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Is Somalia about to replicate the Afghanistan scenario post-withdrawal of the "ATMIS” forces?

17 March 2024

On February 10, 2024, the Gordon military base in Mogadishu was subjected to a terrorist attack by the jihadist Al-Shabab group. The attack resulted in the deaths of several officers performing training tasks for Somali forces, indicating a recent increase in the intensity of Al-Shabab's terrorist activity. This coincides with the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia’s (ATMIS) announcement that it declared the completion of the second phase of withdrawal of its forces from Mogadishu in early February. The remaining stages, which are expected to be implemented by the end of this year, have been raising concerns about the possibility of a new Afghanistan scenario in the Horn of Africa region.

Rapid Developments

Somalia has seen a number of successive developments in recent years, which may have far-reaching consequences for the current situation in Mogadishu and the Horn of Africa region in general. These developments can be described as follows:

1. Concluding the second phase of ATMIS forces' withdrawal:

The African ATMIS mission concluded the second part of its withdrawal from Somalia with logistical backing from the United Nations Support Office in Somalia (UNSOS). The second phase of the withdrawal comprised reducing the mission's numbers by around 3,000 soldiers, with the African mission handing over seven bases to the Somali government. These include: the bases in the Council of State and Parliament, where Ugandan forces were deployed; Biu Kadel, Raja Sil, and Korelo, where Burundian forces were deployed; Burahashi, where Kenyan forces were stationed; and the old airport, where Ethiopian forces were positioned. It also closed two more bases: Saril and the former Kismayo airport.

Mohamed El-Amine Souef, the Special Representative of the African Union in Somalia and Head of the ATMIS Mission, signed an agreement with the Somali National Security Advisor, Hassan Sheikh Ali, under which the mission ceded ownership of the lands on which the military bases were located and transferred control to Somali government forces. Qarat Ul-Ain Sadozai, the official in charge of the UNSOS, also signed a document that stipulates the transfer of UN-owned equipment from the bases to the Somali federal government.

The complete departure of the African ATMIS mission personnel, totaling 14,000 soldiers, is expected to be completed by the end of 2024. So far, it has completed two rounds of the withdrawal process at a time when most assessments, however, indicate that Somali government forces are not prepared to take on individual security responsibilities following the removal of international forces from the country.

2. Increasing evidence of the resumption of Somali piracy:

Recent weeks have seen the resurgence of piracy operations off the coast of Somalia, raising concerns about the likelihood of a return to the expanded piracy operations that this region witnessed more than a decade ago. The EU NAVFOR - ATALANTA OPERATION force, a European Union naval force in charge of maritime security in East Africa, has announced that more than 14 ships had been hijacked off the Somali coast since the end of November. Last December, the Maltese-flagged ship MV Ruen was seized and is still under the grip of kidnappers, including approximately 17 members of the ship's crew. The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) reported that this was the first successful hijacking off the Somali coast in roughly six years. The last of these acts was aimed at the "Central Park" ship, which was carrying the Liberian flag. American forces assisted in the ship's rescue mission, which was linked to Somali piracy operations.

Additionally, the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC), a regional governmental body made up of the countries bordering the Indian Ocean in East Africa (including Seychelles, Madagascar, Mauritius, and Comoros), attributed the escalation of attacks to the possibility of a planned deal between Al-Shabab group and other pirate groups. This hypothesis speculates that the movement obtains a portion of the ransom proceeds in exchange for its support.

3. An increase in the Jihadist Al-Shabab movement’s activity:

In early February, the US-based website "Critical Threats" issued a study revealing that the Somali government's efforts to curb the influence of the terrorist Al-Shabab movement were facing significant setbacks. According to the report, Mogadishu achieved some initial successes in its war against the movement in 2022 before the latter was able to inflict a series of defeats against government forces beginning in 2023. This resulted in the cessation of attacks by Somali forces and, in many cases, their retreat.

Mogadishu had also previously hinted that its military operations, which have been ongoing since the beginning of 2023 in the center of the country, are a prelude to expanding its attack towards the main strongholds of the Al-Shabab movement in the south. This comes as part of an ambitious plan by Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud to completely eliminate the Al-Shabab movement and recover all Somali territories as the African forces begin their withdrawal by the end of the year. However, after almost a year of these intermittent operations in central Somalia, the outcomes appear to be variant, even with the use of American drones and Turkish support for Mogadishu. Al-Shabab was able to launch counter-attacks against Somali forces, the most notable of which being the movement's large-scale offensive on the town of Kad on January 24, forcing government forces to retreat.

