Al-Shabaab on the Defensive

114393162_Kismayo_349361cOn September 1, the United States conducted aerial strikes in Somalia that killed the leader of terrorist group al-Shabaab, Ahmed Abdi Godane. Immediate responses from many observers have been quite optimistic. Abdi Aynte, director of the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies, claims that Godane’s death leaves “a serious possibility of [al-Shabaab’s] gradual disintegration.” Other experts have chimed in that this may spell great trouble for the group that was unified by Godane’s charismatic personality.

This opens up the possibility that al-Shabaab may begin to unravel without its leader. In the case of Somalia, it may lead to some flare-ups in violence in the near future. However, it is a necessary step in degrading a dangerous terrorist group that has destabilized Somalia, threatened the region, and worried the United States.

Bryan Price, a major and strategist in the U.S. Army, suggests that leadership decapitation is an effective strategy. Terrorist groups whose leaders are targeted—and targeted early—often have shorter lifespans than their non-decapitated counterparts and are more prone to disintegration. This, Price posits, is largely due to the nature of terrorist groups as “violent, clandestine, and values-based organizations,” which makes leadership transitions more difficult. During an interview with the HPR, Ronald Krebs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, adds to this analysis, explaining, “The more bureaucratic the organization, the more easily the leader can be replaced … the more the leader rules by charisma or by cult of personality, [and] the more vulnerable the organization is to decapitation.”

In this case, the blow may be difficult for al-Shabaab to cope with. Roland Marchal of the French National Center for Scientific Research says that the new leader, Ahmed Umar Abu Ubaidah, “is not someone who has the reach [or] the regional and international connections Ahmed Godane enjoyed, and is, as well, someone who may not have been linked very much to the political economy of the movement.” In essence, Ubaidah is simply not as charismatic as his predecessor. In addition, Marchal suggests that fear of additional American airstrikes prevented al-Shabaab’s upper echelons from convening to decide on a new leader, thereby decreasing Ubaidah’s legitimacy in the organization.

In an interview with the HPR, David Schanzer, an associate professor at Duke University and director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, elucidated the ways in which al-Shabaab can be degraded. In the short term, “targeted efforts against al-Shabaab are important and effective … [and they] must be combined with a positive strategy over the long term, otherwise al-Shabaab can merely rebuild over time.” There must also be good government—currently, the United States attempts to bolster the central Federal Government of Somalia and provides training for its troops. Finally, there must be “political reconciliation among aggrieved groups” so that al-Shabaab’s political appeal is weakened.

Cautious Optimism

In 2013, some interpreted the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya that claimed the lives of 67 people as evidence of a resurgent al-Shabaab. However, this is not the sign of a powerful group, but of one that is losing legitimacy. Schanzer pointed out that al-Shabaab used to function as an insurgency, but as it loses power it “will start to behave more like a terror organization, which includes attacks on civilians.” Even more recently, al-Shabaab has attacked African Union troops following the killing of Godane. In order to show a powerful face to the world and gain support, they will lash out in the short term.

Rather than be dismayed at the thought, we should be cautiously optimistic. With constant media coverage of the Islamic State’s gains in Iraq and Syria, it is easy to believe that terror everywhere is on the rise. Schanzer is quick to emphasize that it is a “mistake to assume all radical groups are a part of a unified anti-American network. It is more accurate and advantageous to deal with them on a regional or localized basis.” However, this tendency to lump terror cells together “makes them seem more powerful than they really are.”

Therefore, there is some hope for the future. Al-Shabaab suffered territorial losses in 2011 and 2012 following a concerted effort by regional and global actors. The African Union began a campaign that resulted in the ouster of al-Shabaab from Mogadishu. The United States has also been using drone strikes to take out key figures and hinder the group’s mobility. These factors all contributed to al-Shabaab’s surrender of the port city of Kismayo in 2012. Somalia analyst Tres Thomas claims that the port was one of al-Shabaab’s primary revenue sources, pulling in “tens of millions of dollars” annually. If that weren’t enough, even al-Shabaab recognizes it has not gained the support of the people. A senior commander said, “The reason the holy warriors have failed to emerge victorious against the infidels is largely due to the bad relationship between the public and al-Shabaab.”

In many ways, al-Shabaab has downgraded from an insurgency to a more limited terrorist group. Without the support of a significant portion of the population, financial backing, or the ability to go head to head with its enemies, it is resorting to desperate measures. As the President of Somalia, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, said in an interview this August, al-Shabaab has begun shifting to urban fighting in Mogadishu as it has lost more and more direct battles with the Somali and African Union forces. Perhaps to gain regain its dwindling relevance, in 2012 the organization declared formal allegiance to al-Qaeda, but this is unsurprising. As Krebs points out, “Groups that have more modest and local agendas, like al-Shabaab … are increasingly feeling forced to declare their allegiances—to either al-Qaeda or the Islamic State.”

Of course, there are still massive obstacles that need to be overcome before Somalia can be stable. Central state control is still weak or nonexistent in huge swaths of the country, massive poverty is endemic, and although al-Shabaab is on the decline, it is in no way defeated. However, the weakening of al-Shabaab bodes well for the country, and it has allowed Somalia to shift from fighting an all-out civil war to conducting a terror operation. In a hopeful sign that some semblance of normalcy is returning to the country, public education resumed last year. With any hope, the recent killing of al-Shabaab’s leader should hasten the movement towards a more stable Somalia.

Image source: The Times of London

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