SOMALIA, Mogadishu: In a photograph released by the African Union-United Nations Information Support Team 9 August, Ugandan soldiers serving with the African union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) patrol through the deserted streets of Bakara Market in central Mogadishu. Bakara was up until just a few days ago a strategic stronghold of the Islamist group Al Shabaab until their sudden withdrawal from the city overnight 5 August. Shabaab would tax local businesses in the Somali captial's economic business district in part to fund their insurgency against the UN-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) which is supported by over 9,000 AMISOM troops from Uganda and Burundi, and who together now control over 90 per cent of the city since Shabaab's retreat. AU-UN IST PHOTO / STUART PRICE.

London, UK – 31 January 2012

Written by Jonathan Dowdall and Robert Densmore

Increased military pressure was being exerted on Somalia’s Al Shabab militants on Monday in the wake of spreading violence in that country, even as the Islamist terrorist group mounted retaliatory attacks against those outside its borders. Amisom (African Union Mission in Somalia) forces made headway into regions of northern Mogadishu on 20 January for the first time in years and international forces have intensified operations against the terrorist group since that time.

On Monday, local observers reported a large contingent of Ethiopian troops crossing the border into Somalia and were heading towards the town of Luq, a known stronghold of Al Shabab forces. Al Shabab insurgents have been slowly losing the upper hand in Mogadishu as Kenyan, Ethiopian and AU (African Union) troops have isolated pockets of resistance in the nation’s capital. However, what resembled tactical progress by UN-backed forces in recent days has been questioned by frontline journalists based in the region.

Conflict journalist and documentary filmmaker Robert Young Pelton has been reporting from Somalia’s conflict areas since 2011 and warned on Monday that Al Shabab will not weaken under conventional tactical assaults. “The offensive is just part of a continuing campaign to expand the safe areas but the camps are the main support centre for al Shabaab, “ Pelton told DefenceReport. “There is also the concern that Amisom will overextend itself into the usual fixed locations and be the target of continuing IED and breach attacks.”

Compromising East Africa

The unravelling thread of Somalia’s security situation has increasingly threatened to spill over into neighbouring states, a dangerous trend that has prompted recent action by the international community. A multilateral coalition has been gathering momentum in preparation for a February meet hosted by the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office and which is aimed at resolving some of the war-torn country’s major political, security and humanitarian challenges.

On Monday, UK International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell echoed the call for tougher diplomatic action ahead of the conference, saying that two decades of conflict had failed to deliver security to one of the continent’s poorest nations. His criticisms, following a visit to Somalia’s war torn regions in recent days, mark an underlying and growing concern that Islamic militant extremism will over-saturate the UN’s and AU’s efforts to contain it. Robert Young Pelton, producer of the grass-roots news site SomaliaReport, confirmed to DefenceReport that Al Shabab is considering extending its campaign into Kenya, a move that would destabilise conventional tactical defences established by the approximately 10 thousand strong AU troops which continue to bolster the country’s fragile home grown Transitional Federal Government (TFG) forces.

Pelton said that the recent push to expel Al Shabab from strongholds near the capital have forced them into positions in Somaliland and western Puntland. This, he says, has created a rare vulnerability that will not last indefinitely. Al Shabab’s tried and tested insurgent tactics, he said, have taught them to wait for exposed areas in established defences to appear before launching an attack.

They are “waiting for the eventual fixed positions to stabilise before attacking in earnest,” he said. Local observers who spoke with DefenceReport echoed the tenuous nature of the tactical gains made by TFG and Amisom forces, raising doubts that the coalition could effectively extend an offensive beyond the capital without sacrificing recent territorial gains. United Nations and AU sources have sought to portray recent attacks against the Islamic militant group Al Shabab as a stepping up of pressure against the terrorist organisation that effectively controls much of Somalia.

But it is the possibility of retaliatory attacks against troop contributing nations by Al Shabab that has caused alarm to foreign interests outside Somalia’s borders. The threat is sufficiently credible that some governments have revised their travel advice for citizens intending to make their way to Kenya. Any attacks upon the interests of regional neighbours would likely damage the perception among those attending the FCO-sponsored meeting that lasting change can be affected in the region.

Many of the more than 40 governments and multilateral organisations attending have invested heavily in hopes of restricting the current proliferation of regional violence, as well as improving the lives of ordinary Somalis. But such hopes are now facing seemingly ever-increasing odds. On Monday, Al Shabab spokesmen announced that the group had banned International Red Cross access to parts of the country it controls. Aid efforts have been heavily damaged by civil unrest in the region, with the threat of violence against aid workers and Somali civilians alike only escalating. Last Wednesday, US Navy Seals rescued two aid workers from Somali pirates who were kidnapped in Galkayo three months prior. Though not reportedly associated with Al Shabab, the pirates and similar criminal groups have thrived off of the high levels of civil instability and violence propagated by the militant group’s tight-fisted control of many parts of the country.

Humanitarian crisis

As the 20 year long civil war inside Somalia continues unabated, the latest violence fits within a horrific pattern of suffering for its citizens. Yet the prospect of Al Shabab, a known perpetrator of terrorist atrocities in neighbouring countries, extending its campaign into the comparatively stable Kenya is one that has sounded alarm bells in foreign capitals. Kenya, east Africa’s largest economy, joined the fight in Somalia in October 2011.

Contributing 1,500 soldiers to the UN mandated mission, the action was seen as a retaliation for cross-border kidnapping raids by its neighbour’s vicious Islamic militants. The country’s popularity as a tourist destination for international holiday makers has prompted UK officials to warn against travel within 150km of Somalia’s land border. Independent analysts concur with the threat picture seen by international governments.

A consultant for Exclusive Analysis – a London based risk management consultancy – told a gathering in Brussels on 25 January that Al Shabaab was actively growing its networks in Kenya. Kenya is currently wrestling with a political and economic crisis of its own following the resignation of the Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta after being charged by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity during 2007’s ethnic violence. The effect of any terrorist attacks is not entirely predictable. However, with double digit inflation and slowing growth both hampering the economy, any further destabilising influences would be unwelcome amongst officials in Nairobi and Kenya’s international partners.

As the countdown to the London FCO conference begins, participants will be watching regional developments closely. The UN estimates that 250 thousand Somalis have been killed during the civil war and 2.5 million are displaced across the region. Additionally, the country’s strategic importance to anti-piracy operations has focused international attention on improving governance in Somalia. A 2011 study by consultancy firm Geopolicity found that Somali piracy was costing the world economy up to USD 8.3 billion per year.

The UK’s Senior Representative for Somalia, Matt Baugh (based in Nairobi) has outlined several major objectives for the conference including the creation of an inclusive and representative political process and the opportunity for residents of Mogadishu to rebuild their city. The conference will also focus heavily on security issues: providing sustainable funding for the Amisom military contribution; targeting Al Shabab terrorism; breaking the piracy business model and providing support for Somalia’s security and justice institutions.

Having announced the conference in December, British Prime Minister David Cameron stressed the need to tackle the issues in Somalia with “coordinated and sustained international leadership”; a reference to the need for regional governments, including Kenya, being continually involved in the process.

By Robert Densmore

Robert is a former US Naval Flight Officer and frontline journalist. He specialises in aerospace technology, drone warfare, military ethics, just war theory and combat related mental health.