Popular support for al Shabaab has been dwindling in Somalia with the food crisis and the al Qaeda-linked group’s merciless response to aid efforts. But can this weakness bring an end to one of the world’s most intractable conflicts?
Fate can be particularly cruel in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, a city that offers a deplorably long list of ways to die.
With a famine devastating parts of southern Somalia, tens of thousands of people have been streaming into one of the world’s most dangerous cities - or “the city of fear” as it is commonly known - in a measure of the sheer desperation in the countryside.
But even as the international community attempts to get humanitarian supplies to the refugees, African Union (AU) troops stationed in the city fought a pitched battle this week with militants owing allegiance to a die-hard, little-known Islamist group.
On Thursday, AU troops fought house-to-house battles with al Shabaab militants around the city’s line of control, killing at least six people and wounding 19 AU troops, said the Associated Press, quoting local medical officials.
Al Shabaab - or Harakat al Shabaab al Mujahideen as it grandly calls itself – is an al Qaeda-linked group that controls much of central and southern Somalia. The writ of the weak, interim Somali government – backed by a 9,200-strong AU force (AMISOM) - extends to barely 60 percent of Mogadishu.
The two southern regions that the UN has officially declared famine zones – Bakool and Lower Shebell – are under al Shabaab control. Last week, the Islamist group rescinded an earlier decision to allow international aid groups in areas under their control, exacerbating the exodus of refugees into Mogadishu as well as camps in neighbouring Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti.
Refugees fleeing the area have recounted harrowing tales of al Shabaab militants attempting to stop civilians from reaching aid centers, with some refugees telling reporters that al Shabaab militants had killed men trying to flee, saying it was better to starve than accept help from the West.
An often paranoid group that follows a hardline Salafist jihadi agenda, al Shabaab has been losing popular support over the past two years, according to some experts.
In recent weeks, the group’s mercilessly obdurate response to the latest hunger crisis - which was fueled by Al Shabaab’s disastrous agricultural policiesand incessant fighting - has seriously weakened the group, according to Rashid Abdi, a Somalia analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
Al Shabaab’s recent backtracking on allowing humanitarian aid has exposed the divisions within the essentially decentralized group that is notorious for its hostility to international aid groups.
“They are politically on the back-foot, militarily under pressure and the food crisis has caused friction among the top leadership,” said Abdi in a phone interview with FRANCE 24 from the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. “
"So many Somalis are angry and they hold al Shabab responsible for the current crisis. This a natural catastrophe compounded by al Shabaab’s stupid agricultural policy and their paranoia about international aid groups. Nobody believes they have political currency any more,” said Abdi.
But in an ominous addendum, Abdi noted, “Al Shabaab is now much weaker, but also more dangerous because their backs are against the wall.”
Eritrea’s role in arming al Shabaab
Although al Shabab lacks popular support and faces divisions within its ranks, a new UN report says the group is able to exert control over huge swathes of Somalia because of its economic strength.
In a report released earlier this week, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea estimated that al-Shabaab currently generates between $70 million and $100 million annually from taxation and extortion in areas it controls, notably from the export of charcoal and cross-border contraband into Kenya.
The UN report accused the Eritrean government of covertly shipping “huge quantities of arms,” possibly including suicide bomb belts and missiles, to the insurgents in an effort to oust the weak interim Somali government.
The Eritrean government’s support for al Shabaab, the report noted, should be viewed “in the context” of the country's territorial dispute with Ethiopia.
While the origins of the al Shabaab (literally “youth” in Arabic) are disputed, most experts agree that the group gained prominence during the 2006-2009 Ethiopian occupation to oust Islamists controlling Mogadishu.
Experts now fear that Somalia could become the new battleground between arch-foes Ethiopia and Eritrea.
The Eritrean government has denied accusations that it has armed al Shabaab.
Media wing attracting western youth
But even if Eritrea is attempting to use al Shabaab in its bitter, broader dispute with Ethiopia, there are growing signs that existing divisions within al Shabaab are widening.
In a 2009 report titled “Somalia’s Divided Islamists,” the International Crisis Group noted that there were divisions between al Shabaab’s foreign fighters (known as muhajirin) and local militants (ansars).
While the foreign muhajirin typically promote the austere al Qaeda vision of Islam and global jihad, the local ansars, being closer to the people and more tolerant of the historically syncretic form of Islam practiced in Somalia, with its tradition of venerating saints that are considered an apostasy by purist Salafists.
With its comparatively sophisticated media wing that puts out messages on the Web and controls a radio station, called Radio Andalus, al Shabaab has been a magnet for the sort of disaffected Muslim youth in the West that are typically attracted to al Qaeda’s message.
One of al Shabaab’s best-known foreign jihadists is the US-born Omar Hammami, also called Abu Mansoor al Amriki (“the American”) who was profiled by The New York Times last year.
The simmering divisions between the “globalists” and the “localists” went public during al Shabaab’s recent reversal on allowing aid groups in Somalia, according to Abdi.
“The local jihadis look at their own people suffering and they understand the need for aid agencies,” said Abdi. “But the global jihadists view aid organizations as cells of spies perpetuating Western values.”
Courting hope in ‘the city of fear’
The airlifts of international aid into Mogadishu have seen a renewed push by al Shabaab in the Somali capital, according to a spokesman for the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda said al-Shabaab had sent 300 reinforcement fighters to Mogadishu in recent days.
But Ankunda noted that AU troops have the upper hand in Mogadishu, describing Thursday’s battle as a “short, tactical offensive operation'' to “further increase security” and enable aid agencies to operate in the Somali capital.
In recent weeks, AU troops have made notable advances in their fight against al Shabaab. But one of the perennial problems confronting international moves to address the decades-long political crisis in Somalia has been the lack of resources and the absence of international will and attention.
Abdi believes the latest food crisis could be seized as a turning point in one of the world’s most intractable conflicts.
But he’s careful to stress that the onus lies with the international community. “The way forward would be to further sow the fragmentation (within al Shabaab) and cut a deal with the pragmatists to create a ceasefire to supply emergency assistance.
"If we can unlock this logjam and allow humanitarian corridors, a peace process can be started,” said Abdi. “There will be diehard opponents of course, but across the world, many peace processes have started like this.”
It remains to be seen if the international community will go beyond its short-term humanitarian band-aid fix for the East African food crisis to seize the current opportunities for a long-term political solution.
Seasoned Somalia observers though are not banking on prospects for peace on the streets of Mogadishu. For more than two decades, the city that was once called “the pearl of the Indian Ocean” has turned into “the city of fear”. In the Somali capital, there’s a fear of hope.