Sustaining Gains In Somalia’s Offensive Against Al-Shabaab

What’s new? The Somali government has gained ground in its war with the Islamist insurgency Al-Shabaab, mainly in central Somalia. Most of the progress is due to Mogadishu’s leveraging of local discontent with Al-Shabaab to form alliances with clan militias.

Why does it matter? The joint campaign has dislodged militants from a swathe of territory in the centre of the country, reestablishing the government’s presence in regions that Al-Shabaab had controlled for a decade or more. Troops are now planning to move into the insurgency’s southern bastions.

What should be done? Mogadishu must consolidate its gains in central Somalia as it goes on the offensive elsewhere. It should establish holding forces, work for communal reconciliation and, to the greatest degree possible, meet local expectations around service delivery.

Starting in August 2022, the Somali government launched a fresh offensive against Al-Shabaab, capitalising on mounting discontent with the Islamist insurgency, particularly among the politically dominant Hawiye clan. The operation has yielded the most comprehensive territorial gains since the mid-2010s, as soldiers fighting alongside clan militias dislodge Al-Shabaab militants from significant parts of central Somalia. Emboldened by clan backing and foreign support, Mogadishu now aims to send soldiers into Al-Shabaab’s southern strongholds. As it proceeds, it should bear in mind the need to consolidate its hold on places it has recaptured from the insurgency. The government should assign holding forces to provide security in recovered areas, support local reconciliation efforts and step up service delivery, while carefully managing residents’ expectations. If it does not take these measures, it may give Al-Shabaab, which has proven resilient, a chance to rebound. The government’s push marks a breakthrough in a war that has raged for more than fifteen years.

Historically, overstretched Somali and partner forces have hunkered down in urban locales, while Al-Shabaab secured a firm foothold in rural areas. International forces, in particular the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) – which was rebranded as the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) in 2022 –, have led the fight with Al-Shabaab. In contrast, the new offensive is spearheaded by the Somali military, in conjunction with local clans. A unique set of circumstances aided the government advance. Al-Shabaab overplayed its hand, antagonising clans in central Somalia. Demands that young male children join their ranks spurred local clans to take up arms alongside the Somali military. The insurgents’ taxation of communities under their control hardly helped, as the country suffers impoverishment and food insecurity amid a record drought. Furthermore, terrorist attacks in the capital and along Somalia’s borders appear to have prodded Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud to take a tougher line against the group.

The government now plans to continue the offensive in southern Somalia, even though it has not fully consolidated its hold in the centre. Southern Somalia presents a different set of challenges – for one thing, clans in the south have not shown the same discontent with the Islamist movement that prevails in the centre. But even as its plans advance to meet a new set of challenges, the government should not lose sight of needs in the centre, as otherwise these areas could slip back into Al-Shabaab’s hands. Before it launches major new attacks, it should make sure it has adequate holding forces in recovered areas. It should also conduct reconciliation efforts and improve basic services of which residents have long been deprived. For cash-strapped Mogadishu, that could prove difficult, and international donors will need to step in to provide support. Even if the government is successful in holding down central Somalia and reclaiming territory in the south, Al-Shabaab will probably survive. The group is playing the long game, exploiting government weaknesses wherever it can. The government should thus keep open the possibility of negotiations as a means of winding down the war for good, as Crisis Group has argued in the past. The government’s recent wins on the battlefield will, if sustained, strengthen its position if it indeed decides to engage in talks

About Dalsan Editor

View all posts by Dalsan Editor

Leave a Reply