FEATURED: Possible ways of defeating Al-Shabaab in Somalia
MOGADISHU, Somalia -In one of his assessment before the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, General Stephen Townsend, the commander of US Africa Command, termed Al-Shabaab militants "dangerous" and "destructive" in East Africa, adding that "we must fight and degrade them".
The US has been a major partner in fighting Al-Shabaab, teaming up with the African Union Mission Forces [AMISOM] and other stakeholders in training and equipping the Somali army, besides providing aerial surveillance for the combat troops.
Before official exit from Somalia on January 15, the US Africa Command had helped in launching airstrikes besides training the Danab Special Forces. All this was strategically aimed at eliminating the militants, who control large swathes of rural central and southern Somalia.
Unfortunately, the war against the militants seems far from over, with the group leveraging on proceeds obtained from exceedingly huge ransom from its targets besides local revenue collected in several towns within the Horn of Africa nation.
In fact, ex-President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, in a Twitter Space conversation organized by Garowe Online admitted that the current administration under Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo has done very little to "suffocate" the militants.
According to Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, "For the past four years, Al-Shabaab has been given an opportunity to collect taxes and extort business. In my tenure, Al-Shabaab was on the run." The group controls parts of the Port of Mogadishu.
Reports published by various intelligence sources, however, revealed that Al-Shabaab has struggled with infighting and dwindling financial fortunes, making it possible for the security forces to crush them both in Somalia and across the border.
Cash crunch, Al-Shabaab's best antidote
With the group now struggling to raise revenue for paying fighters and purchasing weapons, Al-Shabaab has now resorted to blackmailing countries for ransom in exchange for releasing prisoners.
Terrorists have long used ransom to boost their financial capability to recruit and maintain their activities, argues security analyst Mike Kinja, in his detailer piece on the Sunday Nation, where Kenya is given a special mention in crippling Al-Shabaab.
"The terrorist group has suffered an immense loss of key financiers after Kenyan multi-agency security teams crippled their jihadist activities in the country and cut off sources of funds, rendering them powerless. It is, thus, fast adopting the modus operandi of terror groups in Syria and Iraq of kidnapping for ransom," he notes.
According to Kinja, providing money or property to terrorist fuels their activity and encourages kidnapping for ransom. This trend has been successfully used by Al-Shabaab, but Kenya seems to have changed the course, refusing to "negotiate" with the militants.
The latest victim of the Al-Qaeda affiliate’s blackmail is Cuba. Two years since the kidnapping in Mandera of Cuban doctors Landy Rodriquez Hernandez and Assel Herrera Correa in Somalia, Al-Shabaab is still ‘auctioning’ them to Havana.
Last year, Silvia Romano, an Italian aid worker who was kidnapped on Kenyan soil, was rescued by the Italian foreign intelligence service in collaboration with Turkish and Somali officers. But the payout is responsible for the spate of kidnappings of foreigners, especially at the Kenyan coast and on the long Kenya-Somalia border.
In Somalia, Al-Shabaab is a parallel ‘government’ with structures and hierarchy and interests in the mainstream politics of the Horn of Africa’s most unstable nation. But though keen to sponsor a few of its rank and file into the political class, its financial status does not allow it to. With elections highly contested and (s)elective seats sold to the highest bidder, it rushes to make a quick buck to fill its coffers, he adds.
"Insurgency thrives due to lack of political goodwill after outgoing President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo failed to fulfil his campaign promise of ridding the war-torn country of Al-Shabaab. Politicians continue to sabotage its recovery from decades of civil war and political unrest," argues Kinja
The election impasse has emboldened the terrorist group, indirectly enabling it to infiltrate politics. Unfortunately, the political issues at the root of the instability hardly receive attention as the counterterrorism agenda, he says.
The current political temperature has given the terrorist group the green light to exert itself even more, so much so that it is seeking funds to sponsor its own candidates, including sympathisers, to parliament and other positions of authority.
Al-Shabaab is on a spree to demand ransom from individuals and nations alike so as to fund its political ambitions. It is only prudent for the world to ignore this archaic tactic and explore other means of rescuing their citizens without falling into Al-Shabaab’s shallow trap
With reduced ransom from victims, the cash-strapped Al-Shabaab militants would definitely struggle to operate, thus reducing recruitment that targets vulnerable youths. The group usually pays youths stipends as "gifts" thus encouraging them to join.
Defections from Al-Shabaab
But one key area that has remained unutilized is the defection strategy which helps to reduce the group's ability. Defections have for a long time used in Somalia especially by the Somali National Army [SNA] but the strategy had greatly suffered in recent weeks.
Former President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud believes the arrest of Al-Shabaab deputy leader Mukhtar Robow in 2018 has "scared" the militants from defecting. The former leader was arrested moments after he dumped the group.
According to him, the 2018 arrest has made it difficult for the Al-Shabaab senior leaders to defect, describing his detention as “kidnapping for political purposes”. Robow was arrested in December 2018, was under house arrest since June 2019.
Before his arrest, Robow had defected from the Al-Shabaab where he served as deputy leader and had announced his candidature for Southwest presidential elections. The government blocked by my arresting him through Ethiopian troops, leading to clashes that left 11 people dead.
"Mukhtar Robow was mistreated and his case was handled wrongfully which prevents key members of Al-Shabaab from surrounding. He had been kidnapped," said Hassan Sheikh, who is one of the key presidential candidates in Somalia.
The Al-Shabaab continues to control huge sections of Central and Southern Somalia thus making it impossible for the government to bring order and stability in Somalia. The militants have been targeting innocent civilians and security forces in their cowardly attacks.
With a clear policy for defection and banned ransom, Kinja notes, it will be completely impossible for the group to continue expanding territories. It's the finances that have kept Al-Shabaab going and any deliberate efforts to close the taps means an imminent collapse of the once-powerful group.