Mogadishu - With reinforcements expected, Somali and African
forces fighting Shabaab extremists speak confidently of victory, but analysts
warn of tough battles ahead and say that military campaigns alone will not
The al-Qaeda linked Shabaab have fled a string of towns in
the past two years ahead of the advancing African Union force in Somalia (Amisom)
- fighting alongside Somalia's rag-tag army, various aligned militia forces and
Ethiopian troops - and commanders brag that the Islamists are on the back foot.
"Al-Shabaab is standing on one leg, and we are doing
our best to hack off that leg and liberate the small areas they still
control," Somalia's Minister of Defence Abdihakim Haji Mohamud Fiqi told
"Their military strength is weakened, they are now
launching just desperate attacks."
United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said
last month that Amisom advances had "ground to a halt" because it
lacked a sufficient number of troops.
Diplomats say the UN Security Council is expected to soon
authorise 4 000 more troops for the African Union force in Somalia, boosting
the five-nation fighting force by a quarter to at least 22 000 strong.
But even as the extremists have lost ground, Shabaab
commanders have increasingly developed the force's capability to carry out
guerrilla attacks, regular events inside Somalia including storming a UN
compound in June.
But they have also showed their ability to stage attacks in
neighbouring Kenya, with the September massacre of shoppers and staff in
Nairobi's upmarket Westgate mall in which at least 67 people were killed.
Repeatedly retreating ahead of advancing AU forces, choosing
later to stage hit-and-run attacks, the Shabaab face a shrinking space to
operate in openly, with key towns left in southern Somalia including the port
of Barawe in Lower Shabelle, and the bastion of Badhere, in Gedo region.
Commanders are hunted by US drones, with a missile strike
last month killing a top suicide bomb-maker.
Elusive Shabaab cells
But according to a recent UN monitoring report, Shabaab have
built up a powerful "Amniyat" secret service, under strict command of
the insurgent's chief Ahmed Abdi Godane, a secretive and ruthless leader who
Washington have offered a $7m bounty for.
"Even if international efforts to dismantle the group's
fighting forces succeed, the chances that the cells under the leadership of
Godane will continue operating is high," said Andrews Atta-Asamoah, of the
South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS).
"The ongoing military operation against the group might
face a long fight."
In many frontline zones, territory patrolled during the day
by Amisom is controlled at night by Shabaab.
"Amisom reinforcements - especially if air capability
is increased such as helicopter gunships -- will allow the force to take
further towns," said a security expert working on Somalia.
"But the more territory they take, the more supply
lines will be stretched... the Shabaab continue to control rural areas in
In coming months, renewed Amisom-led offensives against Shabaab’s
positions in southern Somalia will likely intensify, with the force optimistic
extra troops can help it advance again.
Amisom, announced a fresh push last month in southern
Somalia to "deny al-Shabaab freedom of movement" and "reduce
their ability" to carry out attacks.
"Given additional troops... and given 'force
multipliers' like helicopters and armoured vehicles, we shall be in position to
defeat the Shabaab," said Amisom spokesperson Captain Deo Akiiki.
Long-term targets include seizing Barawe -- a reputed
suicide commando training centre for the extremists – at least 180km south of
the capital Mogadishu.
Taking Barawe would help cut coastal resupply routes and
link up AU forces physically split between Mogadishu and the far south of
"Making the Shabaab lose access to sea is crucial,
because at the moment they use Barawe as a supply route," Akiiki added,
adding that capturing Barawe would "cut their veins".
At the same time, Somalia's central government is trying to
improve collaboration with breakaway regions, notably the southern Jubaland
zone, controlled by a warlord previously opposed to the rule of central
government but who is also battling the Shabaab.
"Taking territory from the Shabaab and targeting
commanders is key, but that won't stop the hard core of the Shabaab continuing
terrorist attacks," the security expert added.
Others warn that alongside military assaults must be an
attempt to talk to less radical elements.
"Radical elements within the leadership can be
contained through the ongoing military solution," Atta-Asamoah added, but
arguing that what is "really missing in the search for a solution is the
question of opening dialogue" with those Shabaab who might switch sides.