Of greater significance though was the fact this incident took place at the same time as the strategically important town of Bariire, located 63km west of Mogadishu, was (re)captured from al-Shabaab in a joint military operation by the Somali National Army and troops belonging to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). However, unlike other similar incidents, the battle in Abal village was the result of ‘regular’ causal factors such as the forced collection of taxes (zakat or infaaq) by al-Shabaab or clan conflict. Instead, this incident was linked to the defection of former al-Shabaab deputy leader Sheikh Mukhtar Robow and his current relationship with both his former comrades and the Federal Government of Somalia. As such this incident should not be relegated to being a footnote in the history of conflict in Somalia.
Significance of Abal Village
The village of Abal is situated in a region dominated by the Leysan su-clan of which Sheik Robow is a prominent and widely-respected elder. Situated 18km south of the town of Hudder (Xuddur) in Bakool region the village has even been reported as his birthplace; although the US government and other sources list this as nearby Hudder. The village and its surrounding area have been a flashpoint for conflict between al-Shabaab and Sheikh Robow, the former deputy leader and spokesman of the group after he relocated there in mid-2017 amid reports he was attempting to negotiate his surrender to the Federal Government.
Since that time control of the village changed hands several times. Even with their leader in Baidoa or Mogadishu the clan militia loyal to Sheikh Robow, known as ‘Caaro Caaro’ (Spiders) remained an organized and active force in the local region. In December 2017 a statement was issued by al-Shabaab that the son of Sheikh Robow, named as Abdullahi Mukhtar Robow, had been killed after a failed attempt to capture the village by a combined force of Caaro Caaro and troops belonging to South-West State.
What Spark Ignited This Latest Round of Fighting?
It is important to ask the question regarding the cause of this most recent round of fighting between the Caaro Caaro and al-Shabaab. The reason for this concerns not only the insight this may offer into both these actors but also the possible consequences this event may have for them as well as the security environment of Hudur District and the wider Bakool region.
A Possible Demonstration of Strength by Sheikh Robow
The first possible reason behind the battle is that the attack was ordered by Sheik Robow, or by allied clan leaders on his behalf, in order to provide a display of military strength at a time when he is facing indefinite detention by the Federal Government without any formal charges being laid or any apparent plan to put him on trial. Having been denied the chance to run for the presidency of South-West State and facing an uncertain future such an attempt to show strength would serve a number of goals, including 1) rallying political and military support among Rahanweyn sub-clans currently loyal or sympathetic for Sheikh Robow; 2) reminding political rivals and enemies that in addition to his status as a traditional elder and religious scholar Sheikh Robow continues to enjoy the support of a strong military force; 3) highlight the fact that the Federal Government, South-West State and AMISOM do not control large parts of Bakool region and are unable to provide security for local communities; 4) encourage foreign powers to lobby the Federal Government to release Sheikh Robow before a currently peaceful political stand-off becomes a military conflict.
In favour of this scenario is the fact that the battle for Abal village took place either immediately before or during talks in Baidoa in which clan elders and members of the South-West State parliament attempted to negotiate the release of Sheik Robow. The importance given by these actors to achieving the release of Sheikh Robow from house-arrest was expressed earlier in January this year by the Speaker of the South-West State parliament Mohamed Mursal who declared:, “Our seats are worth nothing if Laftagareen [recently elected President of South-West State Abdiasis Mohammed] and I don’t get Sheikh Mukhtar Robow released.”
If the attack on the village by the Caaro Caaro was ordered by Sheik Robow or his supporters was meant as a show of strength intended to support this effort by local clan and political leaders then it failed to achieve its objective. However, even in the event the attack secured one, several or even all of the possible intended goals listed above it is possible that this strategy could still backfire and result in a worsening of relations between Sheikh Robow and the Federal Government. This is because a show of strength can also be interpreted as a threat that Sheikh Robow intends to act as an independent ‘third-force’ in the Bakool region. Not only would such a force be a potential threat to the SNA and AMISOM but it could also become a proxy of Ethiopia which is suspected of desiring a weak and fragmented Somalia. Although the likelihood of such an armed confrontation remains low it should be noted that incentive for political and clan leaders to take action in order to reduce the risk of violence at any future protests can be considered reduced by the total failure of their peaceful efforts.
A Temporary Window of Opportunity
There is also the possibility that the attack on the village by the Caaro Caaro was ordered because it was believed that the militia enjoyed a temporary superiority over the local al-Shabaab force. In this scenario the timing of the battle, either before or during the talks in Baidoa, was nothing more than a coincidence. This is not an unlikely scenario and deserves some consideration.
The first factor in its favour is that it would not be unusual for al-Shabaab to have temporarily weakened its local force due to a breakdown in relations with locals, serve as reinforcements in other areas or to participate in major military operations targeting the SNA, AMISOM and/or other clan militias in the region. It is also possible the that Caaro Caaro had received reinforcements that allowed it to enjoy superiority in fighters and/or firepower over the local al-Shabaab force sufficient not only to re-take the village but also defend itself against any counter-attacks.
