Along the frontline, the Kenyans have piled clusters of green sandbags to provide cover. Behind them, a military base is protected by high walls crowned with razor wire. About 1,200 troops from Kenya and Sierra Leone are garrisoned in this desolate Somali hinterland. On an average day, green, heavily armoured vehicles set off to patrol the crucial port city of Kismayo, running the gauntlet of roadside bombs, a deadly tactic imported from Afghanistan and Iraq. In punishing heat, soldiers can be seen rolling a surveillance drone across the tarmac of the Italian-built airport.
This is where the war on terror in east Africa is being waged. Troops from the African Union and the fledgling Somali national army are battling al-Shabaab, the extremist Islamist group notorious for carrying out beheadings, recruiting boys to fight and forcing girls into marriage that claimed responsibility for last month’s attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi, which claimed 70 victims.
Some analysts interpreted the Kenyan atrocity as a sign of weakness, the thrashings of a dying animal. But there are signs that al-Shabaab is regrouping and evolving, recruiting members more quickly than it loses them and, in the words of Somalia‘s president, becoming “an extended hand of al-Qaida“. Officials admit that, after forcing al-Shabaab out of the capital, Mogadishu, in 2011 and Kismayo in 2012, the campaign against it has lost momentum and stalled. Military maps show swaths of red labelled “AS infested area”, while the African Union force, Amisom, lacks a single helicopter in a country similar in size to Afghanistan.
A series of propaganda photographs published on Somali websites last week, apparently from al-Shabaab strongholds, show uniformed men riding through town on motorbikes and in pickup trucks, with banners celebrating the Westgate attack and, bizarrely, sporting contests such as a tug-of-war and an egg-and-spoon race. Children feature heavily in the images. “This is intended as a message they are still alive,” one Somali government official said.
While a UN report in 2011 put al-Shabaab’s strength at about 5,000 fighters, a Kenyan military intelligence officer serving with Amisom put the true figure almost three times higher, and probably growing. The group may have lost key urban centres, but it still controls a third of Somalia’s total territory, he estimates.
“Al-Shabaab trains its recruits on a daily basis,” said the officer, who did not wish to be named. “They train more new troops than are killed, so they could even be increasing. They are powerful and you cannot underestimate them. They are still very active, not in fighting but in moving, especially in areas they control.”
The organisation has turned to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to attack Amisom convoys, already injuring four Kenyans who had to be evacuated home. “They bury them along routes where they expect our troops to go then spring the ambush. We cannot rule out support by al-Qaida,” said the officer. “We’re not sure they’re getting logistical support, but they are getting expertise. Some of the IEDs we come across are not locally assembled; they are assembled with foreign expertise.”
The officer added that he had heard unconfirmed reports that the Briton Samantha Lewthwaite, the so-called “white widow” wanted by Interpol, was operating in the mountains of Somalia’s Puntland province. He also cast doubt on claims that US-born “jihadist rapper” Omar Hammami had perished last month after falling out with al-Shabaab’s leadership: “There is no confirmation he has been killed. They are rumours. I believe he is still around.”
Nevertheless, al-Shabaab is understood to be suffering logistical problems, shortages of ammunition and recent internal power struggles, though it appears that the hardline Ahmed Abdi Godane has emerged supreme. Witnesses say that he maintains control over towns such as Barawe with just a handful of armed loyalists, whose presence is enough to instil fear and obedience.
Al-Shabaab (the Youth) first emerged as the radical youth wing of Somalia’s now defunct Union of Islamic Courts in 2006. It filled a vacuum, imposing a strict version of sharia law in areas under its control, including stoning to death women accused of adultery and amputating the hands of thieves. It soon nurtured ambitions to join forces with al-Qaida, but was reportedly rebuffed by Osama bin Laden, who warned in a letter that it was causing too many civilian casualties in Mogadishu. Bin Laden’s death, however, removed that obstacle and al-Shabaab declared itself an al-Qaida affiliate early last year.