What happened: Al-Shabaab vacated the port town of Harardheere in Somalia’s Galmudug region, which it controlled for the last 10 years.
Potential Drivers: There are at least three reasons why the group may have left the town:
1) Drone Strikes: Local reports tied the retreat to the increased number of U.S. drone strikes that hit the area in recent months, including an October strike that the U.S. claimed killed 60 militants and November strikes that allegedly killed 37 other fighters. While this is possible, it must be noted that these strikes largely were in rural areas just outside Harardheere, not in the town proper. As a result, why would al-Shabaab retreat outside the relative safe zone of an urban center to areas more vulnerable to the cross-hairs of America’s armed drones? The U.S. probably views drone strikes as easier to deploy in rural areas where there is less risk of incurring significant civilian casualties, which al-Shabaab has exploited in the past.
2) Intra-Group Fighting: On August 23, local media reported that there was ongoing infighting between al-Shabaab militants in Harardheere over an unspecified issue and that the group was limiting access to the town at the time. It is possible that al-Shabaab planned its own “work retreat” to address tension points out of the spotlight of the public. As of this writing, it did not appear that Galmudug forces had reasserted themselves in the town. This could hint to al-Shabaab that it could return to Harardheere at its leisure because the regional administration was in no place to seriously challenge its dominance in the town. Thus, it is critical that Somali government forces exploit the security vacuum in Harardheere to demonstrate its capability to capitalize off of al-Shabaab shortcomings.
3) Backlash from Child Recruitment: Recently, al-Shabaab has increased its forced recruitment of children in Harardheere, angering its residents. In August, the group arrested mothers who sent their children outside of the town to avoid kidnapping by the militants. In the previous month, there was actually armed violence between the al-Shabaab and clan militias who opposed the policy, resulting in the death of at least 17 fighters. According to Reuters, the motivation of clan militias was intense despite contending against a better armed and resourced opponent:
“We attacked al Shabaab and…then, al Shabaab got many militants as reinforcement from various regions. We fought and fought till we ran out of bullets,” a local elder, Farah Ahmed, told Reuters by phone from the Haradheere area on [July 5].
If al-Shabaab had maintained the rate of its child recruitment into November, it may have been the case that al-Shabaab temporarily vacated Harardheere with the hope that local tempers would cool down.
What al-Shabaab says: The group’s military spokesperson Abdiaziz Abu Musab has stated publicly that al-Shabaab wants to defend Somali coastal towns from Ethiopia’s expansionist agenda in gaining stakes in regional ports. To this point, Ethiopia has recently garnered stakes in Berbera (Somaliland) and Port Sudan, among others. This highlights how the Somali government must embark carefully in ongoing port development projects to ensure that they are more fair to aspirations of both the regional and federal government rather than foreign actors. This week’s report in the Somali rumor mill that Ethiopia was set to acquire a stake in Marka port is a perfect cautionary tale.