Saturday, October 22, 2011

African Union's war with Al Shabaab intensifies

Somali Islamist group Al Shabaab has returned to Mogadishu where it has displayed the bodies of dozens of African Union and government soldiers in a show of strength. On Thursday they laid out bodies in military uniforms they said were Burundian soldiers with the AU force whom they had killed in an area they hold outside the capital. At least 70 bodies were laid out, though the Burundian army will admit to only 6 dead and 18 injured. (Photo: Feisal Omar / Reuters)

The attack on Burundian soldiers was not unexpected. Along with Kenyans and Ugandans, they make up the bulk of the AU force in Somalia. In July, al-Shabaab bombed bars and a stadium in Kampala, the Ugandan capital as thousands were watching the World Cup final. Over 70 people were killed in the attacks which came after repeated warnings to Uganda and Burundi for providing troops to the AU force in Somalia. The suitably named Al Shabaab spokesman Ali Mohamoud Rage said they were sending a message to every country that is willing to send troops to Somalia they will face attacks on their territory. “Burundi will face similar attacks soon, if they don’t withdraw,” Rage said.

Burundi itself has not yet been hit but Mogadishu continues to bear the brunt of the struggle. On Tuesday a suicide bomber blew up a car full of explosives near the foreign ministry. Four people were killed, including the bomber in an attack deliberately aimed to coincide with a visit from the Kenyan foreign and defence ministers.

Al Shabaab is particularly hostile to Kenya. Kenyan jets struck Al Shabaab positions in the border region a day after the suicide attack. They are targeting rebels they blame for abductions, including that of a French woman Marie Dedieu, 66, who was captured from her wheelchair at a beach resort in Kenya and who in captivity in Somalia. The air attacks are intended to soften the area up for an attack by Kenyan ground troops guided by pro-government Somali forces.

Meanwhile a new battlefield is emerging 70kms south of the capital with Kenyan forces. The fighting is at the coastal town of Kismayo, an Islamist stronghold. Kenyan military planners have targeted Kismayo and two nearby secondary ports to cut off the export earnings and taxes al Shabaab use to finance their war. Kenyan ground forces are attacking from the north and their navy from the south, leaving thousands of Somali refugees fleeing the area due to aerial bombardment. Somali traders prefer to use Kismayo because of its import duties –$1000 cheaper than Mogadishu – making it still profitable to enter goods at Kismayo and drive to Mogadishu.

Al Shabaab is Arabic for “the boys” but there is nothing lad-like about these Islamist hardliners who continue to make life a misery for the citizens of Somalia. Less than 40 percent of Somalis are literate, more than one in ten children dies before turning five, and a person born in Somalia today cannot assume with any confidence they will live to 50.

Al Shabaab emerged from the break-up of the Islamic Courts Union who were de facto rulers of Somalia from the mid 1990s to 2006 when Ethiopia-led forces invaded from the west. Ethiopia toppled the ICU but hardliners formed Al Shabaab which proved more difficult to dislodge. In 2009, By February 2009, they controlled most of southern Somalia where they imposed sharia law. They contributed to the famine in the region by banning international aid agencies, including the UN World Food Program. Despite only having a few thousand fighters they have been able to expand due to the lack of a central government and co-operation from clan warlords.

Al Shabaab’s continued support relies on hatred of invaders. A March 2010 report said US support of the transitional government was “proving ineffective and costly”. The Government was is unable to improve security, deliver basic services, or move toward an agreement with Somalia's clans and opposition groups to provide a stronger basis for governance. The report recommends a strategy of "constructive disengagement." This calls for the US to accept an Islamist authority in Somalia—including al-Shabaab - as long as it does not impede international humanitarian activities and refrains from both regional aggression and support for international jihad. While the report has merit, it seems naive to think Al-Shabaab will abandon its most fundamental philosophy.

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