On 23 June after a brief firefight, the strategic village of El-Salin in the Merca District of Lower Shabelle region was liberated by a combined force of Danab special forces (Somali National Army / SNA) and African Union (AMISOM) troops. Backed by armored vehicles this force re-took the village after a brief firefight with al-Shabaab fighters. At the same time reports were also received that regular unit of the Somali National Army had also reportedly advanced on Dhanane (Dhanaane) and other villages located along the coast between Mogadishu and the port city of Merca (Marka). Following the liberation in the neighbouring Afgoyee District of the settlements of Baiire in May and then the strategically important settlements of Sabiid and Anole (Caanoole) in April, it is not surprising that Somali government and military officials have claimed this recent offensive has dealt a major blow to al-Shabaab. However, while efforts to secure these other locations have met with some success, gains made in the northern parts of Merca District are likely to remain fragile and vulnerable to reversal. This paper will identify the primary reason for the success of the recent offensive as well as some of the challenges, both military and civil, which will impact on the ability of Somali government authorities, the SNA and AMISOM to restore peace, security, and governance to recently liberated communities.
TYPICAL AL-SHABAAB DEFENSIVE BATTLE
While the ability of AMISOM and the SNA to concentrate a force superior in size and firepower played a critical role in the success of the operation to take El-Salin and other locations in Merca District it must be acknowledged that al-Shabaab did not make a serious attempt to defend them. Instead, as has occurred on other occasions such as at Bariire, Sabiid and Anole the groups fighters engaged advancing forces in a brief fire-fight before retreating in good order. This is due to the fact that al- Shabaab defensive tactics were likely determined by a number of key factors including:
- The small size and lightly equipped nature of al-Shabaab forces operating in front-line areas. It is often not necessary for the group to deploy large numbers of fighters even to larger settlements where the population is hostile because of the fear people live in from informers and agents of the groups intelligence service (Amniyat);
- A reluctance to commit heavy
-weapons and the more elite troops that operate them to man static front-line positions or engage in defensive battles where they are likely to be lost without inflicting heavy damage on the enemy; - The difficulty of attempting to send reinforcements to a location either before or during an attack due to the threat posed by fighter aircraft and unmanned drones;
- An inability to construct and man defensive positions that can withstand the firepower of an attacking force accompanied by armour and/or mine-resistant armoured vehicles as well as provide protection (for fighters, weapons, and vehicles) from airstrikes;
- A desire to avoid civilian deaths and/or the destruction of property during a drawn-out battle. This could be motivated by either a desire to maintain good relations or else avoid a worsening of the relationship between the group and local clans or a particular sub-clan.
While al-Shabaab has demonstrated a willingness to accept heavy losses during offensive military operations it has (e.g. attempting to storm military bases) the group has nevertheless displayed a reluctance to do so in defense of even strategically important locations. An example of this was the failure by the group in 2012 to organize a defense of the port city of Kismayo and other major towns then under its control.
It must be noted that while some of the above factors also apply when al-Shabaab launches its own offensive military operations (e.g. attempting to storm military bases) its ability to take counter- measures and other steps to mitigate them significantly increases the prospect of success on the battlefield; and thereby also making the prospect of defeat more of a calculated gamble than would have been the case in El-Salin.
THE BATTLE THAT FOLLOWS THE BATTLE: A TALE OF IEDS, AMBUSH, AND SIEGE
For al-Shabaab though, the loss of El-Salin represents only the first phase of the battle for the village. As the SNA and AMISOM concentrate on securing the settlement and its immediate environs the groups fighters will look to conduct hit-and-run attacks and employ improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to restrict their movement and force them onto the defensive. These tactics have been frequently used by the group to target these forces along the Merca-Afgoyee-Mogadishu corridor and have also been recently seen in use at Sabiid and Anole. It is notable that Dhanane was also reportedly a target alongside El-Salin during the offensive as the recent history of the battle for control of this village offers an interesting example of the effectiveness of these tactics.
The village of Dhanane was liberated in late August 2018 by a combined force of SNA and AMISOM troops when al-Shabaab fighters retreated without offering any resistance. It was in the vicinity of the village that on 06 December 2018 two senior SNA officers - General Omar Aden Hassan “Dheere” (aka General Omar Aden Dhabad “Omar Dhere”), commander of the 12-April Division and his deputy General Abdi Ali Jamame – were killed when their convoy was targeted by IED. Just two months later on 05 February 2018, Colonel Abdisalam Sheikh Aden, deputy commander of the 12th April Division, and Colonel Abdirahman Jimale Muse, the officer in charge of finances for the 1st SNA battalion, were also killed near the village when an IED targeted their convoy. Earlier this year in March the town was captured by al-Shabaab after been abandoned by SNA forces who had been forced to endure constant danger while having gone months without pay.
The previous experience of the SNA when it last occupied the village of Dhanane also demonstrates the difficulty that Somali and AMISOM forces will face when attempting to prevent its re-capture by al-Shabaab. The need to secure the local area and maintain a base either in or near to the village of El-Salin, as well as Dhanane and others, will risk slowing down the momentum of offensive operations against insurgent forces. Unless forces stationed in garrison or occupying front-line positions are able to carry-out aggressive combat patrols to secure the immediate surrounding area and keep local al- Shabaab forces off-balance, if not force them from the area, then they will quickly become vulnerable to raids, ambushes, and attack from IEDs. Such an outcome not only ties down these forces but forces the diversion of other troops to support them in everything from providing escorts for supply convoys to serving as reinforcements.
