Central Somalia is isolated, but so is Al-Shabaab’s leadership

Operation BLACK LION is the name for the ongoing military offensive involving the Somali National Army and its allies within local clan leadership. This offensive intends to take back large swathes of Somalia that have fallen under Al-Shabaab control.

One month in, the impacts of BLACK LION in Central Somalia are just starting to be felt, particularly with regard to the undermining of Shabaab’s regional operating model. The strategic clearance operation of Caad in early January has set the conditions for a series of SNA/Macawiisley operations, enabling the possibility for a linkup of previously disconnected southern and eastern approaches. This has had the effect of encircling the group’s local Jabha structures, dislocating their presence in periphery towns (Budbud, Ceel Qooxle, and Jowle), threatening key strategic locations (specifically Ceel Burr and Jacar), and severely limiting tax collection mechanisms.

More broadly, disrupting communication lines is also limiting the flow of weapons/personnel, slowing the redeployment of fighters to the front lines, and isolating IED production facilities in the Juba River Valley from Yemeni smuggling routes. Amidst the recent flurry of operations, Shabaab has only managed to carry out a single attack in return (targeting Gorgoor/Danab in Caad on 24 Jan 24), which was quickly repelled by the SNA with support from US and Turkish overhead strike activity. The success of ground manoeuvres is also beginning to affect the regional power balance, with clan leadership in occupied towns contemplating a post-Shabaab world, and local Jabha commanders being unable to maintain unity in their fighters.

Trouble in Central Somali is reflected in the Jilib heartland, with the US strike last December that killed Maalim Ayman, the Jaysh Ayman commander. Ayman was a senior leader in Shabaab, responsible for coordinating all activities within Kenya and southern Somalia, and was a member of Abu Ubaidah’s (Diriye, the overall Emir) inner circle. Given that the US State Department had placed a $10m bounty on Ayman’s head, the strike comes as little surprise, particularly at a time when other members of the group’s senior leadership are jostling for influence.

In a desperate attempt to combat the threat of espionage, the group has carried out several public executions in Jilib in an attempted show of force. However, such executions are unlikely to solve the issue, particularly given that last year witnessed a number of power struggles between the inner circle, most notably in the armed conflict initiated by the clan militia forces of Abdirahman Warsame (Karate, Deputy Emir). The precision targeting of senior leadership figures is working to not only isolate the Shabaab forces countering BLACK LION in Southern Somalia, but also with regard to fracturing the unity of Shabaab’s powerbase more widely. Replacing Maalim Ayman without further destabilizing the already fragile leadership structure is a significant challenge for Abu Ubaidah, and is probably the key reason why Al-Katib (Shabaab’s propaganda arm) has so far been unwilling to comment on the strike.

Dissent within the Shabaab ranks comes at a time when the federal government has never been more united. On 1 Dec 23, the UNSC unanimously voted for an end to the restriction on arms proliferation, providing a mechanism to enable the SNA to be equipped with heavier weaponry and equipment to aid in the fight against Shabaab. On 6 Dec 23, Said Deni (the current president of Puntland) defaulted to a clan-based voting system, ameliorating the risk of conflict between rival forces in Bossaso/Garowe, and laying the foundations for a smoother election process. On 1 Jan 24, the announcement of the Hargeisa/Addis Memorandum of Understanding (under which Ethiopia would gain Red Sea access in exchange for recognizing Somaliland’s independence) was widely disavowed by African Union neighbors, and actually drew the federal government and Shabab together on a common narrative. On 24 Jan 24, the National Consultative Council agreed on the procedural framework for a ratified constitutional change, which would provide a pathway to improved national governance, and a mechanism for bilateral investment supporting growth, development and trade. By offering the Somali people an alternative to insurgent rule, through establishing a more stable and accountable state, clearance operations present the federal government a genuine opportunity to secure and hold population centers through consent rather than by force.

So where does this leave Shabaab? In October last year we commented on how senior leaders were promoting their own interests over those of Somalia. This can be seen in the use of their militias to promote clan interests, Zakat being reallocated to interests in the Yemeni civil war, blockades on aid preventing access to those most in need, and in the fact that Abu Ubaidah remains subservient to the proxy agenda of Iranian-based Sayf al-Adel. None of these issues have been resolved, and the current military pressure is only reinforcing the inconsistencies in the group’s operating model. While BLACK LION is never realistically going to defeat Shabaab in its entirety, it has begun to expose the true nature of the group and to present genuine opportunities for the federal government to extend their influence in Central Somalia in a positive way. Shabaab must now be seen for what it truly is; a declining militia force engaging in a bloody national insurgency, working to disguise the fact that it operates on behalf of the needs of a selfish few, rather than on what is best for all.

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