As Somalia's army and allied clan militias continue to drive al-Shabab fighters out of locales in central Somalia, analysts warn the country could still face security threats from Islamist militants on the run.
Somalia’s National Army is in the middle of a military offensive against al-Shabab. Since President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud declared a "total war" against the militants in August 2022, al-Shabab fighters have withdrawn from some of the group’s central Somalia strongholds under military pressure from the army, the militias and international partners’ airstrikes.
Despite the significant breakthrough in the government's campaign against the al Qaida-linked group, Somali security analysts believe one of the major challenges that the country faces is the presence of fleeing militants who, despite losing their bases of operation, continue to pose a serious threat to national security.
Ismail Dahir Osman, former deputy commander of Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency, sees a looming threat.
“The militants fleeing from the front lines have scattered into the rural areas, and many are secretly coming to the major cities, including Mogadishu, the country’s capital. Yet they still may have weapons and plans for renewed mayhem,” said Osman.
Colonel Abdullahi Ali Maow, a former Somali intelligence official, told VOA that he agrees there’s a security threat from the militants fleeing from the government’s offensive.
“I think the displacement of the militants doesn't necessarily mean the end of their threat; it often leads to new challenges for Somalia’s fledgling security forces in the major cities,” he said.
Maow describes the fleeing militants’ strategy as that of a frog.
“An al-Shabab fighter’s plan of survival is like that of a frog, which buries itself in the mud, sand or other shelters to slow down its body function and survive until the next rain,” he said. “The prediction is that they are trying to have safe houses in the major cities to elude justice.”
Omar Abdi Jimale, a Somali political and security analyst, said fleeing militants can seek refuge and support from sympathizers and allies in major populated cities, making it harder for security agencies to track and neutralize them.
“Fleeing militants often carry with them years of combat experience and ideological fervor. This makes them more capable of carrying out acts of terrorism and insurgency in new areas,” said Jimale. “They go into hiding. They start licking their wounds and thinking about what they could do next.”
Analyst Mahad Wehlie said he believed the threat of the fleeing militants, especially lower-ranking foot soldiers, was lower compared with the damage they have caused in Somalia for years while organizing their criminal acts from their former strongholds.
"Most of the fighters fleeing from the front lines seek to blend in locally, and many of them may give up,” he said. “But what government security agencies need to do is to drive militants down to a point their threat can be handled by local police and intelligence agencies with the support of the grassroots.”
Maow warned that even if al-Shabab was completely defeated in Somalia, the risk would exist as long as its upper-level leaders and foreign ranks remained alive.
Stay informed. Subscribe to our newsletter
“As long as their top leaders and foreign fighters are alive and capable of commanding, the threat and the danger from the brainwashed lower-rank young Somali fighters will remain,” he said “They [top leaders] should be dead or in jails.”
He said a multifaceted approach would be required to effectively counter this threat, including international cooperation, improved intelligence sharing, and addressing the root causes of militancy in conflict-affected regions.
“It is clear that a proactive and collaborative effort among the government intelligence and security agencies, and the Somali people, is essential to safeguarding peace and stability in Somalia, in the Horn of Africa region and on a global scale,” he said.
As a part of a government effort to secure more international support for its long-running war against al-Shahab militants, Somali Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre told VOA on Thursday that he would appeal to the U.N. General Assembly this weekend about removing an international arms embargo so Somalia is capable of eliminating al-Shabab, a U.N.- and U.S.-designated terrorist organization that has fought the Somali government for 16 years.