yemen to fight for AQAP. This is consistent with al Shabaab being part of a wider network of a wider jihadist network, with some members declaring allegiance to ISIS. Some 3000 foreign troops are said to have been killed battling the Islamist insurgency (ICU, then al Shabaab), raising the possibility that there may be a finite limit to the commitment of troops to AMISON. Notably, both Ethiopia and Burundi have increasing internal problems of their own, bringing into question their future willingness to commit troops.

While Somalia is more representative than was previously the case, it still has major problems with corruption and clan rivalry, a humanitarian crisis, and areas still held by al Shabaab. Even without the jihadist group in the picture, the clans still fight each other, and sometimes the government, whose institutions have a limited impact at a time when strong governance is needed. Somalia’s coherence as a country and better representation are an improvement on the extensive clan based violence of the past, but this is relative, meaning that the country is still undergoing a major crisis and needs outside support much as before. There is a possibility that without AMISON (or a replacement UN force) and foreign aid the country may slip back to being a failed state.

For more information regarding this week’s blog see:

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator


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