On 12 January 2013, French special forces attempted to rescue kidnapped French spy “Denis Allex” in the middle of the night from a hideout in the al-Shabaab-controlled town of Buulo Mareer (about 30 km south of Marka.)
However, the operation fell apart for several reasons, including the fact that al-Shabaab allegedly received advanced warning from residents in the nearby settlement of Daydoog who witnessed several civilians killed by French special forces as they made their way toward Buulo Mareer.
The fallout from the attack inevitably lead to Allex’s death, though it is unclear whether he died during the operation (as the French government claims) or if Allex was executed several days after the operation (as al-Shabaab claims.)
The failed rescue provided al-Shabaab with key opportunities to exploit the tragedy.
Highlighting Foreign Deaths
Al-Shabaab published photos of a French special forces member killed in the attack and pictures of his high-tech gear in order to counter claims that the group had been weakened or defeated in recent months.
The propaganda could provide a temporary morable boost for al-Shabaab militants who undoubtedly have experienced significant setbacks in recent months, even if they haven’t been taken off the battlefield.
In fact, the photos prove to local militants and potential foreign recruits that Somalia is still a legitimate ground in which to fight those who are believed to be “enemies” of Islam.
To a lesser degree, it may also motivate Jihadis currently fighting (and those who want to fight) the French in Mali. But, Islamist rebels there are operating in a very different environment at the moment–given the wide range of roles played by international forces and many important local dynamics.
Assisting Victims of The Attack
France could have saved some face after the failed attack by offering compensation or even a sincere apology for the loss of civilian lives during the operation.
However, this did not occur, and al-Shabaab exploited the gap.
SomaliMemo, a reliable pro-al-Shabaab source, reported that the group’s Lower Shabelle governor Sheikh Mohamed Abu Abdalla personally handed out $500 to each of the victim’s families and promised that al-Shabaab would help to repair a bread bakery damaged during the fighting. Other reports indicated that the group also provided food and medicine to victims’ families.
While it is well-accepted that al-Shabaab’s radical actions continue to make it unpopular in many parts of Somalia, the group has not forgotten how to exploit opportunities to maintain local support–especially in rural areas.
What’s Next for al-Shabaab?
Al-Shabaab has been financially weakened without necessarily seeing a large depletion of its forces since counter operations increased significantly in late 2011. The group is struggling to adapt its overall strategy to accommodate the various local and foreign leaders who disagree over strategies, tactics, and leadership.
It remains a question whether the group can take back the big cities that it lost by continuing a combination of indiscriminate mortar, suicide, and IED attacks and small-scale ambushes.
Lastly, the UK’s advisory for Britons to evacuate Somaliland implies the possibility that al-Shabaab may be plotting to kidnap Westerners in Somaliland to raise funds–especially for contingents in Puntland’s Galgala mountains with few consistent revenue streams. (Note: its coastline access enables it to receive shipments from AQAP.) Though al-Shabaab is unpopular in Somaliland, several sleeper cells have been busted in recent years.
The group already has shown its capacity to carry out kidnappings in Kenya, and ransoming hostages could provide the financial boon that the group desperately seeks.