Several thousand troops — some said to have been trained in Kenya — have been assembled in preparation for a major assault on Somalia’s al Shabaab militia which could start within weeks.
The Transitional Federal Government is planning the assault on the al Shabaab at a time when the militia seems weakened by internal feuds and a number of high-profile defections.
But analysts warn there is no guarantee the military offensive against the al Shabaab will enable the TFG to assert greater control over the strife-torn country, which the United States says has become a haven for dozens of al Qaeda jihadists in recent years.
“The Ethiopians were able to overrun the Islamic Courts Union within a week in 2006,” Rashid Abdi, a Somalia analyst at the International crisis Group, told the Sunday Nation. “But that did not translate into victory for them because the ICU was able to reclaim territorial control very quickly once the Ethiopians pulled out. The TFG must find a way to build political credibility for any offensive. They need to get clan elders to buy into the project. A military solution on its own will not work.”
The current TFG administration was put in place following peace talks in Djibouti aimed at including members of the Islamic Courts Union who had been waging an insurgency against the government following their ouster from power after the Ethiopian invasion.
A moderate Islamist, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, was installed as President as part of the Djibouti accord. But the deal served to intensify rather than halt the fighting. Analysts blame the failure to include all the factions of the ICU in the talks for the collapse of the peace deal. The exclusion from the negotiations of Sheikh Dahir Aweys, an influential figure seen as the father of the Islamist movement in Somalia, was seen as a mistake.
After being snubbed in Djibouti, Sheikh Aweys, who is on the US list of people “linked to terrorism,” formed the Hizb Ul Islam movement which joined forces with al Shabaab and nearly toppled the TFG last May.
The TFG survived the assault thanks to the Americans who reportedly shipped in weapons worth millions of dollars.
Washington is again involved in helping to plan the latest offensive by the TFG. The New York Times reported on Saturday that US surveillance planes have been over-flying the country gathering intelligence, possibly to help the TFG in the planned assault.
“The Americans have provided covert training to Somali intelligence officers, logistical support to the peace keepers, fuel for the manoeuvres, surveillance information about insurgent positions and money for bullets and guns,” reporter Jeffrey Gettleman wrote from Mogadishu.
“Washington is also using its heft as the biggest supplier of humanitarian aid to Somalia to encourage private aid agencies to move quickly into ‘newly liberated areas’ and deliver services like food and medicine to the beleaguered Somali people in an effort to make the government more popular.”
Neighbouring countries are also playing a role in helping plan for the offensive. Mr Abdi of the ICG said Kenya and Ethiopia have helped train troops.
Multiple reports indicate 2,400 young Somalis mainly recruited from refugee camps in North Eastern province have received paramilitary training at the Manyani Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) training camp in Coast province.
“The recruits are primarily from the Ogaden clan who are the dominant community in the area near the Kenya-Somalia border. It would appear the strategic objective for Kenya is to insert these youths into the theatre in Somalia to act as a buffer between Kenya and the al Shabaab,” said Mr Abdi.
The analyst warned there are dangers to this approach. He said there was no guarantee the Somali youth who have received training abroad would achieve success over the al Shabaab militants, pointing out that these youth were essentially mercenaries fighting for pay while the al Shabaab fighters were ideologues who believe they are fighting for a holy cause.
Mr Abdi also said there was a danger that the conflict would spill over into Kenya because members of the Ogaden clan are found in both Somalia and Kenya, and the fighters can easily slip back into the country.
It is not clear when any offensive against al Shabaab would be launched. Some analysts say fighting could start “within weeks”, while other Somalia watchers say major fighting only occurs after the end of the rainy season which would place the timing of major military move in May.
The plans to attack al Shabaab come at a time when the movement has been weakened by disputes between its top leaders.
A moderate faction of the al Shabaab led by Sheikh Mukhtar Robow seeks to establish an Islamic state in Somalia. Their aims are mainly local, and they view the conflict through a nationalist lens. The rival faction headed by Sheikh Ahmed Abdi Godane advocates the use of Somalia as a staging ground for a global jihad. These disputes as well as the dominance of the movement by foreign jihadists are said to have eaten into al Shabaab’s support among the population.
The renewed impetus to launch an attack by the TFG follows a string of reports that dozens of Al Qaeda militants have shifted base from Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Horn of Africa.
The New York Times report says Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, who is said to have played a central role in planning the US Embassy bombing in 1998 and the 2002 attack on the Paradise Hotel, could be operating in Somalia.
It says Fazul is currently helping the Shabaab to assemble bombs to fight the TFG. The report said the Americans will not take a direct role in the planned TFG offensive but that Special Forces teams could move in and attack if Al Qaeda suspects are identified.
Although Kenya routinely serves as the base through which the US coordinates efforts to stabilise Somalia, there is concern in government circles that the country does not benefit sufficiently from the relationship.
This was the message taken to Washington recently by Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka. Addressing diplomats, US government officials and academics at the New America Foundation, Mr Musyoka said Kenya carried a heavy burden as a result of the humanitarian crisis in Somalia and also served as a key US ally in the region.
He said the country should be accorded special status and enhanced budgetary support in a fashion similar to other key US allies such as Egypt and Pakistan.
Mr Musyoka said Kenya supports an inclusive peace process as a way to end the fighting in Somalia. All indications are the military option appears to have won the day and there will be significant fighting soon.