Experts warn war against Al Shabaab far from won

By John Oywa

They may have been routed from their stronghold of Kismayo, but the Al Shabaab militants could be re-grouping for a major assault on Kenyan and the African Union forces.

Security analysts at the South African-based think tank – the Institute of Security Studies – are warning that the war against the terror group may be far from over.

In a report on conflict prevention and risk analysis in Africa released last week, the Pretoria-based group says the celebration over the fall of Kismayo may have been premature.

The report says all indications were that remnants of the terror group that have been targeting Kenya in its revenge attacks were planning a new round of war in their bid to retake the coastal city.

Kismayu fell under a cloud of gunfire last month when the Kenyan Defence Forces overran it, leaving hundreds of Al Shabaab fighters killed, wounded or captured.

The city, a priced catch for both the Kenyan and the African Union Forces (Amisom) was captured after months of aerial, land and naval assault on the militants.

But the ISS analysts are now calling for new tactics to stop the terror group from waging fresh battle.

Major onslaught

“While taking Kismayu represents a huge victory for Amisom, it does not mean that the threat of Al Shabaab has been eradicated,” says the report.

It adds: “There are indications that Al Shabaab is planning to resort to unconventional warfare methods, including deploying suicide bombers and other guerrilla tactics, to make the area ungovernable.”

The experts say the people of Kismayo remain concerned that Al-Shabaab has simply blended into the local population.

“They may be hesitant to show their support for Amisom, as this may unwittingly court a reprisal from Al Shabaab, putting their lives at risk. Now, however, the population is still gradually warming to Amisom’s presence,” they say.

The ISS group further observes that the KDF and Amisom face the challenge of securing Kismayo, as Al Shabaab left booby traps and unexploded improvised explosive devices, which are not always easy to identify.

It says the KDF is currently busy removing such devices from the town.

“It remains to be seen what Al Shabaab will do next, but it is probable that it will move on to bigger towns, and start engaging in unconventional warfare,” writes the ISS team.

They add: “The fact that Amisom managed to take control of Kismayo with relative ease indicates that Al Shabaab may be changing its game plan.”

They warn that KDF and Amisom should remain alert and not become complacent because of its ‘easy’ victory. Al Shabaab may be mutating, and may soon start engaging in guerrilla-type warfare.

According to the Pretoria based group, the African Union forces’ immediate challenge is to keep Kismayo under control, and to win the hearts and minds of the people.

However, the experts say it was possible that the war in Somalia is taking a new turn and that Amisom has not even seen the beginning.

They also want the African Union forces to exercise great care in its attempts to form a local authority, in order not to worsen existing clan tensions. “The fact that the KDF was involved in the taking of Kismayu may be used by Al Shabaab to claim that Somalia has been ‘invaded’.

If it succeeds in doing this, it may be easier for the group to gain access to more arms,” they say.

But the KDF Information operations officer, Col Cyrus Oguna appeared to downplay the new report when he reported on the forces’ arrest of a key woman linked to Al Shabaab in Kismayo.

Big boost

Oguna said the forces were on top of the operations and that the arrest of the woman was a big boost to the soldiers’ efforts to neutralise the terror group’s plans to use women to carry out attacks.

He said a house-to-house search last Sunday netted 72 suspected Al Shabaab members.

In a recent press statement, the Amisom Commander, Lt Gen Andrew Gutti said the Al Shabaab had completely been routed out of major towns and assured ordinary Somalis of protection.

He said the capture of Kismayo and other key towns had denied the terror group the food supply and illegal income, making them vulnerable. Gutti said the recent capture of another key Al Shabaab stronghold area of Wanla Wein was proof the militants had lost considerable strength.

He however conceded the militants were still imposing illegal taxes on the locals.

The security operations in Somali are of immense importance to Kenyans because the country has in the past few years bore the brunt of the militant group.

A number of police officers and civilians have either died or badly wounded in grenade attacks blamed on the Al Shabaab group.

The militants and their sympathisers have been targeting churches and other public places for attacks.

A retired security operative in Nairobi, Ben Koske said the KDF operations in Somali would take longer than expected because it would take long to completely wipe out the Al Shabaab.

“Kenya must also be ready to spend more money to defend its people against Al Shabaab attacks in North Eastern and other major towns,” he said.

Meanwhile, Ugandan authorities now say they are reviewing the presence of its troops in Somalia, after the UN accused it of backing Democratic Republic of Congo rebels.

A senior Uganda minister was categorical they had been “stabbed in the back” by the UN.

Asuman Kiyingi said Uganda could now suspend its involvement in Somalia, where it supplies the largest number of troops to the African Union mission.

The AU has helped government forces gain ground against Islamist militants.

The report by a UN panel of experts last week said Rwanda and Uganda were supplying weapons to the M23 rebels, whose insurrection has forced some 500,000 from their homes since April - charges both countries denied.

“We are reviewing our engagement in Somalia until these malicious allegations are withdrawn and the international community at the UN assure the people of Uganda that the sacrifices they are making are appreciated and recognised instead of being stabbed in the back the way that... report did,” Mr Kiyingi told the BBC.