African Union’s war with Al Shabaab intensifies

Somali Islamist group Al Shabaab has returned to Mogadishu where it displayed the bodies of dozens of African Union and government soldiers in a show of strength. On Thursday they laid out corpses in military uniforms they said were Burundian soldiers with the AU force who they killed outside the capital. At least 70 bodies were laid out, though the Burundian army will admit to only six dead and 18 injured.
(Photo: Feisal Omar / Reuters)
The attack on Burundian soldiers was not unexpected. Along with Kenyans and Ugandans, Burundi 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 watched 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. The suitably-named Al Shabaab spokesman Ali Mohamoud Rage said they were sending a message to every country 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 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 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 near the border a day after the suicide attack. They are targeting rebels they blame for abductions, including French woman Marie Dedieu, 66, captured from her wheelchair at a beach resort in Kenya and now 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 with Kenyan forces. The fighting is at the coastal town of Kismayo, an Islamist stronghold 70kms south of the capital. Kenyan military planners 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, and thousands of Somali refugees are fleeing the aerial bombardment. Somali traders prefer to use Kismayo because of its import duties –$1000 cheaper than Mogadishu – making it 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 make life a misery in 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 they will live to 50.

Al Shabaab emerged from the break-up of the Islamic Courts Union, the de facto rulers of Somalia from the mid 1990s to 2006 until Ethiopian-led forces invaded from the west. Ethiopia toppled the ICU but hardliners formed Al Shabaab which proved more difficult to dislodge. 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 having only a few thousand fighters they have expanded due to the lack of a central government and co-operation from clan warlords.

Al Shabaab’s support relies on hatred of invaders. A March 2010 report said US support of the transitional government was “proving ineffective and costly”. The Government is unable to improve security, deliver basic services, or move toward an agreement with Somalia’s clans and opposition groups. The report recommends a strategy of “constructive disengagement.” This means the US accepting Islamist authority in Somalia—including al-Shabaab – as long as it does not impede international humanitarian activities and refrains from 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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