Kenyan, Ethiopian, and Somali forces recently seized Baardheere and Diinsoor from al-Shabaab after a long pause in major operations and a withdrawal of several towns during Ramadan due to al-Shabaab’s devastating attack against AMISOM’s Burundian troops in Leego.
Timed perfectly with U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to the region, the operations forced al-Shabaab to retreat south toward other strongholds in Middle Jubba and to small towns east of Baardheere and Diinsoor.
Kenya and Ethiopia appear to be working with a mix of Somali forces who do not always get along, including elements of the Somalia National Army (SNA), Interim Jubba Administration (aka IJA or Jubaland), and Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama’a (ASWJ).
This begs the question whether these factions can avoid the infighting that complicated the liberation of Kismayo, formerly al-Shabaab’s economic hub.
Even during the current offensive, another faction of ASWJ and Somali government forces clashed in Galgaduud region, in part as a remnant of disagreements over the contested process to form a new Galmudug administration in central Somalia.
As a result of this uncertainty, an unconfirmed number of residents fled Baardheere, but they will probably trickle back in when it becomes clear that stability has been established in the city.
Will The Real Baardheere Security Forces Stand Up?
Al-Shabaab’s exodus from Baardheere has started a different battle — so far only rhetorically — over which Somali factions are responsible for liberating the town.
Interim Jubba Administration (IJA) deputy leader Abdullahi Sheikh Ismail Fartaag claimed that Jubaland forces were responsible for taking Baardheere with Kenyan forces, but a Somalia National Army (SNA) military official denied reports that IJA troops were involved.
ASWJ’s faction in Gedo — which has yet to integrate with the SNA — also wanted to take the primary credit for operations in Baardheere with Ethiopian forces on the east side of the city and rejected IJA’s claims that Jubaland forces controlled key installations. These statements so far hint at the possibility of skirmishes if tensions continue to grow.
Baardheere as a Political Challenge: Jubaland’s Aspirations Versus Gedo’s Grievances
Since the IJA was created out of a political deal mediated by Ethiopia between the Somali President’s close associate Farah Sheikh Abdulkadir and Jubaland leader Ahmed Madobe, one of the IJA’s principal aims has been to expand its influence, which is currently centered around Kismayo and several towns in Lower Jubba region.
The IJA has faced stiff opposition from some clans and political elites in Kismayo and in the Gedo region because they view Madobe as overly dominant and having failed to sufficiently include legitimate representation from all clans in his administration. The IJA’s aspirations and grievances of its opposition make the stakes around control of Baardheere high.
The key question is whether Baardheere’s clan communities can shape the establishment of a new political administration in a context in which Kenya, Ethiopia, ASWJ, IJA, and the SFG may all seek some control over the political space as well.
Impact on Al-Shabaab
Kenya’s military believes that taking the bridge in Baardheere will help stem al-Shabaab’s ability to cross the Jubba river and carry out attacks in Kenya. However, there are other factors that are more relevant to the group’s ability to execute operations across the border:
- Al-Shababab has been able to recruit a significant number of militants from Kenya;
- The militants have continued to exploit hard to reach areas in the Boni Forest as a base for attacks;
- Al-Shabaab continues to profit financially from the smuggling networks along the Keyan-Somalia border where the group makes money from established checkpoints;
- Kenya’s plans to erect a border fence, which started in April, do not appear to have made much progress as of mid-June and face opposition opposition in Somalia.
Secondly, al-Shabaab’s loss of big cities has brought on the use of asymmetric economic attacks at times to complement its violent operations.
In areas like Wajid (Bakool region) and Buula Burde (Hiiraan region), al-Shabaab has erected commercial blockades against towns where it has lost control in order to make the government look incapable of providing security and services, as well as to punish local communities living under government control (or to “encourage” them to move to al-Shabaab areas.)
AMISOM and Somali forces’ failure to pursue al-Shabaab militants in small villages where they have fled after offensive operations in larger towns probably will allow al-Shabaab to impact travel and commerce in liberated towns.
AMISOM probably does not have the will to go after militants in the countryside, and this helps al-Shabaab to preserve its forces and pursue asymmetrical tactics like blockades, IED attacks, or high-profile operations.
Only progress toward a disciplined, integrated, and well-paid Somali National Army and police force can do this task in the long-term.
On 26 July, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud landed in Kismayo to mend relations with the IJA and to witness the training of IJA forces that were to be integrated into the SNA, which was ongoing even though the IJA had cut ties with the Somali Federal Government (SFG) in June.
The trip is a positive sign that the SFG and regional leaders can make progress toward creating a more representative security force that deserves more support from Somalia’s partners.
If Somali leaders continue to show a commitment toward integration and greater efforts to reduce corruption and pay security forces consistently, it could help the international community to focus anti-Shabaab efforts on improving the SNA rather than expanding resources for AMISOM, whose troops make about ten times more than their Somali counterparts.
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