Al-Shabaab, the Somali-based al-Qaeda affiliate in East Africa, has ramped up attacks as global attention focuses on defeating the deadly coronavirus (COVID-19).
The militant group’s prolonged insurgency has left thousands of civilians in misery in the country, which has been without a stable government since 1991. The emergence of COVID-19 has raised concerns that the ongoing attacks will disrupt interventions mounted to counter the spread of the pandemic in the war-torn country.
On April 24, African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) troops thwarted an attempt by the militants to overrun an airport in Barawe in Somalia’s South West state. According to reports, the fighters from the militant group attempted to launch a large-scale attack using vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) and mortars (Nile Post, April 25).
The group’s plan was to hit the newly refurbished airport with one of the VBIEDs while another would strike a base occupied by the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF). However, the “bombs on wheels” were successfully neutralized by AMISOM troops before they could strike the targets. Al-Shabaab later took responsibility for the attack (CGTN Africa, April 25; Garowe Online, April 25).
On April 21, at least seven Somali National Army (SNA) soldiers were killed when their vehicle hit a landmine near Billigodle army base in Southern Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region. Several soldiers in the vehicle were also critically injured.
News reports indicated that this attack on Somali government soldiers was the deadliest since the launch of a military campaign to wrest control of the region from the militant group. In March, the campaign yielded the Janaale, a town in the region, which SNA soldiers captured in a fierce battle that killed several al-Shabaab fighters (Garowe Online, March 30; Hiiran Online, March 22).
A series of attacks have also been reported in Lower Jubba, Gedo, and other central parts of the country. These sustained attacks are lending credence to earlier speculations that terror groups such as al-Shabaab could take advantage of the shifting focus toward the COVID-19 pandemic to launch strikes (Daily Nation, April 25).
Somalia’s confirmed coronavirus cases are rising, with numbers surpassing 600 this week with 28 deaths. The spread has rivaled that taking place in the neighboring countries of Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti.
Comparatively, Somalia’s situation is even more dire. More than 14 years of al-Shabaab violence has destroyed the country’s health system, including hospitals, health centers, and dispensaries. The few remaining health institutions are running with support from humanitarian agencies and foreign troops operating in the country, but they have to constantly withstand threats by the militant group.
The fear that al-Shabaab will intentionally disrupt COVID-19 medical interventions are not unfounded. In 2011 and 2012, al-Shabaab resisted the delivery of relief aid during a famine that left at least 250,000 people dead.
Since its founding in 2006, al-Shabaab has often used disasters such as famines, droughts, and floods to tilt the scales in its favor. In the past, it has used food aid to boost its image among the local populations. But while teams delivered aid, elsewhere its fighters would be detonating IEDs, carrying out assassinations, or engaging in battles with security forces.
With the COVID-19 outbreak worsening, a repeat is anticipated with the militant group’s leadership showing no regard for UN Chief Antonio Guterres’ call for a global ceasefire to facilitate action against the pandemic. In mid-April, Somalia’s international partners called on al-Shabaab and other militant groups to cease acts of violence and terrorism and to enable assistance reach communities in need (Africanews, April 13).
Al-Shabaab, however, has remained defiant, dismissing COVID -19 as foreign propaganda. At the beginning of April, the militant group told Muslims to be aware of infectious diseases such as coronavirus. In the warning, al-Shabaab said the diseases are spread by the crusaders who have invaded Somalia and the disbelieving countries that support them (Garowe Online, April 25).
Emerging evidence shows that the group’s persistent attacks are already impacting the COVID-19 response. When the first cases were confirmed in Mogadishu, AMISOM troops restricted operations in the Halane base camp, while the U.S. military operated from the Balligodle camp. The forces also turned parts of the facilities into quarantine centers (Garowe Online, April 25). The troops also moved to provide essential supplies such as food and water to the population, but the attacks by the militant group have forced the armies to end the humanitarian activities. Instead, reports indicate that the troops have been forced to turn their focus to countering al-Shabaab, rather than helping fight COVID-19.
In Somalia, the speed at which humanitarian aid moves during the COVID- 19 pandemic will largely depend on the security of the aid workers. In the past, al-Shabaab has killed or abducted aid workers for ransom or ambushed relief aid convoys and stolen humanitarian aid.
Al-Shabaab will likely continue to exploit the outbreak by stepping up its operations, forcing international and regional security services to focus on reducing the threat of al-Shabaab so that anti-COVID-19 guidelines can work and the medical humanitarian aid can reach the ground.