TSG IntelBrief: Dispatch from Mogadishu
January 9, 2015

Dispatch From Mogadishu

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Bottom Line Up Front:

• Against the odds and despite appearances, Somalia could be in the first stages of recovery

• Recovery for Somalia will be a long road, and security remains fragile and dependent on outside help

• Nonetheless, al-Shabab is in a bad state and will be hard-pressed to regain its former strength

• High-level international visitors reflect a growing confidence in the future of the country.

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Compared to most other parts of the world, Somalia is still in deep trouble with a weak central government and an active terrorist/insurgency movement that controls large areas of the country. But unlike Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and other less obvious examples of weak states, Somalia may be beginning to recover its balance. If you half-close your eyes and squint through the haze, you can almost convince yourself that things in Mogadishu are looking up.

Somalia’s president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud, who had a bitter falling out with his last prime minister, now has a new one and cabinet positions have been decided and will be announced shortly. This should bring a little more stability to the government and encourage the international community to believe that important things may now get done, such as the introduction of a new Security Act. The writ of government does not extend too far outside the capital and it is unlikely that the 22,000 troops of AMISOM will leave anytime soon, but nonetheless the trajectory seems to be upward–for the moment.

The first reason for this is that al-Shabab has received some severe knocks and remains in disarray. Its dictatorial leader, Godane, was killed in a drone strike on September 1, 2014, leaving the movement in the hands of a relatively unknown and untested lieutenant, Ahmed Diriye, also known as Abu Ubaidah. Godane was ruthless and effective, but his style and his intolerance of dissent alienated many around him, and led to the assassination—among others—of the well-known foreign fighter, the American Omar Hammami. One of the founders of the movement, with political credentials that stretch back to the first expression of extremist politics in Somalia in the 1990s, Hassan Dahir Aweys, left the organisation and surrendered to the government in mid-2013. He was followed a year later by another notable al-Shabab supporter, Mohamed Said Atom, who brought with him some 200 of his supporters. More recently, in late December, Zakariye Ismail Hersi gave himself up to the government after some months of estrangement from the al-Shabab leadership. His significance lies in his previous role as a senior member of Amniyat, al-Shabab’s security and intelligence arm, and therefore someone with deep knowledge of the movement’s strengths and weaknesses. The death by drone at the same time of Tahlil, the head of Amniyat, suggests that some of his knowledge remains current and valuable. Against the background of the confusion and suspicion caused by drone strikes and the defections of senior colleagues, Diriye is finding it hard to maintain order.

Although the security in the capital is still fragile, with two major attacks at the end of December and two more since then, it is good enough for the Council of Ministers of IGAD, the association of East African states, to decide to convene this week in Mogadishu for the first time ever. Furthermore, President Erdogan will pay a high-profile visit shortly afterwards, demonstrating that at least in this corner of Africa, Turkey has some foreign policy successes to celebrate and is ready to do so. Traffic will be impossibly snarled, even more than usual, and the streets have already had a welcome clean-up. These are signs of a country growing in confidence. Attacks that might bring other countries to crisis are soon shrugged off, and business as usual resumes.

It would be wrong, however, to underplay the distance that Somalia has to go before foreigners are seen at the beach-side restaurants or armoured vehicles languish on the second-hand car market. The presidential palace is heavily fortified, and for good reason; parliamentarians have been assassinated, and more deaths will follow. As al-Shabab gets weaker and is pushed out of even the smaller towns it still occupies, it will be both more difficult to defeat and more anxious to assert its presence. Most of its 3,000-5,000 fighters are mercenaries, but there is a core of perhaps 500 extremists who are committed to continuing the battle, however unlikely they are to win. Most of the foreigners who came to join al-Shabab have left, some to go home, some to go to Syria. Al-Shabab does not make an effort to seek out new foreign recruits nor does it treat them well if they come. But there is a core of foreign members based in the coastal area above Kismayo who still pose a threat to other countries—especially to Kenya and Uganda, the two largest troop contributors to AMISOM. In both these countries, the authorities have discovered plots recently that displayed an impressive level of sophistication.

As always, the glass can seem half full or half empty, but there is an encouraging cheerfulness about Somalis that suggests that while expecting more adversity, they also anticipate progress towards stability.

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