The experiences in Somalia serve as an excellent case in point that limited (albeit inadequate) commitment to war inexplicably escalates violence thereby increasing the cost of war (which led to America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan). The increasing cost of war in turn exerts greater strain on the limited economic resources of a nation, consequently eroding the popular support for such a war besides crippling the political capital of the ruling regime. This is the fate that awaits Kenya which will have to withdraw from Somalia, even forcing GoK to admit that it has been defeated by al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda in the long war that is Islamist attrition (in Somalia).

Democracies are specially vulnerable to (multiple) small asymmetric wars as the high expectation of a quick and sure victory over a weak enemy is contradicted in actual reality by economic expediency and inelastic ethical tolerance for the prolongation of an escalating conflict (that continuously inflicts disproportionate casualties). This drains popular support for the war and consequently compels the government to withdraw prematurely from the conflict. In other words, small asymmetric wars are lost by Democracies at Home and rarely in the Battlefield. In Kenya, the war against al-Shabaab has proved the inherent difficulty in achieving maintainable domestic consensus for a protracted intertwined counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism campaign in a foreign nation (Somalia).

Peacekeeping attempts in Somalia have repeatedly failed due to a combination of factors, chief among them being; poor counter-terrorism strategy manpower shortages, unsatisfactory arms control measures (which have been unable to stem al-Shabaab’s arms imports), inadequate commitment to stabilize combat zones, absence of widespread support from the Somali population, and, policy failures which have allowed the Sunni jihadists to prolong and escalate their insurgent campaign.

The bitterest lesson learnt from the present multinational counter-insurgency campaign against al-Shabaab in Somalia is that an internally fragile organization can conduct a disorganized terror campaign that significantly raises the cost of war as the insurgent organization transforms into a potent adversary – thus the absolute necessity of preventing the escalation of the war during its nascent phases (if possible).

Al-Shabaab jihadis blow up a patrol vehicle in August 2018 in the Omollo area of Lamu county, Kenya. CREDIT: Twitter.
The aftermath of an al-Shabaab ambush on an Ethiopian (ENDF) convoy. The exact date of this ambush is unknown. CREDIT: AKFMP.
Jubilant Somalis praise al-Shabaab for overrunning the AMISOM forward operating base (FOB) in Janaale on September 1, 2015. This FOB was garrisoned by Ugandan soldiers. CREDIT: AKFMP

An Earlier Failed Jihadist Campaign

During the late 19th Century, the Great Powers of Europe annexed and partitioned the lands inhabited by Somalis into protectorates, with Italian Somaliland separating the British protectorates of Jubbaland and Somaliland. In 1899, Muhamed Abdullah Hassan (alias Sayyid) waged a jihadist war against the British rulers – who were non-Muslims – with the resolve of regaining autonomy and control of all the Somali protectorates. Sayyid was a dervish whom the British considered a dervish bandit (hence his description as the Mad Mullah), and his jihadist fighters considered themselves as darawiish or dervishes (unlike the present al-Shabaab which is monolithically Salafist-takfiri in ideological orientation).

An estimated 10, 000 dervish insurgents faced off against a combined force of 2,500 British soldiers (during the start of the insurgency) who controlled all the lucrative ports of Somaliland, and imposed heavy taxes and punitive levies on the local population. Nonetheless, despite their numerical inferiority, the British were able to dominate the two-decade-long war through a combination of superior battlefield tactics, advanced military technologies, and the external restriction imposed on the movement of the dervishes across the region (which was actually imposed by ancillary operations and occasional patrols conducted by the Italian and Ethiopian troops within their respective protectorates). Nevertheless, the strategies and tactics adopted and used by the insurgents ensured the survival of their insurgency till their armies were completely destroyed in 1920.

Somaliland and Somalia

The Flag of the Self-declared Republic of Somaliland. CREDIT: Wikipedia.

Having learned from its past; Modern Somaliland is presently the most stable region of Somalia, and since the collapse of the Central Somali Government (based in Mogadishu) in 1991, the region has gained considerable political autonomy with a comparatively stable government and a relatively prospering economy. Despite a series of electoral crises stalemating its infant constitutional democracy, and its occasional border disputes and strained relationships with the adjacent regions of Puntland and Federally-administered Somalia; Somaliland still has the best human rights record in Somalia. It has also set up several functional democratic institutions and the government still provides various essential basic services including administration and infrastructure – even though its autonomy has never gained international recognition.

However, other non-Somaliland Somalis consider the self-declared State as a treacherous entity created by Mohamed Egaal, and its creation has led to the immense suffering of Somalis in Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia.

Mohamed Egaal was a Somaliland nationalist who served as the President of Somalia when Somalia signed the renunciation of NFD (Northern Frontier District of Kenya) with Kenyatta’s regime thereby ending state support for the Shifta insurgency in Kenya. Egaal was disinterested in the Greater Somalia aspirations, and he serves as an excellent example of a clannish leader who sacrificed nationalistic goals for narrow clan-based aspirations. The creation of Somaliland cemented the weakness of Somali nationalism.

