Al-Shabaab was the most deadly Islamist militant group in Africa over the past year, according to a new study by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS) in Washington, D.C.
The U.S. government-affiliated think tank revealed important trends and statistics on militant lethality, and two findings were particularly interesting for al-Shabaab watchers:
• Violent events linked to militant Islamist groups in Africa over the last year increased by 38 percent over the previous 12-month period (2,933 vs. 2,117).
This continues an upward trend observed in 2017 after a brief decline in 2016. The surge in activity is not the result of any one factor. Rather, it reflects increases associated with all major militant Islamist groups on the continent—al Shabaab, Boko Haram, Islamic State (ISIS), and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
The second statistic showed how al-Shabaab was predominately responsible for the violence among Islamic militant groups in the last year.
• Al Shabaab was linked to 58 percent of all reported violent events by militant Islamist groups in Africa (1,749 out of 2,933) over the last year. It was also associated with the greatest number of reported fatalities (4,834 out of 10,535), amounting to 46 percent of the total
Notably, al-Shabaab’s twin bomb blasts in October 2017 – which involved an estimated 1,500-pound truck bomb — incurred a staggering 512 deaths and 316 injuries, according to Reuters. That attack by itself represented almost 5% of all fatalities from the ACSS reporting period.
Degrading Al-Shabaab’s Lethality
The ACSS report raises questions on whether African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) offensive operations and U.S. drone strikes — the two most capable direct threats to al-Shabaab — have actually degraded the group’s lethality.
AMISOM has not been able to degrade al-Shabaab’s lethality because it has effectively displaced al-Shabaab fighters from controlling urban centers rather than taking them off the battlefield permanently; al-Shabaab often tactically withdraws from locations to preserve its fighters rather than fight AMISOM head on.
It is highly unlikely AMISOM will make any further headway in this regard, especially as its troops experience fatigue, complacency, and admit to having a lack of resources to both defend and expand its current area of control.
U.S. drone strikes appear to have limited impact as well.
In 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump doubled the number of drone strikes in Somalia from the previous year, ostensibly aiming to speed up the removal of al-Shabaab leadership and provoke defections among the rank and file.
Despite the increase in 2017, the year witnessed al-Shabaab’s continued escalation of attacks, including its single most lethal attack in its history as referenced above in the October double-bomb attack.
U.S. efforts to advise and assist Somali special forces in counter-Shabaab missions historically have been even less lethal than both AMISOM operations and drone strikes. Of course, there are questions about its sustainability. It would be very difficult for the Somali special forces to continue as a cohesive unit in the event the U.S. ceased its support, especially in consideration of the looting and militia fighting that occurred in late April 2018 after the UAE vacated its training facility in Mogadishu.
Despite these inherent limitations, it was reported this week that the U.S. was expanding its forward operating base just outside Mogadishu in Baledogle, where American train Somali special forces.
As AMISOM struggles with its plan to transfer security responsibilities to Somali forces, an additional wrinkle to these efforts will be the fact that there continue to be struggles in countering al-Shabaab’s lethality from actors already with much greater resources than the Somali army. That will be a significant challenge even if a successful handover occurs in the near future.