On January 15, Al-Shabaab’s Saleh Nabhan brigade claimed responsibility for over-running a forward operating base of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) at El Adde in Somalia’s Gedo region.
Al-Shabaab claimed that it killed “more than 100” of the company of Kenyan soldiers deployed there and that it took additional hostages.
It kept silent about its own losses. The Kenyan government and Amisom acknowledged there were fatalities, but have not provided further details.
WHO ARE THE PLAYERS?
Amisom is the African Union’s longest running and largest-ever peace support operation.
It was deployed in March 2007 to help protect the Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu from its opponents, most notably Al-Shabaab militants.
Amisom is now mandated to reduce the threat posed by Al-Shabaab and assist the Somali government to expand its control throughout Somalia.
Al-Shabaab emerged in 2005 as a violent Islamist group intent on enforcing its brand of justice across Somalia.
In late 2006, it focused on expelling Ethiopian forces that had intervened in Somalia and later aligned itself with Al-Qaida.
Why does this attack matter? El Adde was the third Amisom forward operating base that Al-Shabaab has overrun in the last seven months.
In June 2015, Al-Shabaab forces attacked and plundered Amisom’s base at Leego, killing more than 50 Burundian soldiers and stealing equipment, vehicles and arms.
In September, the militants stormed Amisom’s base at Janaale, killing 19 Ugandan soldiers and taking others hostage.
If Kenya did indeed lose more than 100 soldiers last week, the attack represents Amisom’s bloodiest day since it deployed to Mogadishu in March 2007.
WHAT ARE THE LESSONS?
1. The threat from Al-Shabaab has changed, and its ambitions have expanded.
Al-Shabaab no longer poses the existential threat to Somalia’s governing authorities in Mogadishu that it once did, in its “golden age” during 2009-10, when it controlled not only most of the capital city but also most of south-central Somalia.
Most of Al-Shabaab’s fighters were forced out of Mogadishu in August 2011; today they do not directly govern nearly as many towns across south-central Somalia. But they can still move freely, and exert influence over local populations.
Since mid-2013, Al-Shabaab has become an increasingly extremist and transnational network with the stated aim of creating a caliphate across East Africa.
It has dramatically increased its recruitment and activities in Kenya. Since then, Al-Shabaab has fought to destabilise parts of Kenya - to take back what it claims are Muslim lands - and south-central Somalia in order to undermine Amisom, reveal the weaknesses of Somalia’s central government and its collusion with foreign forces, and control local populations.
In 2014 and 2015 in Somalia, Amisom, the Somali National Army (SNA), and supporting militia launched a series of offensives and forced Al-Shabaab out of about two dozen towns.
Some Al-Shabaab fighters moved north into Puntland region while others concentrated in the Jubba River Valley in southern Somalia.
Al-Shabaab continues to attack the region using a range of military tactics.
It has carried out suicide and remotely detonated bombings and commando raids on symbolic government and international targets in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu.
It has frequently harassed Amisom and SNA supply routes. Its two major battalions - the Saleh Nabhan brigade and the Abu Zubair battalion, both named after Al-Shabaab commanders who died in battle - have launched major attacks on the three Amisom bases noted above.
2. Amisom forces remain vulnerable, even as the war against Al-Shabaab has changed.
Because Al-Shabaab can usually avoid Amisom and SNA forces, it attacks the African Union peacekeepers when and where it wants.
Over the past nine years, Amisom’s war against Al-Shabaab has evolved from urban warfare in Mogadishu to a sprawling counter-insurgency and stabilisation campaign waged across most of south-central Somalia.
In late 2013, the UN Security Council authorised a “surge” of over 4,000 additional troops for Amisom, most of which came from Ethiopia.
In March 2014, Amisom launched four interrelated operations to degrade Al-Shabaab: Operations Eagle, Indian Ocean, Ocean Build and Jubba Corridor.
These forced Al-Shabaab’s fighters out of about two dozen towns across south-central Somalia.
But here’s the catch: Because Al-Shabaab forces generally retreated without a fight, Amisom couldn’t deal a fatal blow to the militants’ main combat forces.
Amisom chose to maintain garrisons and forward operating bases across most of these newly recovered settlements - which extended the mission’s supply routes and stretched its forces.
Now Amisom faces a shortage of needed specialist military units, including engineers, logisticians, and aviation assets.
For instance, in 2012 the UN Security Council authorised 12 military helicopters, which have never been delivered or deployed, leaving Amisom with no helicopters.
That means Amisom can’t strike back quickly when Al-Shabaab attacks.
Meanwhile, Amisom’s Kenyan forces have failed to build strong relationships with the Gedo region’s local population or SNA forces stationed nearby.
That’s what left Amisom’s forces vulnerable to this recent attack.
3. The propaganda war between Al-Shabaab and Somalia’s government continues.
The battle at El Adde has also highlighted the ongoing propaganda war waged by both Al-Shabaab and Amisom and its partners.
Each side usually presents very different versions of events. Amisom and its contributing governments usually release few details about battles if they’ve lost many troops; its international partners usually offer stock condemnations of Al-Shabaab “terrorism.”
Meanwhile, international partners are asked to foot the bill for death and disability compensation payments (about $50,000 per dead soldier) without accurate information about those deaths.
What should Somalia and its allies do now? The El Adde attack leaves Amisom and its international partners with some difficult choices.
How can they best reduce the threat posed by Al-Shabaab?
How can the African Union and SNA forces be better protected? Finally, if Amisom’s contributing countries do not reveal the facts about these attacks, Al-Shabaab’s propaganda will continue unchecked.
The writer is an associate professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. This article was first published in the Washington Post’s ‘Monkey Cage’. www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/