Federally-administered (Southern) Somalia currently epitomizes every aspect of a failed state with a dismally unstable government unable to manage incessant civil disturbances and transnational terrorist activities. Repeated violence in the region has drawn in several peacekeeping missions including the UN and AU to suppress the unrest, with foreign mediators – from the Arab League, USA, EU, and several NGOs – invited to intervene in the conflict to no decisive avail.

At the core of the conflicts is a complex set of ethnic rivalries, class dynamics, clan politics, pervasive Islamism, and political enmities stemming from disparate resource possession among the competing diverse socio-political groups. This has caused chronic rampant insecurity. It is this rampant insecurity that has forced Civilians to take up arms for self-defense. Usually, this self-defense is organized at the sub-clan level.

For a decade (1995-2005), Somalia experienced the devolution of the civil war from inter-clan conflicts to intra-clan conflicts with increasing localization of (albeit shorter but still lethal) armed conflicts. The author hypothesizes that this state of affairs was caused by the consolidation of influence and loyalties by influential and wealthy clan personalities within their clans, as opposed to powerful clans endeavoring to consolidate their dominance over other clans.

Emergence of Violent Salafists

From 2006 to 2009, the then internationally recognized Transitional Federal Government (TFG), alongside her AMISOM and Ethiopian allies, found themselves embroiled in an intense and remarkably violent armed conflict with militant jihadists – initially fighting as a confederacy of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) prior to its dissolution, and the emergence of the intractable and exceedingly lethal Salafist-takfiri militant organization, Al-Shabaab, under the leadership of Ahmed Abdi Godane. In 2009, the Ethiopian forces withdrew from Somalia thus creating a strategic security vacuum that was promptly exploited by Al-Shabaab as it began to systematically retake swathes of Somali territories.

Al-Shabaab fighters inspecting a captured armored personnel carrier in el-Adde in January 2016
Al-Shabaab fighters inspecting a captured Type-92 WZ551 mechanized infantry combat vehicle (MICV). This MICV was taken in January 2016 when al-Shabaab defeated the Kenyan army at the Battle of el-Adde. CREDIT: AKFMP.
President Uhuru Kenyatta admits that al-Shabaab had attacked the Kenyan combat base in el-Adde, despite denials from the Kenyan Ministry of Defence. CREDIT: Samira Sawlani via Twitter.
Al-Shabaab fighters in el-Adde geopolitics-press
Al-Shabaab fighters in el-Adde FOB on January 15, 2016. CREDIT: AKFMP.


Al-Shabaab had consolidated its finances – sourced mainly from taxations and voluntary donations – prior to incorporating military advisers (both foreign and local) within its ranks; and training for both conventional and asymmetrical warfare as its logistics department secured large consignments of weapons from al-Qaeda and foreign state supporters such as Eritrea.

From its cradle in Southern Somalia, al-Shabaab has been able to rapidly expand the scope and scale of its terror activities across the region through the creation of affiliates (such as Al-Hijra in Kenya and al-Muhajiroun [for the entire East African region]), and dedicated specialized units for external operations (such as Amniyaat [its intelligence arm] and Al-Quds [tasked with targeting Western interests in East Africa, and Kenya in particular]) while independently building alliances with regional jihadist organizations so as to extend and expand its international terrorist networks to Central Africa, Nigeria, Europe, Americas and Oceania (in particular, Australia).

War Flag of Al-Shabaab. CREDIT: Wikipedia entry on HSM.

Starting in 2009, Al-Shabaab initiated a vigorous recruitment campaign using both traditional and modern means (including the internet and social media) to rally clan militiamen and foreign jihadists under their banner; as they adopted modern asymmetric battlefield tactics in order to sustain their insurgency (especially after they suffered a continuous string of setbacks in 2011 till 2014).

Presently, the intertwinement of the interests and activities of the Somali warlords, domestic insurgents, obstructive external meddlers, and transnational terrorists have greatly hampered the planning and execution of effective counterinsurgency campaigns besides obstructing conclusive resolution of the Somali conflict.

Counter-Terrorism and Counter-Insurgency – Learning from the Past

Somalia has been in a protracted state of conflict for over two decades and this fact exponentially obstructs foreign governments and compassionate external actors from stabilizing the nation besides eliminating international terrorism from the region. Grievously, the insurgents have currently amalgamated their assets as well as gained considerable national political clout.

The general terrain of Somalia favors guerrilla warfare – a physical element that has enabled al-Shabaab to survive obliteration during its weakest moments. Through the use of a combination of hit-and-run tactics alongside the provision of false intelligence to the counter-terrorism forces, al-Shabaab has been able to draw counter-insurgents into ideal terrains for ambushes – where they have been able to inflict massive casualties on both the multinational and SNA (Somali National Army) forces. These guerilla tactics closely echo the hit-and-run operations and the surprise lightning raids that were often employed by the Somaliland dervishes to drain the British military of its resources besides circumventing open terrain combat.

Illustration of Sayyid “Mad Mullah” by da Rondini. CREDIT: Wikipedia.