In either case the attack on Abal village would indicate that the Caaro Caaro remains an organized force capable of undertaking offensive military operations, however limited, against al-Shabaab. As in the previous possible scenario this would mean that the militia has remained an organized force following the defection and later arrest of Sheikh Robow. As a force that is hostile to al-Shabaab but also independent of Somali government authorities the Caaro Caaro complicate the already complex balance of power between insurgent, clan, government and African Union forces operating in the Bakool region. If the militia proves itself capable of taking and holding more territory then this will further complicate matters for the Federal Government when considering the future role(s) it is willing to allow Sheikh Robow to play at the local, state and federal levels of Somali politics.
An Unexpected Outbreak of Conflict?
A third scenario is that the battle was the result of an unplanned confrontation between the Caaro Caaro and al-Shabaab forces in the village or its surrounding territory. The spark that ignited the clash could have begun as the result of a number of different events. These include and unexpected encounter between patrols, one side launching an unplanned (‘hasty’) ambush, shots fired at a target of opportunity or even the escalation of a violent dispute between rival groups of fighters; the last being a possibility if there was a temporary ceasefire between the groups in the local area.
Regardless of the cause it is evident that al-Shabaab got the worst of the fight and was forced to retreat from the village. However, unlike the previous scenarios an unplanned battle, if a known fact, is not likely to have a significant impact on the relationship between sheikh Robow and the Federal Government. Instead, the most likely approach by authorities in Mogadishu would be to adopt a ‘wait and see’ response in which the next steps of the Carro Caaro are closely monitored. One issue of particular concern would be whether Sheik Robow or his supporters attempt to exploit this unanticipated victory to broaden his support base among local clans and sub-clans at the expense of the Federal government and other political rivals in South-West State. Of similar importance would be the queation of whether or not the Caaro Caaro can not only hold onto Abal village, and if able, then attempt to use it as a staging post to make further territorial gains at the expense of al-Shabaab.
Note: this would also be the expected outcome if it were shown that the battle was started by a planned attack by al-Shabaab against fighters belonging to the Caaro Caaro.
In this scenario the (re)capture of Abaal village by the Caaro Caaro will matter less than the actions and positions taken by actors in the confrontation between Sheikh Robow and the Federal Government following this event.
Who are the ‘Caaro Caaro’?
Following the capture of the village a video was released online which included footage of fighters as well as a member of the Caaro Caaro making a statement which emphasized the local roots of the militia and called on local communities to give their support as it fights against al-Shabaab. This appeal to the local origins of the militia confers with what is known about its support base being rooted in the Leysan sub-clan of the Rahanweyn clan; Sheikh Robow himself is believed to be Rahanweyn/Sideed/Leysan/Orsi. The strength of this clan relationship with both Sheikh Robow and his militia is believed to be the reason why in 2017 al-Shabaab chose Sheikh Hassan Yaqcub (aka Hassan Yakub Ali), the group's shadow governor of the Galgaduud region, who shares the same clan and sub-clan affiliations to lead the effort its campaign to try and capture or kill him.
Regarding the organization and equipment of the militia evidence from the video shows the Caaro Caaro to be a lightly armed but organized force. Of interest is the fact that the number of fighters shown in the video numbered thirty-three which would make it the equivalent of the al-Shabaab formation known as a Fasila (also referred to as Safila) which has a reported strength of thirty to thirty-two (30-32) fighters. Given that many, if not all, current members of the Caaro Caaro are former al-Shabaab fighters it is likely that the militia remains organized along similar lines. the lightly armed nature of the force - fighters in the video are armed with various AK-pattern assault rifles – would also fit the pattern of how al-Shabaab equips similar sized formations of its armed forces (Jabhat); that is regular front-line and militia forces rather than the more heavily armed Jugta Ulus unitsa which are part of the groups Amniyat security and intelligence force. From what is known of the combat performance of the Caaro Caaro the militia is able to take the fight to al-Shabaab units of similar size and strength. Without further information regarding the medium and heavy weapons held by the group or the ability if fighters to build and employ improvised explosive devices this performance and past association with al-Shabaab are sufficient to consider the group a potentially dangerous enemy for the Somali National Army and/or AMISOM.
At this time the size of the Caaro Caaro remains unknown. Previous reports have indicated a strength of up to 400 fighters but even this number fails to distinguish between full-time, part-time or reserve status. What is known is that a group of fighters belonging to the militia have been camped near the town of Hudder waiting to be integrated into the Somali National Army. This process will almost certainly remain stalled while Sheikh Robow remains in detention. The risk for the Federal Government is that while this force remains unintegrated that efforts will be made by supporters of Sheikh Robow to see this force grow in size, strength and the amount of territory under its control.
