By Osman Abdi Mohamed
In recent months Al-Shabab has been suffering successive losses at the hands of Somali government forces fighting alongside the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). It has lost strategic cities and towns in central and southern Somalia with little or no resistance at all. While these losses might not be complete game-changers, they are a clear indication that the group is in bad shape, at least at the moment. A greater and more devastating loss for Al-Shabab, even more so than the loss of ground, is the loss of all credibility with the larger Somali public.
For a while, Al-Shabab has been suffering declining popularity as the group is perceived as attempting to indoctrinate Somali society's uneducated youth. It has also been accused of using controversial techniques in its endeavour to earn the loyalty of different groups. For example, Al-Shabab has gone so far as to label some clans as 'friends of Islam', and others, 'the affiliates of the enemy' prompting political and religious questions and suspicion.
On another charge, the group has been accused of conducting extrajudicial punishments. Its executions and public floggings have been criticised for lack of due process. It is accused of assassinating public figures who have showed contempt for Al-Shabab's 'skewed' interpretation of Islamic injunctions. Its constant threats to purge clerics who refute the group's views have also incensed the public. For all intents and purposes, Al-Shabab has, in an understated way, alienated the people whose trust and support they relied on during the struggle against the Ethiopian invasion. Now that the organisation seems outgunned, it has been calling on the public to help 'protect' the country from the 'enemy', exposing its vulnerability even at its weakest.
Ever since Al-Shabab took full control of the majority of southern Somalia, the group has ignored the voices of the elders and ordinary people in their decision-making. This together with the accusations outlined above have led to the group losing the public's trust, a trust that they earned in 2008/2009 when the organisation portrayed itself as a nationalist organisation defending the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Somalia. There was much that the Al-Shabab leadership could have done to retain this trust, such as identifying with those at the grassroots. Instead, they adopted an uncompromising zero-sum policy that punished anyone who opposed their plans.
When they began to feel the pressure of AMISOM, they truly lost their way. Instead of distinguishing the innocent from their enemy, they resorted to collective punishment. A classic example is the bombing of Hotel Shamow in which more than twenty-five medical students – whose services were badly needed by the nation – were killed. Their justification: the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) was presiding over the graduation. This was followed by the bombing of a group of high school children who came to check their results in which more than seventy-six students died. Their justification: there were spies among the children. Numerous other heinous incidents followed including the bombing of the national theatre in which sports figures and civilians were killed.
All these incidents were in the name of fighting the enemy of Islam yet the victims were all innocent Muslims. As a result, anger against Al-Shabab flared both inside and outside of the country.
Al-Shabab suffered yet another blow when Ayman Al-Zawahiri, leader of Al-Qaeda, confirmed that the group is in fact an Al-Qaeda outfit in Somalia. The confirmation reified that the group served interests other than that of the desolate Somali nation. Al-Zawahiri's statement was as crucial for the government as much as it was a strategic blunder for Al-Shabab. It drew the attention of the international community and hardened the resolve of the forces fighting alongside its troops. Ultimately, it affirmed the existence of Al-Qaeda cells in Somalia.
Despite this, Al-Shabab remains strong and heavily armed and could still crush the government forces. But they are not fighting the government forces alone; the attack is coming from three directions: the AMISOM, the Ethiopian and Kenyan forces. Combined, these allied forces cannot only inflict on them a heavy blow but also put their very survival at stake.
Survival at Stake
There is little contestation about the fact that Al-Shabab has lost support through seclusion from the people. This seclusion is both symbolic and rhetoric. While Al-Shabab focuses on Somalia, it has little or nothing to do with Somali national identity. The group carries a black flag, they sing songs foreign to the Somali ear and vow allegiance to Al-Qaeda leadership raising the question of whether they regard Somalia as a freestanding country and Somalis as the ones to determine Somalia's interests, or they view it through the prism of Al-Qaeda's envisioned map of an extremist world. Either way, the very existence of Al-Shabab questions the sovereignty of Somalia.
Secondly, for a large part of the five years Al-Shabab has been in control of central and southern Somalia, the group has gained more enemies than friends. It has showed hostility to all views save the views of its own members. This is evident in not only how they have failed to tolerate Hizb-ul-Islam and other jihadi groups but also how they have responded to lone voices: hostile and intimidating in word and in action. If the government emerges a victor in its current struggle against Al-Shabab, it will solidify its legitimacy by annihilating all insurgent groups – chief of which will be Al-Shabab.
Thirdly, one of the largest institutional errors Al-Shabab made was failing to establish an active civilian or political wing. They concentrated wholly on their military capability. The problem with such an asymmetrical structure is that their military strategy determines every facet of the organisation's outlook, be it social or political. As we know, history repeats itself and, structurally, an organisation of this nature is not the first of its kind in Somalia. Al-Etihad of the 1990s was a jihadi organisation led by hawkish leadership rather than strategic political minds. Even though it is a disservice to Al-Etihad to compare it with Al-Shabab, successive failures resulted in the organisation's collapse not because its chain of command was poor but because it lacked civic and political dimensions. Al-Shabab will likely follow suit.
However, the biggest threat to Al-Shabab comes from within. Uncertainty and fear of defections, desertions and factions are the most destructive forces the organisation is facing yet. Hizb-ul-Islam, an organisation that joined Al-Shabab in 2010 has broken away. This defection dealt a heavy blow to Al-Shabab. It is, however, premature to claim that the centre cannot hold for the group. There is also a suspected presence of intelligence agents or collaborators within its inner circles. The presentation of a gallery of photos of the top Shabab leadership whose identities have been masked from even the militants themselves for so long, leads to the conclusion that there is a source leaking this information and a traitor among them.
Considering all possibilities, the chances that Al-Shabab will recover from a major defeat is minimal. As of now, there is limited information to shed light on what exactly the group intends to do. Guerrilla warfare is a possible option but not a viable one for long-term survival in Somalia.
Somalia is not as mountainous a country as Afghanistan, nor is it densely forested as the Great Lake region where the Lord Resistance Army (LRA) has been hiding for decades, nor is it as expansive as the Sahara desert that camouflages Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM). It has a variety of landscapes none of which is a suitable permanent base for a militant group such as Al-Shabab. It is a small arid and semi-arid country that has little to offer to hide an insurgent group for a long period of time.
Besides the terrain, the guerrilla style of the group is not conducive to the Somali people. Somalis, weary of war, are unlikely to host an insurgent group determined to continue conflict. There is no religious motivation that tells them to choose war over peace. More importantly, the ideological disparity between them and Al-Shabab will not permit the people to support a war whose vision they can barely decipher.
Another option available to Al-Shabab is to surrender. Of course there will be no quick surrender considering that there are bounties placed on the heads of the leading figures of Al-Shabab. A piecemeal defection might do. Already, the winds of change have touched the hearts of some Al-Shabab members. Somali television channels recently showed a group of Al-Shabab defectors. This will probably continue and split the organisation into those who embrace the change, abandon violence and seek amnesty; and those who fail to compromise and seek refuge elsewhere.
Of the above two options, it is too early to tell which one Al-Shabab will pursue. In the meantime, the group will continue to stage deadly attacks in the form of guerrilla warfare, suicide bombings, roadside bombings and assassinations. Again, how long this can continue is open for debate.
If the pressures on Al-Shabab continue to mount, it is the beginning of the end for the group that wanted to re-design the future of Somalia.