Furthermore, during the campaign against the Somaliland dervishes, the Somalis within the British units were undependable, easily intimidated (by the dervishes); and worst, a significant number of them were double agents who fed the dervishes with intelligence about impeding operations. This fact significantly eroded the combat effectiveness of the British operations. The aforementioned facts closely mirror the modern SNA which is predominantly made up of undependable, easily intimidated (by al-Shabaab) troops; and worst, it is embedded with a significant number of double agents who feed al-Shabaab with intelligence concerning impeding counter-terrorism operations, hence significantly eroding the combat effectiveness of counter-insurgency operations. This disadvantage is compounded by the fact that some SNA soldiers often pledge loyalties to their respective clans. This makes them more loyal to the clan rather than the nation thus diminishing unit cohesion, as well as compromising combat effectiveness. Compared to AMISOM, the SNA is more disorganized with its operations suffering glaring dis-coordination while its disordered combat units engage in corruption and venalities.

Just as the British were unable to enforce arms embargoes thereby failing to stem the flow of weapons to the dervishes, ATMIS (formerly AMIOSM), FGS (also called Somalia National Government [SNG]), and Allied Forces have been unable to enforce arms embargoes thereby failing to stem the flow of weapons to al-Shabaab. This failure to clip the supply lines and communications networks of al-Shabaab has helped the jihadists to preserve their forces as well as endure a decade-long guerrilla war phase.

AMISOM complains about the infiltration of Somalia’s Intelligence Agency by al-Shabaab. CREDIT: AMISOM.
AMISOM names high-ranking Somali intelligence officers who work with al-Shabaab to wage war against AMISOM and partner troops.
A report by the United Nations reveals that the weapons used by al-Shabaab during the Manda Bay attack were acquired from Somali National Army. CREDIT: UNSC.

AMISOM itself also suffers several setbacks including inadequate weaponry, manpower shortages, political instability in troop-contributing nations, and, ineffective military tactics unsuitable for combating insurgents versed in the art of guerilla warfare. Its combat ineffectiveness can also be attributed to resource limitations, poor organization, and inadequate coordination during kinetic operations.

During the campaign against the Somaliland dervishes, the Somalis within the British units were undependable, easily intimidated (by the dervishes); and worst, a significant number of them were double agents who fed the dervishes with intelligence about impeding operations. This fact significantly eroded the combat effectiveness of the British operations.

Self-inflicted Harms

Lack of effective enforcement of arms sanctions has ensured that the jihadis will never be disarmed in the near future; and the fact that the international community has intentionally created legal loopholes (by allowing East African nations to directly import weapons into Somalia) which allows the jihadist insurgents to import munitions from foreign sympathizers, has guaranteed that its arms embargo will always be infringed.

Likewise, al-Shabaab is still using weaponry abandoned by Ethiopian forces during their 2009 withdrawal – including Soviet tanks, Russian-made APCs (Armoured Personnel Carriers), and an assortment of aviation resources (though all the helicopters it got its hand on were beyond written-off). In the last half-decade, al-Shabaab has been able to acquire anti-material munitions along with infrared-guided anti-tank missiles and shoulder-fired SA-6 and SA-7As (medium-altitude) surface-to-air missiles thereby enabling their mechanized combat units to deter and counter armored ground and poorly executed aerial offensives.

Internal Strife

The dervishes were drawn from disparate clans, and internal divisions soon manifested themselves, thus prompting Sayyid to forcibly infuse discipline and organization besides forming a centralized military system accountable to hierarchical leadership. This enabled Sayyid to rebuild internal cohesion as well as boost the morale of his fighters, thus prolonging and escalating the conflict.

Al-Shabaab has executed multiple internal purges aimed at stifling dissent, infusing discipline, and, reordering and re-organizing the Salafi-jihadi organization into a cohesive centralized military unit assured of a functional hierarchical (command) structure and leadership. This is tailored to aid the organization to restore the morale of its fighters, as well as prolong (and also escalate and expand) its terror campaign in the region.

Violent Ghosts and Inveterate al-Shabaab

Sayyid’s attempt to reorder the Somali political order as well as his religious fanaticism, misrule, despotism, bloody carnages against rivals tribes, and, indiscriminate plundering of rival clans helped foment a backlash against him with Sheikh Mahamed Salah (of the Salahiya order) openly challenging him during the Tree of Bad Counsel crisis of 1909. This created an internal crisis within the dervishes’ ranks, with fighters loyal to Sayyid defeating the rebellious troops. The dervishes emerged from the conflict as a unified and fortified organization able to rearm with modern weapons and consequently overwhelm its adversaries and dominate the Somali hinterland.

This echoes the aftermath of al-Shabaab’s internal purge when the Salafist-Takfiri organization emerged from the crisis as a unified and fortified organization able to re-arm with advanced weaponry, and adopt new combat tactics and strategies, which would, later on, enable it to launch a series of offensives starting in mid-2015 that allowed it to overwhelm segments of both AMISOM (and later ATMIS) and SNA, and thereby dominate the Somali agrarian hinterland – from where they have been able to expand the scope and depth of their terrorist campaigns in both Kenya and Somalia. This war continues to date and al-Shabaab remains, by all intents and purposes, undefeatable in the near future.

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