In June 2013, Barawe residents witnessed intense fighting between rival al-Shabaab factions loyal to top leader Ahmed Abdi Godane on one side and forces loyal to Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, Omar Hammami, (the late) Ibrahim al-Afghani, and other leaders on another.
The drama led to the usual presumptions of al-Shabaab’s demise and was a notable setback for the group’s attempt to display solidarity among its ranks to local communities.
As a result, al-Shabaab recently hosted a much more entertaining set of competitions exclusively among young men in the town that was a stark contrast to earlier factional violence.
The event was led by its governor for the Lower Shabelle region Sheikh Abu Abdalla and included an interesting mix of children’s games (e.g., musical chairs and egg-and-spoon/potato sack races) and traditional military exercises.
Though celebrations are common at the end of Ramadan, al-Shabaab’s beachside festival attended by hundreds of residents was especially meaningful.
Since there have been many recent characterizations of the group as fatally divided, the event was most likely an attempt by the the town’s leaders (who are Godane loyalists) to maintain grassroots support and assure residents that life will continue as normal.
With the killing of al-Afghani at the hands of Godane’s forces and Robow & Hammami still on the run, Shongole’s presence in Baraawe hints at his capitulation to Godane.
It also offers another sign that Godane may be effectively consolidating power.
This development could allow al-Shabaab to regroup–and perhaps emerge stronger–after its internal disputes risked further weakening its overall image.
Defections to al-Shabaab
The group has continued its public relations effort by highlighting the defection of a Beledweyne elder who was allegedly displeased with Ethiopia and Djibouti’s actions in Hiiraan region.
Al-Shabaab also publicly displayed militants who the group alleged were formally part of Ahmed Madobe (Ras Kamboni leader) and Barre Hirale’s warring militias in Kismayo–pointing to its ability to exploit tensions in the port town that it lost in September 2012 to Kenyan and Ras Kamboni forces.
On the other side of things, Somali government forces are currently struggling with internal divisions and lack of adequate equipment to defeat al-Shabaab on the battlefield–even though the arms embargo was relaxed.
Similarly, AMISOM forces have yet to come up with a plan to arise out of its stalled offensive–mired most prominently in Kismayo.
The withdrawal of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) due to the risk posed by armed groups and unhelpful civilian authorities is certainly a blow to the reputation of the Somali government to leverage resources for its citizens at a time when expectations are high.
Al-Shabaab’s own reputation with humanitarian organizations hit a low point when it controversially banned most aid groups from its territories at the height of a regional famine in August 2011. However, the group often has used the looting and burning of “expired” aid to insist it is protecting local interests.
In order to counter al-Shabaab’s attempt to regain its swagger, the Somali government and its allies need to reinvigorate its military offensive, address the obstructive issue of federalism, and ensure that the much hyped New Deal Compact for aid delivery doesn’t fall victim to quarreling over who has the right to deliver assistance or similar obstacles that led to MSF’s untimely departure.