Since al-Shabaab chief Ahmed Abdi Godane was killed in US airstrikes in early September 2014, one of the biggest questions was how this would affect the strength of the group.
The strengths and weaknesses of al-Shabaab can be assessed from three different lenses: territorial ownership, clan support, and operational capabilities.
Al-Shabaab is getting marginally weaker through losing territory it directly administers due to the ongoing AMISOM/Somali offensive. This would be the case whether Godane was dead or not since the group has continued to tactically withdraw from towns in order to preserve its numbers of militants as AMISOM/Somali forces make their advance.
Instead of trying to hold major towns during the offensive, al-Shabaab has preferred to
 allow its fighters to melt into towns and the outskirts,
 put commercial and humanitarian blockades on towns under government control, which has caused significant increases in prices for goods,
 attack supply lines outside “liberated” towns,
 tax businesses in towns even where they have been kicked out.
So, al-Shabaab is “weaker” in terms of the size of the area that it controls but not necessarily in terms of its influence in these territories.
In order to counter this from a military standpoint AMISOM and Somali forces would have to change its core strategy and risk losing more of its forces by pursuing militants in the bush–but this course of action is not likely to happen.
In addition, it is also challenging for Somalia and its international partners to counter al-Shabaab’s influence over businesses–which is maintained in part by ideological sympathy but also violent threats.
Is al-Shabaab weaker in terms of clan support? Generally, no.
In terms of clan support, there is no direct indication that Shabaab is losing significant support from among the main clan factions that support it in the Lower/Middle Shabelle, Galgaduud, Hiiraan, and Galgala (Puntland) areas.
Areas of notable clan tension in Kismayo (Lower Juba) offer places where al-Shabaab can still exploit angst against regional authorities and possibly still draw support.
In addition, pro-Shabaab sites issue regular updates of clans that have continued to make donations to the group.
Overall, in the context the federalism process ignoring many key clans in the formation of new regional administrations, the Somali government and other major stakeholders have failed to create a socio-political climate in which clans could act in total solidarity against al-Shabaab, or alternatively, in support of the regional administrations.
Is Shabaab weaker in terms of operational capabilities? Mostly, no.
Losing territory will reduce the group’s ability to offer social services, which is key for its strategy of spreading influence through both threats/attacks and social benefits.
As a result, al-Shabaab may have to rely further on strategies (e.g., commercial blockades) that punish Somalis for not cooperating with the group or residing in government-controlled territory.
One one hand, this could take a toll on locals’ appetite for the group.
But on the other hand, if al-Shabaab’s opponents are not able provide protections against al-Shabaab threats and demands, locals be forced to continue capitulating to the group’s orders and decry regional and federal authorities for their powerlessness.
Al-Shabaab is still very effective at IED attacks and assassinations. But, the last two high profile attacks on the parliament building and NISA prison, while bringing the group major media attention and exposing the weakness of Somalia’s security apparatus, did not result in the deaths of any MPs or rescue of prisoners.
In addition, an under-noted success for the Somali government regarding these attacks was the relative effectiveness of the US-trained Alpha Group commandos in their response. (It remains an open question how the Somali government will replace Alpha Group members that are killed in action.)
However, al-Shabaab’s multiple attacks on the Villa Somalia–aided in part by an al-Shabaab spy in the compound–shows that the group is still capable of assassinating top government officials.
Even if this grim potentiality played out, there is sufficient political and security stability to prevent the “downfall” of the government in a dystopian sense. But, the process to select a new PM or President of course would set the political agenda of Somalia back for at least 6 months to a year. This, in turn, could foment the possibility of a political and electoral crisis in 2016–rooted in the fact that there are no significant efforts for Somalia to hold one person-one vote elections, for which President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has already declared himself a potential candidate.
Lastly, Shabaab’s connections in Kenya and Tanzania haven’t shown signs of dissipating. There continue to be reports of Tanzanians still trying to go to Somalia. East Africans appear to be go for training and fighting in Somalia while others are returning to Tanzania or Kenya, and there are few reasons to think this could change after Godane’s death in the short-term.
