On the early morning of 1 September, a reported 200 al-Shabaab militants raided an AMISOM base in the Lower Shabelle town of Janaale, killing between 20 and 50 Ugandan troops while 50 others are believed to be missing.
Al-Shabaab used a suicide car bomb at the entrance as militants began the raid, and the group also damaged a bridge in the town to make it more difficult for troops to escape or for reinforcements to arrive.
Official al-Shabaab Photos of the Janaale Attack
The combination of a car bomb, mass raid, and massive looting of AMISOM weapons followed the same tactics al-Shabaab used in its high-profile attack in Leego on a Burundian AMISOM base in June. In response to Leego, the Ugandans abandoned several bases in Lower Shabelle because they feared similar attacks on its forces in remote areas. The Janaale attack is evidence that the Ugandans’ hesitance was justified and that AMISOM has not taken sufficient measures to prevent Leego-style attacks.
AMISOM’s spokesperson said better intelligence – including that from Somalis — is needed to prevent raids on AMISOM bases. But, Uganda cannot expect to get reliable information from locals if it does not respond appropriately to abuses and accidents involving civilians.
Relatedly, al-Shabaab stated the Janaale attack was in retaliation for Ugandan troops killing Somalis at a wedding party in the nearby town of Merka in July. The attack probably was also al-Shabaab’s revenge for the drone strike that killed then-leader Ahmed Abdi Godane on the same day just one year ago.
Al-Shabaab probably seeks to demoralize AMISOM with these types of attacks in order to disrupt offensive operations that have recently resulted in the capture of major strongholds in Baardheere and Diinsoor.
Al-Shabaab may feel the “demoralization” strategy is working if it is aware of statements from Kenyan opposition politicians urging the KDF to be withdrawn from Somalia to prevent al-Shabaab attacks inside Kenya or reports of the Kenyan government “having an exit strategy”. Rumblings about the potential withdrawal of Burundian forces due to an escalating domestic political conflict may boost al-Shabaab morale as well.
Al-Shabaab is adjusting its strategy to account for its loss of territory and to exploit AMISOM’s weaknesses as the multilateral force expands its presence into unfamiliar areas.
Before al-Shabaab lost major strongholds in recent offensives, al-Shabaab used its financial resources for social services that helped it maintain support in the local community. It also carried out attacks more frequently in urban areas that regularly but those resulted in the deaths of innocent bystanders.
Now that the group has lost territory, al-Shabaab has been freed from having to provide the same scale of social services and can spend more of its money on attacks.
The expansion of AMISOM’s presence into remote areas offers al-Shabaab more vulnerable targets. Attacks against rural AMISOM bases get media attention but incur less civilian casualties.
This helps al-Shabaab to argue that its operations are not against locals but the group has continued to threaten Somalis who enjoy the beach and hotel parties.
AMISOM claimed morale was high even after raid, and Uganda’s military chief General Edward Katumba Wamala took the important step of visiting troops at the base following the attack.
Its actual morale, will, and capability will be tested in its response: will Uganda seek similar revenge by beginning new offensive operations against al-Shabaab or will it retreat from further bases that are perceived as similarly vulnerable?
In either case, Uganda and the rest of AMISOM can expect less resources for its mission. In July, Kenya’s Daily Nation reported the EU was going to slash 20% of its financial support to AMISOM, which covered “allowances for the troops, salaries for civilians as well as logistical, transport, medical and communication costs.” This means that troop contributing countries will be responsible for a larger cost of its operations in the future.
If Western donors cut back support to AMISOM, more assistance will be needed for processes that can help Somalia stakeholders agree on how to best build, integrate, and pay the country’s disparate forces, which eventually must take over.
Al-Shabaab probably can only delay further AMISOM offensive operations with mass raids but this may be a blessing in disguise given the amount of time, negotiation, and resources it will take to rebuild Somali police and military forces.