By Deeq S Yusuf
Thursday, August 10, 2023
Security analysts in Somalia and beyond concur that the ongoing President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud (HSM) -led anti-terror offensive offers reasons for optimism because the current campaign is markedly different from previous ones. The US-based Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) notes that for the first time, a stronger Somali National Army (SNA) backed by local partners is taking the lead whereas in the past, military operations tended to be foreign-led . While US and Turkish drone strikes are curtailing al-Shabaab’s command and control and freedom of maneuver, it is primarily the Somali army on the ground that has inflicted the heaviest losses on Al-Shabab as the gallant forces have demonstrably shown the capability of killing and routing the insurgents in their hundreds and thousands in major counter-terrorism operations across the central regions.
Counter-terrorism experts have weighed -in on this deadly phenomenon advancing both specific and broadly defined definitions of the term. Richard J. Chasdi defines counter-terrorism as “efforts to constrain or suppress terrorist assault practiced in most cases by non-state actors, while Alex P. Schimd notes that it is a “proactive effort to prevent, deter and combat politically motivated violence directed at civilian and non-combatant targets by the use of a broad spectrum of response measures – law enforcement, political, psychological, social, economic and para-military. ”
Andrew Silke provides one of the most comprehensive explications of the term stating it is “the policies, strategies and tactics that states use to combat terrorism and deal with its consequences” adding that “states can use a combination of different approaches rather than to rely on just one exclusively .” According to Silke, anti-terror strategies include the introduction of special counter-terrorism legislation, creation of specialist counter-terrorism units including police and military, use of military intervention and reprisals, introduction of special incarceration and detention policies, media management, and negotiated settlement .”
One critical omnipresent element in counter-terrorism is the forging of partnership with civilian population. HSM has received plaudits for rallying the support of the Somali public that has readily responded to his call to join in the fight against the terrorists with sections of the population (macawisley) even taking up arms to bolster SNA’s anti-terror operations. In his bid to bring lasting peace to Somalia, HSM has adopted a proven, multi-prong strategy that militarily confronts the terrorists on the battlefield, while debunking their twisted ideological premise and targeting the groups’ illicit financial networks.
Since ascending to power for a historic second term, President HSM’s policy of depoliticization of security forces has handed the SNA the impetus to focus on the country’s mortal enemy, Al-Shabab, unlike his predecessor who politicized the military when he deployed the armed forces to destabilize non-compliant Federal Member States (FMS) handing Al-Shabab the freehand to terrorize the Somali population. Further, HSM’s depoliticization of security has restored a sense of duty and patriotism within the ranks of SNA, which is now duty-bound to protect and free the entire nation from the scourge of violent extremism. More importantly, the depoliticization of security has immensely uplifted the morale of SNA as the forces are now taking the battle to Al-Shabab with utmost ferocity, demonstrating valor and the unshakable determination to defeat the enemy.
On the ideological front, HSM made a significant breakthrough by rallying the support of Somali scholars from different persuasions to condemn Al-Shabab’s perverted religious ideology during a government-organized conference in Mogadishu. Over 300 Islamic clerics from Somalia and the diaspora issued a fatwa (edict) in late January denouncing religious extremism in all its forms and urged the public to support the ongoing Federal Government of Somalia (FGS)–led offensive against Al-Shabaab and other terror groups.
The clerics issued a 14-point declaration that emphatically denounced Al-Shabaab, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other like-minded groups saying their extremist ideology had no religious basis and branded them enemies of Islam .
“The conference unanimously agreed that Al-Shabaab, ISIS and other like-minded groups have deviated from the true teachings of Islam and that they are considered enemies of the Islamic religion and the Somali population,” said Dr. Osman Maalim Mohamud from Saudi Arabia who read the declaration in the company of other ulema (clerics) .
In the ongoing offensive, HSM’s government has aggressively gone after terror financing. Unlike previous offensives, there are concurrent efforts against al-Shabaab’s taxation and governance in areas beyond its military control. In a crackdown on the group’s finances, Stig Jarle Hansen, a counter-terrorism expert observes that Somali authorities “have closed down hundreds of bank and mobile money accounts allegedly linked to the group” adding that the government “is warning the Somali private sector against paying taxes/protection money to al-Shabaab, with stark warnings and ultimatums to the private sector that continue to support the group .” As the Somali forces continue with the mopping up operations in central Somalia to conclude the first-round offensive, the government is now preparing to launch the second-round offensive in Al-Shabab controlled areas in South- West State and Jubaland.
Despite a few reversible setbacks, the first round of offensive was a resounding success. It marked the first time in 15 years that the Somali National Army backed by local fighters launched a large-scale offensive that pushed back the terrorists in the central regions of Hirshabelle and Galmudug reclaiming towns and villages previously under the terrorists’ control. As noted by a recent International Crisis Group Report, the operation has yielded the most comprehensive territorial gains since the mid-2010s, as soldiers have dislodged Al-Shabaab militants from significant parts of central Somalia.
