The Somali militant group al-Shabaab gave up its stronghold in the southern port town of Kismayo on September 29 following a Kenyan offensive from the land, air and sea (Radio Mogadishu, September 29; Bar-Kulan Radio [Nairobi], September 29). Kismayo, which is about 328 miles (528 km) southwest of Mogadishu, the country’s capital, was the main target of Kenya’s “Operation Linda Nchi” (Defend the Country), launched a year ago by Kenyan military forces (see Terrorism Monitor, October 28, 2011).
The strategic southern port was the last remaining stronghold of the Shabaab militants who have suffered many setbacks since they withdrew from Mogadishu a year ago. Controlled by the militants since 2009, Kismayo was al-Shabaab’s greatest revenue source, provided largely through taxation of the port and customs duties. Kismayo and the other Shabaab-held southern seaport of Marka were believed to have generated $35 to 50 million annually from taxation. Both ports are now under the control of Somali government forces and troops of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).
The fall of Kismayo is a clear signal of the weakness of the militants but not a sign of total ruin. When the militants withdrew from Mogadishu a year ago government officials hurried to celebrate the end of the militants’ presence in the city. What al-Shabaab spokesman Shaykh Ali Mohamud Raage termed the “first phase of the new war” materialized as the militants carried out a series of suicide attacks and assassinations in the heart of Mogadishu (Allpuntland.com, August 6, 2011; Shabelle.net, August 6). It may be that the toughest fight is yet to come for the allied forces in Kismayo.
The militants are now financially and militarily weaker thanks to their internal strife, but the movement can still conduct an effective guerrilla-style war, using tactics that are more amenable to its strengths. Their withdrawal is a strategy by which the movement will benefit from using what it knows best – the type of guerrilla warfare that made the two-year presence of Ethiopian troops in the country a nightmare and left it more unstable than before the Ethiopian intervention.
Al-Shabaab spokesman Shaykh Ali Mohamud Raage described the movement’s withdrawal from Kismayo as a “tactical decision” but threatened to continue fighting inside the city (AFP, September 29). The movement’s Twitter account announced that Kismayo would be transformed from “a peaceful city governed by Islamic Shari’a into a battle-zone.” Three explosions rocked the city on October 2, just a day after the allied Somali and Kenyan forces assumed control. About eight people, including government soldiers, were wounded in the attacks (Bar Kulan Radio, October 2).
Shaykh Abdiaziz Abu Musab, an al-Shabaab spokesman, claimed responsibility for an attack that rocked the district headquarters building housing Somali troops. The government said a grenade was thrown at government vehicles passing in front of the building, but the Shabaab spokesman said the bomb was planted inside the building housing Somali troops, warning: “This is only an introduction to the forthcoming explosions” (Reuters, October 2). Two government soldiers were killed and five others were wounded on October 9 after their vehicle hit a remote controlled land-mine. (Shabelle Radio [Mogadishu], October 9).
Shaykh Ahmed Madobe, the leader of Ras Kamboni militia allied to the Kenyan Defense Forces (KDF) reported that al-Shabaab had left an estimated 500 fighters in Kismayo “to cause trouble” (Daily Nation [Nairobi], September 26). These fighters are secretly hiding in the city to carry out terrorist attacks against the allied forces.
Al-Shabaab assassins have killed about seven people in the city since their withdrawal, including a well-known traditional elder. Some of the victims were targeted on suspicion of having contacts with the Somali government or of showing support for the fall of Kismayo (Raxanreeb Radio, September 29).
In Somalia, the history of the war against al-Shabaab shows that seizing a city does not matter greatly. For al-Shabaab, having a city taken from them without a fight has recently become common, but securing the city from al-Shabaab operatives is another matter. In Mogadishu, the militants are still engaged in assassinations, suicide bombings and ambushing government troops and African Union peacekeepers. On only his third day in office, newly-elected president Hassan Shaykh Mohamud narrowly escaped an assassination attempt by al-Shabaab suicide bombers carried out at a hotel near the Mogadishu airport where he was meeting with Kenyan delegates.
Though the Kenyan land forces in Somalia are now integrated into AMISOM, they are unlikely to continue moving further into the country with their Somali government and AMISOM partners. Nairobi’s main goal in Somalia is to form an autonomous state of “Jubaland” as a buffer zone between Kenya and the rest of the Somali state.
This is where another problem starts. Kismayo, the country’s fourth largest city, has been a heartland of the civil war since the government collapsed in 1991. Hostile clans fought for control of the city, a regional economic hub due to the presence of its airport and seaport providing links to the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden. The city has changed hands several times between various clans and warlords, presenting a more complex picture than that of Mogadishu.
Nairobi is currently hosting a conference aimed at forming an administration for Kismayo. Some clans in Kismayo have already started complaining of being neglected by the Nairobi conference. The new Somali president has also asked Kenya to stop the conference and let the Somali government form an administration that can bring the hostile clans together (Raxanreeb Radio, September 29).
The Juba region’s clans remain divided about forming a new administration for Kismayo. Members of the newly elected Somali parliament, politicians and elders from the Juba region who met in Mogadishu on October 6 demanded that the Somali government be allowed to form an administration for Kismayo. Former deputy prime minister, Abdirahman Haji Aden Ibrahim ‘Ibbi’ (who was among those politicians in attendance) said that Somalia must have independence in its internal issues (Radio Muqdisho, October 6).
Some clans are suspicious of Kenya’s role in establishing the Juba region’s administration. Kenya is pushing Shaykh Ahmed Madobe, its ally and the leader of the Ras Kamboni militia, to lead the new Juba region administration. Other clans consider such moves to be part of an attempt to establish the dominance of the Ogaden clan (a sub-clan of the Darod) in the Somali borderlands. The Ogaden clan is found in north-eastern Kenya as well as southern Somalia and the Ogaden region of Ethiopia. Kenya’s defense minister, Muhammad Yusuf Haji, and Farah Maalim, the deputy speaker of Kenya’s National Assembly, both Ogaden clan members, are believed to be advocating for the “Ogadenization” of the Juba region, though Shaykh Ahmed Madobe describes such assertions as “propaganda churned out by the Somali rumor-mills and idlers in Nairobi” (Daily Nation, September 26).
Muhyadin Ahmed Roble is a Nairobi-based analyst for the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor publication.
1. Report of the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, July 18, 2011, https://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/2011/433.