In order to maintain the momentum of offensive operations forces occupying El-Salin, Dhanane and other villages will need to either be reinforced by regular SNA/AMISOM troops, forces belonging to the South-West State government or rely on local clan militias to secure the settlements and their environs. While the first would place further strain on the already overstretched resources of the SNA and AMISOM the other two options present their own challenges in terms of capability, reliability and suitability; this last category refers to their interest (real or perceived) and participation in disputes which have fuelled clan rivalry and conflict in Lower Shabelle.
THE QUAGMIRE OF CLAN POLITICS AND CONFLICT IN MERCA DISTRICT.
As already mentioned, the villages of El-Salin, Dhanane and others targeted as part of the offensive against al-Shabaab are located in the Merca District of Lower Shabelle region. This part of Somalia is inhabited by a mix of Dir (Biyomaal/ Biyamal) Rahanweyn (various Digil sub-clans), Benadiri (aka 12 Koofi) Bantu (aka Jareer) and Hawiye (Abgal, Habir Gedir, Murursade and Wacdaan sub-clans) the
communities of which have engaged in frequent violent conflict over land, water and other resources. A factor that has served to aggravate this conflict was the migration in 1993 Hawiye sub-clans to the district. While members of the Wacdaan sub-clan were already living in the district and seen by other clan actors as being asal (original inhabitants) these other Hawiye sub-clans have been regarded as farac (new settlers). The subsequent rise to dominance of these newcomers has fuelled resentment as has the violence (including allegations of atrocities) that accompanied it.
Although clan-based violence has occurred across Merca District there is a particular urgency to consider its importance in the area of El-Salin, Dhanane and the other villages targeted during the recent offensive. This is an area where the boundaries between the territory controlled by Hawiye, Rahanweyn and Dir clans and their sub-clans meet and like other parts of the district saw frequent clashes before this was forcibly put to an end by al-Shabaab. In particular, there is a critical need to understand the current state of relations of the Biyomaal not only with the Habir Gedir and Abgal sub- clans of Hawiye but also how al-Shabaab has successfully exploited the conflict between them to build its support-base in the local area.
THE BIYOMAAL: POTENTIAL ALLIES WITH EXISTING ENEMIES
At the time of writing relations between the Biyomaal and al-Shabaab can be described as a ‘hostile peace’ or ‘cold war’. This was not always the case. The clan was allied to the group up until its seizure in February 2016 of the port city of Merca due to the support and protection it provided against rival Hawiye clan militias with which it had been fighting since 1993. However, a dispute over control of the town and the lucrative revenue to be earned from its port, third largest in southern Somalia, put an immediate strain on this relationship. Fears al-Shabaab was also seeking to improve its own relations with local Hawiye clans only served to increase tensions to the point that the Biyomaal switched sides and began providing support to AMISOM and the SNA. By October 2016, al-Shabaab had begun attacking Biyomaal villages in a campaign that peaked in May 2017 with aid agencies and humanitarian organizations reporting whole villages destroyed, thousands of head of livestock stolen and the displacement of more than 15,000 persons. The Biyomaal were then forced to accept a truce with al- Shabaab and prohibited from fighting with other clans. According to the Hiraal Institute, the clan as of May 2018 the clan had more 1,000 camels and approximately 3,000 goats confiscated over a two-year period as punishment for violations of this agreement.
Due to the hostile state of relations between the Biyomaal and al-Shabaab as well as the clans a past history of cooperation with AMISOM and (to a lesser extent) the SNA it is understandable that it will be viewed as a potentially valuable ally. The clan, which has a strong presence around KM50, could provide fighters to help secure the area around El-Salin and other locations where its members live which would serve to free-up SNA and AMISOM forces from having to garrison them.
However, as previously noted the Biyomaal have not only been in conflict with al-Shabaab but also with other local Hawiye sub-clans. If then Biyomaal clan militia forces are to be employed, or at least seen to be supported by, AMISOM and/or the SNA there is the risk that al-Shabaab will exploit this to maintain a support-base among local Hawiye communities. A similar risk applies in regards to the clan membership of SNA and any South-West State Government forces that are assigned to conduct operations in and around El-Salin, Dhanane and other villages targeted in the recent offensive.
If the gains made in the northern area of Merca District are to be sustained and built-on by AMISOM and the SNA then there a number of steps that must be taken. These include:
1. The Federal Government of Somalia, led by the Office of the Prime Minister, developing and implementing a strategy for political engagement with and reconciliation between the Biyomaal and Hawiye sub-clans in recently liberated areas of Lower Shabelle region.
2. The United States should immediately take action to expand on its recently announced decision to partially resume providing assistance to non-mentored SNA units. As announced on 02 July by the US Mission to Somalia only one (1) unit currently involved in what is described as “critical transition operations in Lower Shabelle” will receive assistance.
3. Foreign donors supplying the SNA with additional mine-resistant vehicles to transport troops, equipment, and supplies along roads which al-Shabaab has routinely targeted convoys with improvised explosive devices;
4. If it has not been already done, have a review into the clan composition of SNA units deployed as well as the past history of senior officers for any ties or connections to clan conflict in the northern areas of Merca District targeted as part of the current military offensive against al- Shabaab;
5. As has taken place in Sabiid and Anole and Bariire the Federal Government in partnership with foreign donors and non-government organizations needs to move quickly to restore services, improve quality of life (provide rations, install solar lighting, etc.) and create employment opportunities (incl. cash for work programs) for inhabitants of newly liberated settlements;
Mr. Phillip van Gaalen-Prentice, the East Africa Security and Policy Forum
Mr. Ahmed A Tohow, the East Africa Security and Policy Forum