One critical factor to consider is the degree to which Godane was in control of the tempo of attacks and recruitment in Kenya–which curiously fluctuate–and other places outside Somalia.
There is a solid consensus that key commanders such as Kenyan notables Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir “Ikrima” (one of the Westgate attack architects) and Sheikh Ahmad Iman Ali are in fact the main drivers of activity–at least in Kenya–with the assistance of its local affiliate al-Hijra and possibly radical factions of other groups such as the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC).
As long as al-Shabaab’s regional networks remain alive and the group is able to exploit local grievances in their area of operation, there is no reason to believe al-Shabaab cannot continue to execute attacks abroad–as the recent counter-Shabaab operations in Uganda have shown.
So is Shabaab operationally weaker? A little bit yes, but its “assassination card” and remaining networks and operators outside Somalia are key aces up its sleeves.
The Big Break-Up
Given the divisive and dictatorial nature of Godane’s leadership, many analysts concluded that his death would result in an increasing number of defectors and bring the inevitable break-up of the group.
To date, these circumstances have not occurred. Firstly, there are anecdotal reports of defectors reportedly using the Somali government’s 45 day amnesty window; but there has not been anywhere near a number of defectors that would make a serious dent in al-Shabaab’s total number and top leaders do not appear to be taking up the recent amnesty offer.
Secondly, there are growing reports that new leader Abu Ubeyda is reaching out to formerly dissenting leaders like Robow to bring them back into the fold. Even if this effort is not successful–or only partially so–it shows an important degree of pragmatism emanating from the new rebel chief that may be enough to prevent any factions from disobeying Godane’s 2012 order forbidding the formation of rival jihadi groups in Somalia.
Equally important, there do not appear to be any factions that are readily able to break away. Many of those figures that would ponder doing so may have been killed during the last few bouts of al-Shabaab infighting.
And, since it is unclear if want-to-be leaders such as Amniyaat (intelligence bureau) chief Mahad Karate survived the same strikes that killed Godane, it is equally hard to predict whether those passed over in the leadership selection process are able or willing to put up a fight.
Even if Robow could be convinced to join with al-Shabaab again, any attempt by him to re-mobilize militants in his home regions of Bay and Bakool would significantly anger local political elites who are already tremendously occupied in an intense battle to form a regional political administration.
Similarly, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys–who negotiated a surrender to the Somali government during the aforementioned infighting–has not been able to resuscitate his Hizbul Islam militia in either a political or military form while being held (illegally) in indefinite house arrest.
Another scenario is that a faction of al-Shabaab in the future could seek greater links with the increasingly wealthy and prominent Islamic State (of Iraq and Syria – ISIS)–which has attracted a number of ethnic Somalis to its ranks in the last few months that likely outnumber recent recruits to its rival al-Qaida and affiliates.
In theory, a future alliance between an al-Shabaab faction and ISIS could provide the breakaway group with the requisite resources to start up operations even as some traditional revenue streams for jihadists become strained in Somalia.
This potential alliance could also serve as leverage–or at least a point of serious contestation–with Abu Ubeyda–who re-affirmed his allegiance to al-Qaeda upon taking up his new role.
To what degree Abu Ubeyda himself feels compelled to develop some kind of relationship with ISIS is an open question–but some observers say that this pressure exists within the group.
Although an effort by Ubeyda to create greater links with ISIS could help to head off the attempts of others within al-Shabaab to do so, it could create tension with AQ leadership and AQ supporters within al-Shabaab.
Also, Abu Ubeyda would be tying his political wagon to a horse whose reputation and overall status could fluctuate in the coming months as the myriad of anti-ISIS groups shift in their own alignments, capabilities, and strategies.
In conclusion, al-Shabaab strengths and weaknesses should be considered within the nuances of the dynamics laid out above–while keeping in mind that there is still little information about how the group could respond to new realities in Somalia, the region, and beyond.
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