The decentralized nature of al Shabaab allows it to make use of different tactics depending on local conditions. In order to guarantee its survival, the group has consistently declined combat where it saw little chance of victory. It still occupies Baardheere and Lego; the latter city has seen pitched battles between al Shabaab and the Somali National Army.
Meanwhile, in other parts of southern Somalia it has adopted tactics such as ambushes, the placement of improvised explosive devices and hit-and-run attacks. Al Shabaab transitioned to guerrilla tactics in Mogadishu after abandoning its strongholds in the city in August of 2011. The group continued a conventional fight in Kismayo, Baidoa and Beledweyne until those places became untenable as well.
Al Shabaab demonstrated an aptitude for guerrilla warfare during the 2006-2009 Ethiopian incursion into Somalia. This capability is one of the major reasons al Shabaab will be so difficult to defeat (though without dominating southern Somalia it becomes more challenging for it to host jihadists from abroad).
Puntland Smuggling Routes
One possible center of gravity is the arms smuggling network that sustains the group's operations. Al Shabaab's loss of Kismayo's seaport and airport, along with other coastal towns such as Merka, has deprived it of the smuggling operations instrumental to its struggle. Furthermore, Kenyan and Ethiopian troops secure their respective borders, while the forces of the African Union Mission in Somalia, commonly known as AMISOM, control airports and seaports around Mogadishu and elsewhere in southern Somalia. All of this makes al Shabaab forces almost completely reliant on inland arms smuggling routes.These routes run through Puntland north to Yemen, where relations with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula facilitate smuggling. Even though al Shabaab's guerrilla tactics are less resource-intensive than conventional pitched battles are, the group still needs access to ammunitions, explosives and even food. Though the militant group can steal food from local populations and possesses ammunition, its access to supplies it receives through Puntland is vital to the group's long-term survival.
The group's smuggling routes in Puntland include the western outposts of Ceelayo and Qaw as well as another outpost near the seaport of Bosaso in the Golis Mountains, where al Shabaab has a limited presence. These mountains are home to the militia leader known as Atom, who reputedly ran al Shabaab's smuggling operations in Puntland. Atom led a local rebellion against the Puntland government from the Golis Mountains, an area where al Shabaab forces began relocating in early 2012. The mountains are part of an al Shabaab supply chain that runs from Bosaso down to Garowe and Galkaayo into southern Somalia. Despite several offensives, Puntland forces have failed to dislodge the militants from the mountains — the region is referred to locally as Somalia's own Tora Bora. The rough terrain has made ousting al Shabaab forces from the region challenging. Al Shabaab leaders have selected the area as an ideal refuge from the foreign forces that have come to Somalia to fight them, but the main significance of the group's presence there lies in its ability to protect its smuggling routes.
Mogadishu and Southern Somalia
Al Shabaab remains very active throughout southern Somalia. While most of its attacks are concentrated on the capital, Mogadishu, and the surrounding regions, al Shabaab forces continue to attack outposts in and around Kismayo, Baidoa and Beled Weyne. Near Kismayo, al Shabaab is believed to have found refuge in the Lower Juba "jungle." This is a wooded savannah area that provides cover from observation and airstrikes and that now grants al Shabaab fighters a staging area for attacks in the Juba region.
A similar situation exists between the Bay and Lower Shabelle regions, where AMISOM's operations have not extended. While this area does not present the protective terrain features of the Lower Juba jungle or the Golis Mountains, it has granted al Shabaab a certain freedom of movement that facilitates its guerrilla-style attacks. Many of these attacks have targeted transports and convoys moving between Mogadishu and the extended territories under AMISOM control. These convoys are relatively soft targets for al Shabaab fighters, and attacking them allows the group to reduce security forces' freedom of movement and to limit their influence beyond Mogadishu.
In Mogadishu itself, attacks were at a lower level as al Shabaab was temporarily preoccupied with the advance of Kenyan forces in the south and AMISOM's advance out of Mogadishu. Now, a return to the type and volume of attacks that were seen in early 2012 is taking place there. The change of operations in the south from conventional to guerrilla warfare after the group abandoned Kismayo has allowed al Shabaab to concentrate on Mogadishu, where it has begun to mount more sophisticated and complex attacks.
Since al Shabaab no longer controls key cities in Somalia, their main goal is to destabilize the newly formed federal government. Destabilizing Mogadishu provides a useful way to force AMISOM and the Somali National Army to refocus on security in Mogadishu. This relieves pressure on al Shabaab elsewhere, such as in Baidoa, Beled Weyne and other locations along al Shabaab's vital land-based smuggling route to Puntland. At the same time, an unstable Mogadishu challenges the legitimacy of the new government, potentially enabling al Shabaab to expand its support in the capital.
Under the pressure of military operations, including the U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle campaign in southern Somalia, al Shabaab's leadership has reduced its visibility, though it is not thought to have fled the country. Top leaders Sheikh Mukhtar Abdirahman Abu-Zubeyr, Sheikh Ali Dheere and Mukhtar Robow are reportedly in the Hiiraan region north of Mogadishu. Abu-Zubeyr reportedly is accompanied by foreign fighters, which is consistent with his position as a supporter of foreign jihadi activity within al Shabaab. Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the leader of the Hizbul Islam militant organization, appeared shortly after the fall of Kismayo to announce the separation of his group from al Shabaab.
The pressure placed on the group's leadership has forced it into hiding and limited its use of telecommunications and of other means of effectively coordinating group operations. But this has been the case for some time now, and al Shabaab has always found a way to deal with the lack of visible leadership. But the expanded presence of Western intelligence and strike assets in the region, as well as the greater potential for intelligence gathering due to al Shabaab's loss of popular support, has put greater strains on the group than during the Ethiopian intervention of 2006-2009. Even so, the activities of al Shabaab show that the organization is very much still around.