Shabab killing on a shoe­string bud­get

Lesotho Times - - Africa -

NAIROBI — They have lost their leader, their ports, their check­points and their ter­ri­tory.

They have lost thou­sands of men and much of their money. They have no fleet of ar­mored per­son­nel car­ri­ers like Boko Haram’s. Or poppy fields like the Tal­iban’s. Or oil fields like the Is­lamic State’s.

In the peck­ing or­der of the world’s lead­ing ter­ror­ist groups, the Shabab mil­i­tants, based in So­ma­lia, op­er­ate on a shoe­string bud­get. But as the attack on a Kenyan uni­ver­sity last week showed, they have be­come pro­fi­cient in some­thing ter­ri­ble: mass mur­der on the cheap.

In the past two years, bare­bones Shabab teams of young gun­men have struck across Kenya, at a mall, on buses, at a quarry, in a coastal vil­lage and last week at a uni­ver­sity, where four mil­i­tants with rudi­men­tary as­sault ri­fles killed 142 stu­dents.

In all, they have slaugh­tered hun­dreds of peo­ple and shaken Kenya, an eco­nomic pow­er­house and cor­ner­stone of sta­bil­ity in this part of Africa, with just a few men and a hand­ful of light weapons.

“I call it the dumb­ing down of ter­ror­ism,” said Matt Bry­den, a re­searcher in Nairobi who has been work­ing on So­ma­lia for more than 20 years. “They keep it sim­ple. They’re lightly armed, highly dis­ci­plined and rel­a­tively well trained.”

“They’ve def­i­nitely lost some of their ma­jor rev­enue flows,” he added. “But they’ve man­aged to sur­vive a lean sea­son.”

De­spite a ma­jor in­ter­na­tional mil­i­tary ef­fort in re­cent years to re­take So­ma­lia and push the Shabab out of their strongholds, es­pe­cially ports on the So­mali coast, Shabab fighters are prov­ing to be fright­en­ingly re­silient. As the Shabab have shown with their lat­est at­tacks, it is not all about ter­ri­tory.

An­a­lysts say they lead a gru­elling ex­is­tence, mov­ing con­stantly from thread­bare vil­lage to thread­bare vil­lage, living off the land in one of the poor­est lands on earth. All the the­o­ries about how to stop them do not seem to be work­ing.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is deeply wor­ried that the Shabab, one of most vi­o­lent branches of Al Qaeda, might strike on Amer­i­can soil, and the strat­egy against them has been to elim­i­nate their lead­ers and deny them sanc­tu­ar­ies where they can plot op­er­a­tions.

In con­ven­tional mil­i­tary terms, the Shabab are los­ing. They have been routed from many ar­eas, and are no longer able to rake in mil­lions of dol­lars by ship­ping out moun­tains of char­coal or im­port­ing cars, as they did just a few years ago.

Even in the small towns in So­ma­lia they still con­trol, Shabab fighters are not safe. They are re­lent­lessly hunted — from above.

Their revered leader, Ahmed Abdi Go­dane, was killed last year in an Amer­i­can airstrike, and other Shabab agents have been killed by drones.

The Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment has helped pay for an African Union sta­bil­i­sa­tion force in So­ma­lia, in­vest­ing nearly $1 bil­lion (M10 bil­lion) in this over­all strat­egy. But Shabab at­tacks, as shown by the uni­ver­sity massacre in Kenya, con­tinue to grow in scope and am­bi­tion, rais­ing the ques­tion: How ex­actly can they be stopped?

“It’s not an easy game,” said Stig Jarle Hansen, a Nor­we­gian pro­fes­sor who has writ­ten a book about the Shabab. “You have to have a peo­ple-cen­tric strat­egy. You have to bring se­cu­rity to the vil­lages in So­ma­lia and stop cor­rup­tion within the Kenyan se­cu­rity ser­vices.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard over the past five or six years, ‘ The Shabab is dy­ing, the Shabab is dy­ing.’

“The Shabab is not dy­ing,” he said. “Case closed.”

The Shabab’s end­less evo­lu­tion pro­vides a daunt­ing global les­son in the battle against ex­trem­ists.

On the other side of the con­ti­nent, Nige­ria and its neigh­bours are fight­ing Boko Haram, re­tak­ing towns and vil­lages in an ef­fort to stop the group from dom­i­nat­ing large stretches of Nige­rian ter­ri­tory.

In Iraq, the gov­ern­ment and its al­lies, backed by Amer­i­can airstrikes, are bat­tling the Is­lamic State for con­trol of Tikrit. In Ye­men, there are con­cerns that a feared branch of Al Qaeda will con­sol­i­date even more ter­ri­tory and in­flu­ence amid a chaotic and ex­pand­ing civil war.

Shabab fighters once as­pired to rule So­ma­lia, and nearly did. They ea­gerly fed off the bit­ter­ness and anger that many So­ma­lis felt to­ward an Ethiopian force that was oc­cu­py­ing their coun­try. (The United States had covertly sup­ported the Ethiopian in­va­sion.)

From 2007-10, the Shabab steadily tight­ened their grip on So- malia, at one point con­trol­ling more ter­ri­tory than any other Al Qaeda fran­chise — a chunk the size of Den­mark.

Mr Hansen calls this pe­riod “the Shabab’s golden age.”

“They were do­ing some­thing like state build­ing,” he said. “They were ad­min­is­ter­ing ter­ri­tory. They were de­liv­er­ing ser­vices,” while bull­whip­ping women and sup­press­ing the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion in their harsh in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Is­lamic rule.

But Shabab com­man­ders made the mis­take of hubris, think­ing they could de­feat a much larger, bet­ter­armed African Union force in con­ven­tional war­fare.

The Shabab lost hun­dreds of fighters in street bat­tles in Mo­gadishu, the cap­i­tal, in 2010. Many more de­fected. An­a­lysts es­ti­mate that their army has dwin­dled to 3,000 fighters, at most, from about 7,000.

The Shabab lost their ma­jor port, Kis­mayo, and then mi­nor ones like Brava. The Shabab’s lead­ers are now be­lieved to be con­cen­trated around Jilib, a small town in the man­grove swamps near the south­ern So­mali coast.

As the map of their ter­ri­tory has vi­o­lently changed, so have their tac­tics. The Shabab used to det­o­nate huge car bombs in Mo­gadishu that black­ened large stretches of the city and killed hun­dreds of peo­ple. But car bombs are ex­pen­sive. An­a­lysts say the Shabab prob­a­bly do not have the cash any­more.

But there may be an­other rea­son. The count­less civil­ians killed in So­ma­lia were al­most all Mus­lim (the coun­try is al­most ex­clu­sively Mus­lim), and the cen­tral lead­er­ship of Al Qaeda scolded the Shabab for slaugh­ter­ing so many Mus­lims.

So the Shabab did some­thing they have al­ways been good at: They changed. Now Shabab fighters sort their vic­tims at gun­point. They let Mus­lims go and tell Chris­tians to lie down, eyes closed.

At the West­gate mall in Nairobi, Kenya, they asked shop­pers ques­tions about Is­lam to sep­a­rate Mus­lims from non-mus­lims. They did it again in the at­tacks at the Man­dera quarry, shoot­ing many Chris­tian work­ers in the back of the head, at close range.

And last week the Shabab spared Mus­lim stu­dents — most of the stu­dents at Garissa Uni­ver­sity Col­lege, where they struck, were from other parts of Kenya, the ma­jor­ity Chris­tian. — NY Times.

Newly trained al-shabab fighters per­form mil­i­tary ex­er­cises in this file pic­ture.

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