The men with AK-47 rifles ran fast in the other direction as the patrol by African Union troops I was with entered the village of Gobweyn, a stronghold of the al-Shabaab militia in southern Somalia, I had just crossed the frontline from Somalia’s southern port city of Kismayo, which was taken from al-Shabaab a year ago and is still held by the 17,000-strong multinational African Union force.
“Look! Over there!,” shouted a corporal from the west African state of Sierra Leone, one of the smaller contributors to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). He pointed through the window slit of our armored car at some fast-moving, distant figures. “They are afraid when professionals come.” He was right, as far as this encounter went. Al-Shabaab avoids most direct confrontations with conventional armies.
AMISOM’s main role is to confront the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabaab movement. The Somali government, although internationally recognized, is weak; its army is mostly a mixture of militias still loyal to quarreling warlords. Africa’s leaders did not want another Afghanistan on their doorstep, so they moved in with AMISOM — led by Uganda — seven years ago with a mandate and financial support from the UN.
The al-Shabaab militia, brought to world attention by its actions in Nairobi, is more than a radical Islamist group committing acts of terror. It is also by far the most powerful local army in Somalia. It controls more than half the country.
“If AMISOM left today,” said a Somalian journalist who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, “al-Shabaab would take power in the capital, Mogadishu, tomorrow.”
A clue to understanding al-Shabaab, and why it has such influence, is in its name. It means “The Youth” in Arabic. Somalia is a nation of 8 million and one of the poorest in the world. The vast majority of people here are under the age of 20. Although the Somali people have a proud history of nomadism, drought and food shortages have forced millions off the land they once shared with their beloved camels and endless skies.
Somalia is now a part of the modern world where jobs and income matter — and jihadists are recruiting. Mostly unemployed, poor and disenchanted by corrupt governments, Somalian youths are relatively easy to manipulate. A story is told in the excellent study of Somalia by James Fergusson — The World’s Most Dangerous Place — of a group of schoolboys who were tempted into joining al-Shabaab by being given a piece of fruit every day.
The social and economic crisis in Somalia is exacerbated — and to some extent caused — by clan warfare. It was hardly surprising that a radical Islamist movement saw this cauldron of problems as a happy hunting ground for recruits. Al-Shabaab is undoubtedly strong. It is capable of press-ganging local recruits and attracting foreign jihadists. However, I have seen no evidence it is genuinely popular. The al-Shabaab-held village of Gobweyn was not a good place for me to make a judgment on this. Arriving in a cloud of dust in an armored car, and wearing a bright blue “Press” flakjacket and helmet is not the best way to find honest interviewees — in Somalia or anywhere else. The only man who would talk to me seemed nonchalant about our arrival and continued sitting by a roadside shack from the moment the soldiers and I arrived to when we left in another cloud of dust.
When I asked this grey-haired Somali about the al-Shabaab presence in Gobweyn he shrugged as if to dismiss the question.
“Al-Shabaab are everywhere,” he said through a translator. “They are here; they are in Mogadishu. And look what happened in Nairobi — they are there, too.”
An ambiguous response. It could have meant he condemned this widespread presence — or he could have been boasting about it. Maybe he was an innocent elder; maybe he was an al-Shabaab supporter.
More telling, perhaps, was a farmer I met in Kismayo who had fled to the regional capital from his home town of Jillib to the north, in the heart of al-Shabaab-held Somalia. This man, Musa Ali, once had 6 hectares of land on which he grew mangoes, beans and maize. He also had a seven-roomed house, he told me — very prosperous by Somali standards. However, Ali was now living in a camp for displaced people in Kismayo on an abandoned municipal rubbish tip. His only room now was a 0.6m2 enclosure of rusting corrugated iron sheets with the carcasses of two armchairs.
“Al-Shabaab took half my crops as taxes,” he said, “and would not let my girls go to school. It was so oppressive. I could not breathe. So I prefer this place” — his arm swept in the filthy vista of the rubbish tip — “to my farm.”
When the commander of the southern Somalian sector of AMISOM, Kenyan Brigadier Antony Ngere, showed me his map of “Al-Shabaab Infested Areas” it included a large number of red blobs where AMISOM rarely ventures.
“This is a difficult war to win,” the bespectacled brigadier said. “It is slow. However, that is no reason not to fight this war. We shall continue to fight it, and we shall win.”
Al-Shabaab’s status as a military force to be reckoned with became clear to me on our short journey across the frontline from AMISOM-held Kismayo to the al-Shabaab-held village of Gobweyn — beyond which are larger al-Shabaab-controlled towns such as Jillib and Buale. On the side of the rough tarmac road I saw lines of sandy foxholes and trenches stretching into the distance. The trenches were littered with the detritus of war — bullet casings, scraps of uniform and empty food tins.
“These are the al-Shabaab positions,” Sierra Leone army Lieutenant Joseph Adekule said. “They come here at night to fire on our defences around Kismayo.”
They certainly do. I spent eight nights in Kismayo — staying either at Kenyan positions or with the Sierra Leonean forces. Every night I heard heavy gunfire — from automatic rifles to big anti-aircraft-style machine guns, mortars and artillery. At both the Kenyan and Sierra Leonean bases I slept only 200 meters from the AMISOM frontlines. I didn’t get a lot of sleep.
Most of the firing appeared to be from AMISOM troops after short bursts of “incoming” fire from al-Shabaab. AMISOM officers sought to minimise the harassing of their positions by telling me these were mere “probing attacks.”
However, the “probing” of the AMISOM lines by al-Shabaab was in reality very similar to the muscular Sierra Leonean patrol I accompanied into al-Shabaab-controlled Gobweyn. The main difference is that the Sierra Leoneans and I were able to ride into the al-Shabaab village in an armored personnel carrier. However, the tall young Sierra Leonean Lieutenant Adekule who led that patrol was also “probing” his enemy’s lines. If one of the sides were overwhelmingly stronger, they would overrun the others’ positions. However, they are not.
AMISOM has made headway in recent years — taking Mogadishu from al-Shabaab in 2011 and Kismayo last year. However, the number of red blobs on Brigadier Ngere’s map is still large and does not seem to be shrinking. He said that with better equipment AMISOM could move forward. When the UN-backed African intervention was first planned it was envisaged it would have 12 helicopters — the kind that can fire heavy weapons from the sky as well as ferry troops to the battlefields. To date, it has been supplied with none.
Some Kenyan and western politicians have described the mass killings in the Westgate shopping mall as “an act of desperation” by a marginal movement that is “on the run.” It has always been a fatal error to underestimate Somali uprisings or revolts. Remember Black Hawk Down? In the early 1990s, thousands of American troops withdrew from Somalia in disarray after a badly planned anti-famine intervention went sour. The marines had misunderstood the “skinnies,” as they dismissively described Somalian militiamen.
AMISOM has already lost at least a hundred times more soldiers in its campaign in Somalia than the 18 dead US marines who made Hollywood history. Some estimates say Uganda alone has lost 3,000 men. And Somalia’s wars, conducted in shopping malls or in the frontlines around Kismayo, appear to be far from over.
Mark Doyle is the BBC’s international development correspondent
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