Complex Contexts

The recent events in Mogadishu are in line with the larger setting currently taking place within Somalia, which exacerbates the state of confusion in the overall scene.  The most significant elements are the following:

1. Decreasing local support for Somali government efforts: 

New challenges may emerge from the successive mistakes of Somali forces in dealing with Al-Shabab's strongholds and tactics. These s failures bear consequences on the local population's desire to support the Somali government in its war against the terrorist movement. This is especially true given the fragility of security in the towns recovered by Somali troops, which increases the likelihood of Al-Shabab members infiltrating these areas.

Some estimates revealed growing dissatisfaction among certain local communities toward the federal government. This may be due to the latter's inability to support communities affected by floods and its failure to provide services or to Mogadishu's faltering efforts to settle the violence between some tribal militias. This has contributed to the circulation of weapons among these clans that participated in the attack on Al-Shabab. Additionally, existing tensions between the state and regional governments in southern Somalia have persisted as disputes between the Jubbal and state government and the Gedo region have worsened since the 2019 elections. There is also the issue of clan rivalries in the Gedo and lower Juba regions and a high degree of overlap between the Al-Shabab movement and clans in the south, which strengthens the movement's potential to withstand any military operations planned by the Somali government.

2. Internal divisions among the ruling elite in Mogadishu:

There is an increasing domestic rivalry in Somalia, whether between the federal and state governments or within the states themselves, as concerns about this dynamic ahead of the state-level elections scheduled for next November when all Somali states, with the exception of Puntland, are likely to hold their presidential elections. Furthermore, the upcoming presidential elections expected in 2026 are inching closer as Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud attempts to push a new electoral model that relies on direct voting rather than clan delegates.

The President also faces issues linked to the Mogadishu political elite's attitude toward the Somali government. A number of former federal leaders, including former Somali President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and former Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire, have sharply criticized Mohamud, accusing him of perpetuating authoritarianism, misusing public property, and failing to address the growing Al-Shabab attacks. This may increase pressure on the Somali government as it attempts to rally support from various political forces to avoid the polarization that occurred under former President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo.

3. The Somali government is distracted by the ongoing tensions with Ethiopia:

Continued tensions between Somalia and Ethiopia over the latter's pact with Somaliland about the Red Sea port are likely to distract the Somali government's attention from its war against Al-Shabab. This was evident in President Mohamud’s increased attention towards ongoing disputes with Addis Ababa, particularly since he played a critical role in mobilizing internal and external support against Al-Shabab. Thus, this shift in interest will have a negative impact on the ongoing war against the terrorist organization.

4. Al-Shabab's expanding ability to adapt and expand:

Despite the extensive internal and external mobilization carried out by the government of president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud in the war against Al-Shabab, the latter has demonstrated a remarkable ability to defend its strongholds and adapt to expanded attacks by Mogadishu and its international partners. To avoid conventional clashes with government forces, the movement has always used tactical retreats and withdrawals from major cities, as well as guerrilla warfare tactics such as targeting Somali bases with car bombs, causing heavy losses and forcing them to withdraw. The government’s forces position has been further weakened given the increasing complexity of Mogadishu’s supply operations for its forces, as well as the new soldiers' lack of combat experience. The tactics used by the jihadist Al-Shabab movement have proven effective in thwarting Somali forces' plans since January 2023. 

In this context, some US reports indicate that Washington is currently concerned about the Somali Al-Shabab movement's growing strength, which allows it to launch strikes outside of the East African region and even target American interests. In 2019, the United States foiled a terrorist operation in which Al-Shabab planned to replicate the September 11 attacks. There have been other attempts by Al-Shabab-linked elements to infiltrate American territory over the Mexican border as well. Last January, Washington was able to arrest one of these individuals after he had already arrived and settled in Minnesota.

Furthermore, Al-Shabab is currently exploiting internal discontent in Somalia and anti-Ethiopian sentiment to mobilize more local support, resulting in a new wave of internal recruitment from Somalis.  Simultaneously, the movement has been reaching agreements with some groups to discourage them from continuing to support the federal government.

