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Somali President Says ‘defeat’ of Al-shabaab Militants within Sight

Hassan Sheikh Mohamud hopes latest offensive against the Islamists will drive them to the negotiating table

Somalia’s president has expressed confidence that his new military offensive against al-Shabaab will “defeat” the al-Qaeda-linked Islamist group that has long terrorised the Horn of Africa.

Government forces have been gaining ground against the militants since August after launching the most significant Somali-led campaign against al-Shabaab since the jihadis began their terror campaign 15 years ago.

Territorial gains, mostly in central Somalia, have been backed by a financial crackdown that has led to the freezing of hundreds of bank and mobile money accounts, holding a “couple of million dollars” combined, and a drive to convince Somali clerics to condemn al-Shabaab as “anti-Islamic”.

“Two things are there to defeat al-Shabaab: one is militarily, another is ideological,” Hassan Sheikh Mohamud told the Financial Times in an exclusive interview from the presidential compound in the capital Mogadishu. “The ideological war will continue for some time but, in the military one, I believe we’ll defeat them.”

The al-Shabaab offensive, which is backed by the US, Turkey, the African Union and others, comes as Somalia, a country of 17mn people, is gripped by its worst drought in decades. This has fuelled a humanitarian emergency and a food crisis for more than a third of its population, with millions on the verge of famine.

This disaster has partly driven what one diplomat in Mogadishu called the “insurgency within an insurgency”, as communities once under al-Shabaab’s control rise up against them. The Somali government has been helped by growing discontent with the jihadis’ use of extortion and forced recruitment, which has turned much of the population against them.

Al-Shabaab have also suffered significant defections, notably Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, its former deputy leader who has been recruited into Sheikh Mohamud’s cabinet as religious affairs minister.

The Somali government has in addition struck deals with militia from some of the country’s powerful regional clans. The combined forces have been able to recapture a swath of territory in Hirshabelle and Galmudug states, north of the capital.

“We’ve linked together our forces and the community to liberate these areas,” said Sheikh Mohamud.

Further support has come from a 20,000-strong force under the African Union, while the US and Turkey have provided drone strikes and military training. A senior US official familiar with the conflict believed the new strategy was working, saying the alliance between the Somali army and the clans who know the terrain and can identify al-Shabaab was a “pretty powerful combination” that was “fundamentally different” from previous attempts to crush the Islamists.

Analysts agreed that the militants had been put on the back foot. Omar Mahmood, senior Somalia analyst at the Crisis Group think-tank, said the offensive had “reversed some of al-Shabaab’s gains of the past few years, forcing the militants out of several areas, including some important towns. Yet big challenges remain.”

The next, more difficult, phase will seek to reconquer territory in Jubaland and South West state, the militants’ heartland. “Al-Shabaab continues to mount resistance in parts of central Somalia and fighting al-Shabaab in its southern strongholds will probably be a tougher slog,” Mahmood said.

To take this next step, Mogadishu has enlisted military support from neighbouring Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya, three countries that have also suffered al-Shabaab attacks. “We’ll have more forces and more capability right now than we had in the previous phase,” Sheikh Mohamud said.

Al-Shabaab, which combines a Salafi-jihadist and Somali nationalist ideology, came together in about 2006 during an Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. It has become synonymous with suicide bombings and gruesome attacks, including the 2013 raid on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi.

The US has called it “the largest and most deadly al-Qaeda network in the world”, saying that it provided the terror group’s central command with “tens of millions of dollars”.

The US Africa Command estimated there were 5,000-10,000 al-Shabaab fighters in Somalia before this offensive. “But they’ve taken a lot of casualties recently,” said a Somali defence official.

US support to Somalia takes the form of a “persistent” military presence of 450 troops established last year by President Joe Biden. That went some way to reversing the decision by his predecessor Donald Trump to withdraw troops. The US has a long and troubled history in Somalia, including an al-Shabaab attack on one of its bases in Kenya in 2020 that killed three servicemen, and the infamous 1993 downing of two Black Hawk helicopters that killed 18 US soldiers.

Sheikh Mohamud said his ultimate aim was to back the militant group into such a tight corner that it had no option but to talk peace. “Al-Shabaab still feels it can survive, and we also believe the opportunity for negotiations is not yet mature.

“But in the end, this will end up with negotiations.”

Source: Finance Times