February 27, 2012
Successive military setbacks and the loss of key leaders have debilitated al-Shabaab in Somalia, Somali government officials and security analysts say.
Squeezed on three fronts by regional forces and the Somali military, the movement suffered another major blow on Friday (February 24th), when an airstrike reportedly killed a number of foreign militants fighting alongside the al-Qaeda allied group in Lower Shabelle.
According to media reports, a militant by the name of Mohammed Sakr was killed, along with two other foreign militants. Somali media reports also suggested a Kenyan, Sheik Abukar Haji Ahmed, and an Egyptian may have also been killed, although the extent of their involvement remains unclear.
"Al-Shabaab is on its way towards defeat," Somali Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohammed Ali said at the conclusion of the London conference on Somalia Thursday, adding that he would welcome "targeted" airstrikes against al-Shabaab strongholds and al-Qaeda elements in Somalia.
"The [militants] have lost the hearts and minds of the Somali people, which is why they are losing territory day after day and we hope that the rebel al-Shabaab group will have no military existence in about a month's time," Ali said.
Somali security and political analysts say the airstrikes against al-Shabaab leaders, terrorist camps and foreign al-Qaeda elements are helping debilitate the group.
"The foreign fighters from al-Qaeda came to Somalia to undermine peace and destabilise our country and the region and to create a safe haven for terrorists in Somalia from all over the world," Somali security analyst Bashir Mohammed told Sabahi. "That is why we welcome the air raids against them."
Mohammed said the reported deaths of foreign fighters in the Friday strike and the earlier death of Bilal al-Berjawi, a key leader of al-Qaeda in the Horn of Africa, represent a severe blow to al-Qaeda and its extremist allies in the Horn of Africa.
Friday's air strike came two days after Somali government forces and their Ethiopian allies took control of Baidoa -- one of al-Shabaab's biggest strategic strongholds in southern Somalia.
The Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) announced in a statement that liberating the city of Baidoa represents the beginning of the end for the al-Shabaab extremist group.
Several analysts said al-Shabaab has suffered from repeated defeats and consecutive setbacks on the ground during the past few months and is on the verge of being defeated.
"Al-Shabaab is currently the subject of a wide-scale military operation on three fronts simultaneously," political analyst Ahmed Warsame told Sabahi. "The Somali, Kenyan and Ethiopian triple attack to crush al-Shabaab rebels is starting to bear fruit and the group is drawing its last breath after its geographical control receded."
Political analyst Abdirahman Omar said the liberation of Baidoa, which is the third largest and one of the most important cities in southern Somalia, is another setback for al-Shabaab.
"Al-Shabaab has recently been in a state of retreat, but the capture of Baidoa and other towns in the southwest of the country without much resistance is a sign that al-Shabaab is getting weaker and that it is unable to stand in the face of the advancement of the Somali government troops and its Ethiopian allies," Omar told Sabahi.
Omar said that repeated setbacks suffered by al-Shabaab -- in Mogadishu, Beledweyne, Baidoa and other parts of southern Somalia -- are indicative of the militant group's diminishing force.
"This step has indicated that al-Shabaab is waning and is on its way to being defeated. This step will isolate and tighten the noose around the group, paving the way for the complete demise of al-Shabaab," he said.
Daud Makran, a Somali political analyst and university lecturer, also said al-Shabaab's retreat in Baidoa indicates the group is becoming weaker.
"Al-Shabaab's retreat from Baidoa without putting up a fight is indicative of the group's diminishing military might or even its military defeat," he told Sabahi. "It seems that al-Shabaab has been defeated and is unable to confront the military campaign against it by the allied forces."
Makran said he expects more allied-military successes. "I personally think that these allied forces will soon take over more regions in central and southern Somalia," he said.
Abdifatah Mohammed, governor of the Bay region, of which Baidoa is the capital, and who leads the government forces that took over Baidoa with support from Ethiopian forces, vowed to continue the campaign against al-Shabaab.
"For the first time in three years, the residents of Baidoa have been freed from the grasp of the extremists after we took over control of the city," he said.
"We are now planning to pursue remnants of the al-Shabaab terrorist group who have fled the city before the arrival of our forces," Mohammed told Sabahi. "We will continue this military campaign against al-Shabaab and will first march towards the city of Burakaba and then towards the rest of the cities in the region. This campaign will continue until we liberate the region completely. We will hunt down the terrorists wherever they may be until they are obliterated."
Al-Shabaab, however, downplayed their loss of Baidoa.
"Our retreat from Baidoa was a tactical procedure to change the military strategy," al-Shabaab military spokesperson Abdul Azziz Abu Musaab said. "The fight against [Somali] government, Ethiopian and Kenyan forces will continue more fiercely than it has in the past."
"The jihadists retreated without fighting," Abu Musaab told al-Andalus Radio, which is run by al-Shabaab. "We are now in the surrounding areas of the city and promise to make the areas taken over, including Baidoa, a graveyard for occupying crusaders and their allied Somali militias."
Abu Musaab said that losing Baidoa does not mean that al-Shabaab has been militarily defeated.
These military developments come at a time when the UN Security Council unanimously voted to increase the number of African Union troops in Somalia to more than 17,000. The increase aims to intensify military pressure against al-Shabaab and bolster support of the Somali government. It also gives the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) greater powers to carry out attacks against al-Shabaab.
The UN Security Council agreed to supply AMISOM with nine helicopters, including three attack helicopters. The Council also pledged logistical support for AMISOM forces to expand their mission outside Mogadishu. Previously, AMISOM's mandate was restricted to the capital.
AMISOM Commander Maj. Gen. Fred Mugisha told journalists in Mogadishu on Thursday that al-Shabaab is on its way to collapsing and that large numbers of its members, especially foreign elements, are fleeing to Yemen by sea.
Mugisha said the timeframe for defeating al-Shabaab depends on the international community's willingness to assist AMISOM and Somali government forces.
"If we get what we requested in terms of increasing the number of troops and supplying us with helicopters and other necessary equipment to carry out this mission, this means that defeating al-Shabaab might not take long," Mugisha said.
"We are witnessing an internal collapse [of al-Shabaab] and it is probable that the group will very soon collapse from within," he said.
Mugisha said around 300 al-Shabaab members have fled Somalia and are heading towards Yemen, which he called "a sign of defeat".
"I hope that Somalis understand that al-Shabaab, which urges children to turn themselves into [human] bombs, when the heat is on, they flee Somalia. I hope they get rid of this madness," he said.
Nonetheless, some analysts warned that recent military defeats do not mean the group is completely finished.
"There is no doubt that al-Shabaab has been significantly weakened during the past period and that the group is in dire straits and is exponentially losing its military capability," Somali analyst Abubakar Ali told Sabahi. "However, this does not mean that the group has reached the point where it is fleeing the country."
Ali said the fighters could be going to Yemen to join al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
"I think that the group will continue its rebellion one way or another and the most likely scenario is that it will continue its terrorist attacks, its hit-and-run, as well as laying traps more than ever before," Ali said.
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