UGANDA REORGANIZES MILITARY TO PRESS WAR AGAINST SOMALIA’S AL-SHABAAB
Even as Somalia’s fragile Transitional Federal Government (TFG) threatens to collapse, Uganda is shaking up its military structure in order to sustain what it sees as some hard-won momentum in its struggle with al-Shabaab militants in Mogadishu. Uganda is the driving force behind the African Union’s “peace-enforcement” effort in Somalia – the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). The AU’s military presence in Somalia began with a lone contingent from the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) in 2007. Despite pledges of assistance from several African nations, Uganda continues to supply roughly two-thirds of the 9,000 strong AMISOM force, the remainder consisting of a contingent of Burundian troops. Ugandan officers tend to dominate AMISOM’s highest posts.
In the wake of a devastating attack by al-Shabaab that killed Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Sibihwa and 12 other Ugandan soldiers in Mogadishu on June 3, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni made a secret visit to the Somali capital to assess the situation and raise the morale of Ugandan troops (Observer [Kampala], June 16). Sibihwa was the first high-ranking AMISOM officer to be killed in the fighting and was a 27 year veteran of the UPDF (New Vision, June 12). The death in the Ugandan military hospital from incompetent medical care of seven soldiers injured in the attack has led to an inquiry concerning the possibility some military doctors are working with forged academic qualifications to take advantage of the generous compensation and captain’s rank offered to medical school graduates to serve in the UPDF (Observer [Kampala], July 3).
While Museveni, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, made sweeping changes in the officer corps, there were important changes in the leadership of the Ugandan AMISOM contingent. Three majors working in Mogadishu, Chris Ogumiraki, Joab Ndahura (1st battalion commander) and Paddy Ankunda, were promoted to acting lieutenant colonels (Observer [Kampala], June 29). Ankunda is the public face of AMISOM, acting as its communications director and spokesman.
In the most important move, Major General Nathan Mugisha was replaced as AMISOM chief by Ugandan chief of artillery and air defense Brigadier Fred Mugisha (no known relation). The appointment takes effect in September, when AMISOM is expected to make its final push to seize Mogadishu’s Bakara Market, an al-Shabaab stronghold. Brigadier Mugisha has been promoted to Major General while Nathan Mugisha will remain in Mogadishu as the deputy Ugandan ambassador. The new AMISOM chief has taken courses in intelligence and counterterrorism in the former Soviet Union (1987-1989) and the United States (Daily Monitor, June 15). The change in overall command follows an earlier change of the commander of the Ugandan contingent of AMISOM. Colonel Michael Ondoga was promoted to Brigadier and sent for studies in the United States and replaced by Colonel Paul Lokech (New Vision [Kampala], June 15). Service in AMISOM is seen as a prestigious posting and an important factor in promotion for Ugandan and Burundian officers (Daily Nation [Nairobi], June 20).
AMISOM will also be supplied with four drone aircraft as part of $45 million worth of military aid going to Uganda and Burundi. The package includes communications equipment, body armor, night vision equipment, generators, surveillance systems and heavy construction equipment. Training will also be made available (AP, June 26).
The unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) supplied to AMISOM are small, hand-launched aircraft designed for day or night aerial surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance. With a wing-span of 4.5 feet and a weight of just over four pounds, the AeroVironment RQ-11 Raven has a flight time of 60 to 90 minutes in an operational radius of 6.2 miles. The drones should provide enhanced intelligence collection in Mogadishu’s urban warfare environment.
The U.S. announcement came six weeks after U.S. Africa Command chief General Carter Ham held talks in Uganda with President Museveni regarding the situation in Somalia. According to an official at the U.S. mission in Kampala, the United States has “and will continue to provide equipment, training and some logistical support to Ugandan and Burundian soldiers” (Daily Monitor [Kampala], July 4). In March, Uganda and Burundi pledged to supply another 4,000 troops to the AU mission in Somalia (SunaTimes, July 2; Raxanreeb Radio, July 2).
The increased U.S. support for AMISOM coincides with a new campaign of strikes on al-Qaeda suspects in Somalia by American Predator UAVs. While TFG officials do not appear to be informed prior to U.S. drone attacks, Defense Minister Abdulhakim Haji Faqi has encouraged further strikes: “We welcome it … We urge the U.S. to continue its strikes against al-Shabaab, because if it keeps those strikes up, it will be easier for us to defeat al-Shabaab” (al-Arabiya, July 4).
According to the commander of the Ugandan contingent of AMISOM, Colonel Paul Lokech, the Ugandan military has had to develop new skills in fighting a modern urban counterinsurgency in terrain very unlike that of Uganda:
"We are involved in urban-warfare, which is majorly counter-terrorism in an urban terrain. Therefore, the tactics and the way you maneuver here is slightly different from the way you maneuver in an open savannah land. In the savannah, you can move faster. In a built up area like Mogadishu, you must restrict the pace of your movement. Therefore, you have to move very slowly. You must move consciously to minimize casualties" (Daily Monitor [Kampala], June 25).
Al-Shabaab has reinforced its positions in Mogadishu with deep trenches, tunnels connecting buildings and barriers made from shipping containers. According to Colonel Lokech, the militants have borrowed their defensive plans from the Chechen defense of Grozny in 1999-2000 (Daily Nation [Nairobi], June 22). UPDF chief General Aronda Nyakairima recently noted: “In Mogadishu even taking half a street takes a lot of planning. We need more soldiers to add to what we have from Burundi and Uganda, more boats to control the ocean, more helicopters” (Daily Nation [Nairobi], June 20). AMISOM has been much criticized in Somalia for indiscriminate fire in civilian neighborhoods, but tries to win popularity through the provision of free medical care and the supply of much needed food and water to the long-suffering residents of Mogadishu.
