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Somalia: Tactical Shifts Mark an Internal Struggle for al Shabaab

5 MINS READSep 22, 2013 | 15:36 GMT
Somalia: A Shift in Tactics Marks Internal Struggle for al Shabaab
Somali security forces inspect the site of a car bombing in Mogadishu on July 24.
(MOHAMED ABDIWAHAB/AFP/Getty Images)

Editor's Note: In light of the recent attack on a shopping mall in Nairobi by militants with alleged links to al Shabaab, Stratfor is republishing an Aug. 27 analysis on the tactical shifts taking place within the group as its leadership struggles to manage limited resources. Look for further situational reports and analysis on the ongoing developments in Nairobi.

As Somali security forces continue expanding their reach, al Shabaab has remained a capable force that controls limited territory and conducts operations in areas of southern Somalia. Though the militant group continues its insurgency against government forces and African Union peacekeepers, it has changed the way it conducts attacks. These changes emerged after the so-called "Godane coup" in June, when al Shabaab supreme leader Abu Zubayr, also known as Ahmad Abdi Godane, removed dissident leaders in order to tighten his control of the group. Tactical shifts could signal a change in the management of resources at a time when these resources are limited, especially after the loss of the lucrative port city of Kismayo, the group's last major stronghold.

In June, several events within al Shabaab culminated in the death of Ibrahim al-Afghani, a senior al Shabaab leader who had criticized Godane's leadership in an open letter, and the unconfirmed death of Omar Hammami, a U.S. citizen who became a leader under the nickname al-Amriki. Moreover, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who had been the leader of Islamist militant group Hizbul Islam before joining al Shabaab, defected from the group. (Aweys had left al Shabaab before, after a dispute with Godane.)

These events, now referred to as the "Godane coup" even though Godane was already emir of al Shabaab, are thought to have enabled Godane to further centralize control over the currently weakened al Shabaab. While specific control over operations could still be delegated to the group's lower echelons, Godane is said to have taken more direct control of al Shabaab's political and strategic direction, consolidating his position as emir to safeguard the group's remaining cohesion and retain its capabilities. In the past, regional al Shabaab leaders had more influence over higher levels of policy, resulting in continued internal conflicts among leaders that threatened several times to paralyze al Shabaab.

Cross-Border Violence

Several attacks conducted since the group's leadership changes have shown different tactics from their predecessors. Border skirmishes with Kenya, which became involved in the Somali intervention in October 2011, typically entailed small attacks consisting of a limited number of gunmen or improvised explosive devices. However, recent cross-border attacks have involved larger numbers of al Shabaab fighters and heavier weapons than in the past two years.

Security Situation In Somalia

Map - Somalia - Al Shabaab Territory

Two attacks in the past two weeks involved platoon-sized groups of al Shabaab fighters — about 40 men — crossing into Kenya. In the first attack, militants attacked a police post about 50 kilometers (31 miles) inside the border, and in the second attack the militants ambushed an army patrol. The militants used heavier and more complex weapons, such as mortars. Sustaining attacks like these would enable al Shabaab to erode popular support for Kenyan military operations in Somalia; this type of cross-border violence is one of the security problems Kenya's intervention in Somalia was meant to overcome, and continued attacks would give the impression that the intervention has been unsuccessful.

Kenya already has deployed more security personnel to the border region in response to the attacks. The army patrol ambushed in the second recent attack, which also resulted in the death of 12 al Shabaab fighters, reportedly was part of this deployment.

New Tactics in Mogadishu

In Mogadishu, a change in tactics noted before the Godane coup seems to have been reversed. In April and June, al Shabaab attacked the Mogadishu courthouse and a U.N. compound by using a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device to breach perimeter security and then deploying suicide commandos. While these more complex attacks inflict comparatively higher casualties, they require much more personnel than regular car bombings targeting convoys or buildings.

Between the April attack at the courthouse and the June assault on the U.N. compound, al Shabaab had refrained from mounting the less-complex car bombings that occur relatively often in the Somali capital, possibly because it needed to conserve resources as it prepared for more complex attacks. After the Godane coup, however, a return to these tactics has been noted in Mogadishu, including a car bombing targeting staff housing for the Turkish Embassy.

Although al Shabaab appears to be able to mount more complex attacks, the change in tactics at a time when resources are scarce for the militant group could suggest otherwise. While it is difficult to determine what specific decisions Godane made after consolidating control over the group in June, it is possible that these tactical shifts could indicate a change in priorities from large-scale attacks to sustained but less resource-intensive attacks in Mogadishu.

Al Shabaab has transformed from a governing force that seized and held territory into more of an insurgent force. Holding territory, governing and providing services require vast resources. Insurgent tactics, however, allow a group to disperse and conceal its forces until an attack occurs, at which point they rapidly concentrate resources where they have a tactical advantage. Thus, rather than attempting to stand and fight a superior military force, al Shabaab embarked on a prolonged guerrilla war after withdrawing from Mogadishu in August 2011.

Al Shabaab's loss of some of its territorial control, combined with limits on financial transactions in Somalia, anti-smuggling operations in the Gulf of Aden and a reported drop in Eritrea's support for the group, has limited its access to necessary resources. Thus, the management of al Shabaab's remaining resources is a decisive factor in the leadership's ability to retain the militant group's capabilities. The recent change in tactics could be Godane's way of managing those resources.

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