The United Nation’s (UN) Counter-Terrorism Strategy identifies four measures that can effectively enhance the fight against terror. These include measures to address the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism, preventing and combating terrorism, building a States’ capacity to prevent and combat terrorism and ensuring respect for human rights for all and the rule of law as the fundamental basis of the fight against terrorism meaning the rights of individuals should not be infringed upon under the pretext of fighting terrorism . While Somalia has incorporated almost all of the above elements in its overall anti-terror strategy, it is worthwhile noting that combating terror along such defined parameters is a herculean task that requires the commitment of enormous resources, both financial and material.
Terrorism is a challenge that the international community must tackle together. Unlike the successful anti-terror campaigns against heavily-armed ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria that relied on the support of a global coalition, Somalia has largely been left on its own to take the war to Al-Shabab across south-Central Somalia and remnants of ISIS that have appeared in a mountainous region in the North-East of the country. Given that HSM has called for an international response, a global coalition similar to the one that triumphed over ISIS in Iraq and Syria is needed to finance the war against Al-Shabab, arm and equip the Somali Army as well as engage in other strategic operations.
Beyond military operations, an Iraq-Syria style global coalition that comprised 86 countries should partner with Somalia to dismantle Al-Shabab’s networks, countering its domestic and regional ambitions, disrupting its financing and economic infrastructure; preventing the flow of foreign terrorist fighters into Somalia borders, supporting stabilisation and the restoration of essential public services to liberated areas and countering the group’s propaganda .
The biggest challenge in the ongoing fight is that of consolidation. As the Somali government gears up for the second-round offensive, it must proceed with care by fortifying its gains in the central regions. The government should assign holding forces to provide security in recovered areas, support local reconciliation efforts and step-up service delivery, while carefully managing residents’ expectations. If it does not take these measures, it may give Al-Shabaab, which has proven resilient, a chance to rebound” warned the International Crisis Group. For cash-strapped Mogadishu, the Crisis Group adds, consolidation and stabilization in recovered areas “could prove difficult, and international donors will need to step in to provide support ”
Due to minimal resources, it remains an uphill task for Somalia to consolidate gains in large swathes of recovered territories. It is clearly obvious that by relentlessly taking the battle to Al-Shabab through a sustained offensive devoid of international support, the Somali National Army over-extended itself. This allowed the terrorists to regroup at times staging a number of counter-attacks even though the SNA has always been quick in regaining the initiative.
In addition to the provision of stabilization assistance such as education and livelihoods in liberated areas, Somalia needs global partners that can finance and support the return of IDPs to their home regions and the development of youth programming that can prevent Al-Shabab’s re-exploitation and recruitment of this vulnerable population. With international support, the repatriation and return of displaced residents to their areas of origin or alternatively safe locations is the only durable, long-term solution to these challenges.
It is regrettable that the UN Security Council (UNSC) failed to respond to Somalia’s renewed call for the lifting of the arms embargo. With the ATMIS Mission now undergoing a troop drawdown, Somalia needs to be sufficiently prepared to take full responsibility of its national security. Thus far, the arms embargo remains the biggest barrier to eradicating the Al-Shabab threat. The UNSC should heed the recent call by Somalia and all its neighbouring IGAD member states by lifting the arms embargo so that the under-equipped Somali National Army and other domestic security forces can be supplied with state-of-the-art modern weaponry and communications systems that can escalate the war in the second-round offensive beyond Al-Shabab’s capabilities.
As it prepares its second-round offensive against Al-Shabab, Somalia can also benefit from some of the counter-terrorism strategies identified by the US State Department. These should include internationally supported efforts to strengthen Somalia’s law enforcement and judicial capabilities, expand aviation and border security, deepen, and enhance intelligence and information sharing to prevent, degrade, detect, and respond to evolving threats, freeze terrorist assets, improve crisis response, and counter violent extremism mechanisms.
Apart from state-led efforts, the international community should support HSM’s calls for a counter violent extremism programs and initiatives that enhance popular and grassroots- led interventions while empowering affected communities to better understand and respond to potential threats. Support at this level is critically important because HSM is already engaging various stakeholders, including the academia, the private sector and civil society. He also encourages the full, equal, and meaningful participation of women and youth in his government’s counter-terrorism strategy.
With the SNA and allied civilian fighters having a clear upper hand in the ongoing anti-terror operations, a global coalition must join the fight in the second-round offensive to terminally wipe out Al-Shabab from Somali soil. A successful completion of the second-round offensive will herald an era of lasting peace and prosperity and a terror-free Somalia at peace with itself and the world.