Somali rebel retreat prompts hope and fear

August 8, 2011 9:00 am


Gunmen engage in a fire fight in Mogadishu/AFP

NAIROBI, Kenya Aug 8 – Somalia’s government celebrated after Al-Qaeda affiliated Shabaab rebels made a surprise pullout of famine-struck Mogadishu, but prospects for peace remain far off, analysts say.

“The Shabaab can still wage a guerrilla war, and can probably carry on a prolonged hit-and-run campaign,” said Peter Pham, a senior analyst with the Washington-based Atlantic Council think-tank.

“It would be premature to write it off,” he added.

Shabaab fighters are waging a bloody campaign to overthrow the country’s Western-backed transitional government, and still control large areas of the south and centre of the country.

Rebel fighters on Saturday abandoned well-defended positions in the capital – which African Union-backed government troops failed to seize despite years of bloody assault – saying their organised and planned retreat was merely “a change of military tactics”.

“Some interpret it as a defeat and retreat, or as a tactical move to switch to guerrilla war,” said Ken Menkhaus, associate professor at North Carolina’s Davidson College.

The US-designated terrorist group is well practiced in insurgent techniques including roadside explosives, and last year claimed responsibility for suicide blasts that killed 76 people in the Ugandan capital Kampala.

“It is important that we acknowledge that real security risks, including from terrorist attacks, remain and must not be underestimated,” the UN special representative in Somalia, Augustine Mahiga, said in a statement to welcome the withdrawal.

Pro-Shabaab websites warned of renewed attacks on the AU force, recalling the waves of attacks launched against Ethiopian troops in 2007 after their US-backed invasion to overthrow an Islamist movement many Shabaab members had belonged to.

“The move will enable the Shabaab to gain the upper hand over the African invaders, as was the case against Ethiopian troops,” one of the sites,, boasted.

But the group is weakened, with a slump in popular support and rifts within the leadership between nationalist factions and a foreign fighter-dominated wing.

The killing in Mogadishu in June of the presumed head of Al-Qaeda in east Africa, Fazul Abdullah Muhammad, was a blow to fighters with an international extremist agenda.

“The Shabaab are on the backfoot – they are a very young and makeshift organisation,” said Sally Healy, from Britain’s Chatham House think-tank.

Until Saturday morning, government troops and the African Union mission in Somalia (AMISOM) controlled just over half of war-torn Mogadishu, including the airport and port, while the Shabaab controlled the city’s northeast.

“Some within the leadership believed that they could not sustain conventional war against AMISOM, and therefore called for abandoning the whole idea of controlling territories,” said Afyare Elmi, assistant professor at Qatar University.

There has been growing local resentment at the Shabaab’s draconian ban on key foreign aid agencies.

While extreme drought is affecting 12 million people across the Horn of Africa, it has spiralled into famine only in areas they control or were fighting over.

The withdrawal from Mogadishu was a strategic defeat and a major economic blow for the extremist rebels, losing them control of Mogadishu’s main Bakara and Suuqbaad markets.

Taxes on trade there netted the group up to $60 million annually, according to a recent UN report, although the bulk of businesses had already shifted across the frontline into government zones in recent months.

“The insurgency has clearly been weakened by the famine, not just in terms of political legitimacy lost and internal divisions revealed, but also in terms of its revenue stream having dried up,” added Pham.

But the gunmen who make up the Shabaab remain a threat.

Others believe an overstretched Shabaab pulled out troops to redeploy “south to Kismayu,” Menkhaus added, a rebel stronghold pressured by pro-government forces.

The pullout from war-torn Mogadishu could open emergency relief access for some 100,000 people who fled drought into the city in recent months, now starving in famine-hit camps rife with disease.

But after decades of war – and the rise and fall of multiple warlords – Somalia has become wearily accustomed to rapidly shifting military and political dynamics that provide little or no relief for ordinary people struggling to survive.

Analysts warn the key issue now is whether Somalia’s weak Transitional Federal Government (TFG) can capitalise on the retreat and take effective control of one of the world’s most dangerous capitals.

“The big question now, is if the TFG will be able to hold and govern the newly liberated territory,” Menkhaus said. “This is its big – and maybe its last – chance.”


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