Ugandan journalists have noted the absence of TFG troops from the frontlines, where Ugandan and Burundian troops are often involved in intense firefights with al-Shabaab militants. Ugandan officers have noted the poor organization of the TFG fighters and their tendency to favor clan above national or other loyalties (Daily Monitor, June 25).
Museveni has also been busy on the diplomatic front in Somalia, mediating the Kampala Accord, designed to break the political deadlock between Somali president Shaykh Sharif Shaykh Ahmad and Speaker of Parliament Sharif Hassan Shaykh Aden. The accord calls for the resignation of Prime Minister Muhammad Abdullahi Muhammad “Farmajo,” a move that appears to have only made things worse, with the popular prime minister refusing to resign and his supporters filling the streets in protest. The transitional government’s mandate expires on August 23. With the TFG’s existence relying mostly on Ugandan support, Yoweri Museveni is increasingly seen as the most powerful individual in determining the future of Somalia.
MALI AND MAURITANIA CONDUCT JOINT OPERATIONS AGAINST AL-QAEDA BASES
Fighting continues along the Mali-Mauritania border after al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) mounted a July 5 raid on the Mauritanian military base at Bassiknou, in the southeast corner of the country. Mauritanian security sources claim as many as 20 AQIM fighters were slain in the attack, which was repulsed after a half hour of heavy fighting. An AQIM statement claimed only two fighters were killed in the “well prepared” operation that was “carried out with top mujahideen leaders” (Agence Nouakchott d’Information, July 6). Mauritanian air and ground forces were pursuing the raiders to the Malian border. The AQIM assault appears to have been in retaliation for the destruction of an AQIA base in Mali on June 24.
Joint Malian-Mauritanian military operations in western Mali led to the discovery and destruction of the AQIM base roughly 70 km from the border with Mauritania. The camp was found in the Wagadu Forest in the Nara cercle (subdivision) of the Kouikoro region of western Mali.
Joint operations in the area involving hundreds of soldiers began on June 21 after reports emerged that suspected AQIM members were planting mines in the area around a new AQIM camp. Suspicions were confirmed on June 22, when a camel was blown up after stepping on a mine (AFP, June 24).
The AQIM camp was discovered and destroyed in a June 24 attack. Two Mauritanian soldiers were killed when their vehicle struck a mine at the entrance to the camp, but otherwise AQIM took the worst of it in the heavy fighting that followed the surprise strike. Some 15 AQIM fighters were killed and the rest fled into the bush. Locals reported seeing some fugitives heading north toward the Sahara (AFP, June 26; June 28). It was possibly some of these fighters who regrouped to help mount the attack on the Bassiknou military base.
Mauritanian military sources said the AQIM camp had housed anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons that posed a threat to national security. The origin of the weapons was unclear – there are concerns that AQIM has procured weapons from Libyan stockpiles during the ongoing rebellion in that country.
AQIM released a statement on July 4 claiming the raid had been “a crushing defeat” for the Mauritanian military, which it suggested had lost 20 soldiers and 12 army vehicles in the attack, to a loss of only two AQIM members. The statement accused Mauritania’s leaders of carrying out a “proxy war on behalf of France” and said the AQIM unit was under the command of veteran Mauritanian militant Khalid al-Shanqiti (a.k.a. Mahfouz Ould al-Walid) (AFP, July 4). Algerian AQIM commander Yahya Abou Hamam has also been reported to be active in the Wagadou Forest area with the largely Mauritanian “al-Mourabitoun Battalion” (Sahara Media [Nouakchott], June 25).
The successful operation nonetheless incurred the ire of the Mauritanian opposition on the grounds it had endangered the lives of soldiers and civilians without consulting parliament (PANA Online [Dakar], June 30). Others suggested the operation would only have a “negative impact” on counterterrorism efforts and asked why Mauritanian troops were alone in the fight and without the assistance of their counterterrorism partners, Algeria, Mali and Niger (Sahara Media, June 27). Questions have also been raised about the state of Mali’s sovereignty as Mauritanian troops carry out their third military operation in Mali (Le Republicain [Bamako], June 24).
Malian troops apparently did not take part in the actual attack on the AQIM camp, but were involved along with Mauritanian troops and aircraft in searching for AQIM elements that had escaped the raid (Sahara Media [Nouakchott], June 25). The searchers were forced to proceed with caution, fearing both mines and ambushes in the rough bush country. Mine-clearing teams went to work in the area but were unable to prevent three civilians being killed by a mine on June 28 (Le Combat [Bamako], June 27; AFP, June 28).
Malian president Amadou Toumani Touré made extensive changes in early June to the leadership of the armed forces involved in combatting al-Qaeda, removing a number of officers suspected of collaboration with local criminals assisting bandits and terrorists (Le Politicien [Bamako], June 23).
Mauritania has serious concerns over repeated AQIM raids and infiltrations carried out across the border with Mali. Last February, three vehicles from Mali containing suspected AQIM operatives were intercepted by Mauritanian security forces outside the capital of Nouakchott. It was believed the suspects intended to kill Mauritanian president Muhammad Ould Abdel Aziz with a powerful car bomb, which was detonated by a mortar shell during the fighting, leaving three terrorists dead, nine soldiers wounded and a bomb crater eight meters deep (see Terrorism Monitor Briefs, February 10). Mauritanian security forces were searching Nouakchott in late June for three armed AQIM suspects believed to have infiltrated from Mali to carry out a suicide bombing (Sahara Media, June 22).