Forces from six African countries seem determined to destroy Al Shabab, the notorious Somali militant group.
The African Union Mission in Somalia claims it just killed more than 80 Al Shabab fighters in two separate air strikes—and is also about to push the armed group out of some of its last remaining strongholds.
Simultaneously, Al Shabab has said on its propaganda radio station Al Andalus that its fighters ambushed a Kenyan convoy close to the Somali border, killing 13 soldiers and destroying four vehicles.
Local residents reported heavy fighting in the area indicated by Al Shabaab, but we could confirm neither Al Shabab’s claims, nor AMISOM’s.
AMISOM has described the air strikes, which were likely carried out by Kenyan F-5 or Short Tucano fighters, in the context of “a final push to liberate Somalia from the brutal grip of Al Shabab.”
It’s likely that the A.U. also meant the air strikes as an answer to the militants’ recent attack on the Kenyan town of Mpeketoni, during which more than 50 people died.
The Kenyan government in particular is under enormous pressure to quickly end the Al Shabab insurgency. Kenya joined AMISOM in 2011, pushing Al Shabaab out of the coastal town Kismayo, which until then was the militant’s main base.
As a result, the Islamist group embarked on a military and terrorist campaign against Kenya, staging frequent and high-profile attacks against the Kenyan military and civilian targets like Mpeketoni. Al Shabab also staged last year’s bloody terror attack on the Westgate shopping center in Nairobi.
With a force of more than 20,000 soldiers and better equipment, AMISOM—pictured above—is likely to succeed in eventually in pushing Al Shabab out of the bigger population centers. Currently, the militia holds several larger towns, including Baraawe and Bardere.
But since contingents from Somalia’s neighbors Kenya and Ethiopia have joined AMISOM, Al Shabaab has rarely tried to put up a fight to hold onto towns and cities. Instead, it has left population centers at the first signs of an attack, only to later harass AMISOM forces by staging guerrilla raids on outposts and soft targets.
Until recently, A.U. peacekeepers had taken a break from liberating new areas, because their forces were in danger of overstretching themselves. It’s unclear what has changed now that the commanders believe they can take the risk of grabbing new areas.
Likely this was a political decision rather than a military one. AMISOM has to show strength as Al Shabab continues its transformation from a conventional militia into an underground terrorist group.
The danger is of course that AMISOM misjudges its enemies’ priorities. Al Shabab doesn’t seem to be interested in holding and administering territory any more. Consequently, it will be hard to hurt it by going after its last strongholds.
Peter Dörrie is a freelance journalist covering resource and security politics in Africa. You can follow him on Twitter at @peterdoerrie. Abdulaziz Mohammed is a Somali freelance journalist. You can follow him on Twitter at @AbdulazizHOA. Sign up for a daily War is Boring email update here. Subscribe to WIB’s RSS feed here and follow the main page here.