5. Al Shabab continues to infiltrate Somali institutions:

The recent terrorist attack at a military base in Mogadishu has raised concerns about the allegiance of Al-Shabab members who defected to the Somali army, as well as the movement's capacity to infiltrate Somali institutions. The most recent terrorist act for which Al-Shabab claimed responsibility was carried out by a member of the movement who defected in 2021 as part of the Somali defectors program and joined the Somali army. As a result, this incident may prompt the Somali Army to reconsider its vetting process.

Since the launch of the Somali Dissident Program in 2014, it has won over many parts of the movement, but the latter has also been able to exploit the program to allow its agents to infiltrate Somali security forces. This is not the first time an individual linked with the program has been accused of perpetrating terrorist attacks against Somali military or international partners. Fahd Yassin, the former chief of the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA), has long been accused of facilitating the infiltration of Al-Shabab forces into Somali institutions.

Possible Hits

In light of the mounting issues confronting Mogadishu, there are a number of probable ramifications that the Somali interior may witness in the coming period, which can be presented as follows:

1. Searching for an alternative to the "ATMIS" forces:

The Somali government recently revealed its concern about its ability to bridge the security gap in the post-withdrawal phase of "ATMIS" forces from the country. The government indicated that the withdrawal plan appears very ambitious.  Last December, Mogadishu called for the need to search for an alternative to the "ATMIS" forces that help secure municipalities and major infrastructure in Somalia, as well as providing logistical, land, and air support to the government forces.

However, the idea of an alternative capable of bridging the security gap is still being debated, particularly in terms of financing. The European Union, which was responsible for paying the salaries of the forces of the "ATMIS" mission and previously the "AMISOM" mission, appears unwilling to continue bearing its financial burden. Since 2007, Brussels has provided Somalia with approximately 4.3 billion euros in total, including 2.6 billion euros for the wages of personnel serving in the "ATMIS" mission. Although the European Union and Somalia reached an agreement in May 2023 on a framework for a comprehensive partnership between the two parties until 2025, the potential deterioration of security conditions following the withdrawal of the "ATMIS" forces may jeopardize this alliance

Despite this, the African Union reached an understanding t with the United Nations at the end of 2023, under which the latter agreed to fund approximately 75% of the African Union's peace operations, and discussions are currently underway regarding the implementation of this agreement in the case of Somalia. Furthermore, Mogadishu and the African Union are already in conversations with several international and regional powers, particularly China and Turkey, to help bridge the predicted gap following ATMIS' withdrawal. However, these consultations are still in their early stages, and the UN agreement includes some conditions that Somalia must meet, casting doubt on its implementation. This has raised concerns about the European Union's willingness to present an emergency support plan if Mogadishu's efforts fall short to find a financing alternative to the EU.

2. The need for a comprehensive strategy:

Mogadishu's military strategy for many years has proven ineffective in dealing with Al-Shabab's evolving tactics and the movement's extensive penetration into Somali society and state institutions, especially security. This highlights the urgent need for a more comprehensive strategy for intellectually confronting the movement, as well as working to improve levels of trust between local communities and the federal government. It is also important to resolve tensions between the Mogadishu government and the federal state governments while continuing efforts to besiege the movement's funding sources.

This comprehensive strategy also emphasizes the need to speed up the process of security reform in Somalia, particularly in light of the continued infiltration of Al-Shabab within Somali security institutions. The continuous terrorist operations demonstrate the widespread presence of sleeper cells and Al-Shabab activists who carry out a variety of tasks to support the movement's activities. These activities also illustrate the movement's strategic and long-term approach. Some Western reports suggest that the jihadist movement was able to coordinate with some military officials and soldiers within Somali security institutions to assist it t in carrying out terrorist operations, similar to the operation carried out by an Al-Shabab suicide bomber at the Jalle Siyad military academy in July 2023. 14 military officers were later detained on suspicion of collaborating with the terrorist outfit and assisting its activities. As a result, it appears increasingly necessary to speed the process of comprehensive security reform in Somali institutions, particularly as Somali forces prepare to take on exclusive responsibility for security in the coming months.

It appears that Mogadishu is approaching a pivotal year in terms of its war against the terrorist Al-Shabab movement that has been sweeping the country since 2007. Despite the Somali government's relative gains in the second half of 2022 and its pledge to totally oust the movement, this goal appears unlikely based on current evidence. On the contrary, there is growing concern about the future of Somalia's security and political situation, particularly with the ongoing withdrawal of African "ATMIS" forces from the country, with Mogadishu currently relying on increased support from its regional and international partners to fill the potential security gap.