Not Overestimating the Caaro Caaro
While the Caaro Caaro pose a potential military threat there are a number of points that need to be recognized which may place limits on its ability to operate as an effective insurgent ‘third-force’ in the Bakool region. These are clan politics; the expense of warfare and the response of al-Shabaab. It is important that these are recognized not only by outside observers and analysts but also the Federal Government of Somalia (and its backers) when considering the future of Sheikh Robow.
The clan is Everything …. And Not Everything (Both at the Same Time)
While a respected and popular elder of the Leysan sub-clan which dominates large parts of Bakool region, Sheikh Robow and his Caaro Caaro are not the only force competing for the support of its members. The militia also faces competition al-Shabaab and the Federal Government for the loyalty, or at least tolerance/neutrality, of the Leysan and its own sub-clan groupings. This means that the ability of Sheikh Robow to call on his clan to support him against the Federal Government (or al-Shabaab) is not absolute. When under attack from al-Shabaab it was not only supported from his sub-clan that Sheikh Robow depended on but also the inaction of those who supported al-Shabaab but did not want to see him harmed. In a similar way, his supporters from other clans and sub-clans would also need to balance their relationship with him and any competing interests held by their own communities. It should be noted that the factor most likely to mobilize support across clan and sub-clan lines in South-West State is for Sheikh Robow to be seen as being victimized and wrongly punished by the Federal Government. Following the failure of talks to secure his release further military success by the Caaro Caaro will only serve to strengthen his support base and so the importance of avoiding allegations of mistreatment increasingly important. However, by carefully considering these dynamics and the complex environment of clan politics and the al-Shabaab insurgency in Bakool region the Federal Government can avoid turning its dispute with Sheikh Robow into a larger and more destabilizing conflict.
War is An Expensive Business
The economics of war are also an important factor to consider. Funding a militia in Somalia can be expensive with leaders and supporters needing to provide funds for salaries, weapons, ammunition, equipment, vehicles, food, and other related expenses. A well-known practice has been for checkpoints to be used as opportunities to extort travelers, businessmen and others including humanitarian organizations in order to raise funds. While the Caaro Caaro is not likely to have a problem in securing the funding needed for its campaign against al-Shabaab its ability to do so in conflict with the SNA and AMSISOM is questionable. Attempts to raise funds through ‘taxation’ of communities, businesses and travelers would strain relations with clans and the various sub-clan groupings living both inside and outside of the Bakool region. This, in turn, would have an impact on the popularity of Sheikh Robow and the level of political, financial and military support he would receive from them. In the absence of an overt effort to establish its own governance, impose taxes and significantly expand its military capabilities the potential threat posed by Sheikh Robow and his militia should not be overstated.
An Unclear Path Forward
Although it achieved a victory over al-Shabaab in Abaal village it remains to be seen whether the Caaro Caaro are able to maintain control over this location in the event of an al-Shabaab counter-attack or sustained blockade. However, should the militia be able to hold onto the town it cannot be assumed it currently has the strength, or even interest at this time, in attempting to seize more towns and other strategic locations from insurgent control? This is because while expansion within territory dominated by members of the Leysan sub-clan would be a complicated exercise – as the factors briefly discussed above demonstrate – an attempt to move into the territory claimed by another clan may provoke hostility or even violent resistance. A failure to effectively build working relationships and secure the cooperation of non-Leysan communities would not only drive them into the waiting arms of al-Shabaab but also risk undermining the influence and authority of Sheikh Robow among other political and clan actors in South-West State.
An expanded conflict could not only threaten to stretch the resources of the Caaro Caaro past its breaking point but other non-military related goals. These include seeking justice for the historic suffering of Rahanweyn communities at the hands of other clans, notably the Marehan and Hawiye, as well as the integration of their militia into the Somali National Army and/or forces of South-West State; the latter requiring a comprehensive program of rehabilitation, counter-radicalization, and capacity building. These goals require the Caaro Caaro to have the goodwill of the Federal Government which would be difficult to obtain/keep if this force was involved in inter-clan fighting unrelated to the fight against al-Shabaab.
Although the continued detention of Sheikh Robow may be seen by his supporters as a betrayal there still is no sign that they or the Caaro Caaro want to ‘take-back’ his defection and see the militia become an independent ‘third-force’ hostile to both al-Shabaab and the Federal Government.
It is necessary to acknowledge that neither the Federal Government nor the South-West State administration has the ability to establish governance over the village of Abal at this time. This would be the case even if these administrations had a good working relationship with Sheikh Robow and the Caaro Caaro. The ability of AMISOM to take any advantage from this development is likewise extremely limited. Rather than being a game-changing event, the re-taking of Abal by forces loyal to Sheikh Robow has allowed an examination (albeit limited) of the complex role he and his supporters occupy within Somali politics today.
Mr. Phillip van Gaalen-Prentice, Secretary of the East Africa Security and Policy Forum
Ahmed A Tohow, the Director of the East Africa Security and Policy Forum