Strategy of Somalia's Islamists Survives Death of Militant Leader
From: Terrorism Focus (The Jamestown Foundation, USA)
May 6, 2008 – Volume 5, Issue 18
Anti-terrorism officials in the Horn of Africa are on high alert
following the killing of Shaykh Aden Hashi Ayro, the military leader
of al-Shabaab, the youth wing of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in
Somalia, in a May 1 strike by U.S. ship-launched Tomahawk missiles
(SomaliNet, May 2; Daily Nation [Nairobi], May 2).
Shaykh Ayro, trained in terrorist and insurgency methods in
Afghanistan and believed to have been in his 30s, was killed in a
house together with another five insurgents in the small central
Somalia town of Dusamareb, 250 miles north of Mogadishu (al-Jazeera,
May 2). Those killed included Ayro's brother, another commander,
Muhiyadin Muhammad Umar, and several other insurgents. At least a
dozen civilians in neighboring houses were also killed by the
missiles. Soon after the attack, Shaykh Muqtar Robow Adumansur, the
group's spokesman, vowed the group would retaliate, setting off an
alert in the Horn of Africa: "This does not deter us from continuing
our holy war against Allah's enemy; we will be on the right way,
that is why we are targeted" (The Standard [Nairobi], May 2).
Thousands of people took to the streets of Dusamareb on May 4 to
protest the attack (AFP, May 4).
Anti-terrorism officials fear the insurgents in Somalia—who are
alleged by the United States to have close links to Osama bin
Laden's al-Qaeda network—could be planning to stage revenge attacks
on American interests, especially in Kenya. In mid-April, two
Kenyans and two British nationals were killed when the Islamists
carried out overnight attacks in a school in central Somalia (Sunday
Nation [Nairobi], May 4).
The United States classifies al-Shabaab as a terrorist organization.
Several months before the killing of Shaykh Ayro, its fighters
intensified their daily attacks on Somalia's Transitional Federal
Government (TFG), which is backed by Ethiopian army soldiers. These
attacks yielded the control of substantial territories in central
and southern Somalia.
There is a similarity in al-Shabaab's tactics of hit and run raids
on TFG-held towns with those of Iraq's militants. The fighters have
been attacking soldiers and policemen, and in some instances have
set free prisoners in the town they have captured. The fighters have
also been planting roadside bombs, hurling grenades and carrying out
assassinations at targeted persons.
Al-Shabaab has also advanced on towns, either in the cover of
darkness or very early in the morning when government soldiers are
still sleepy and captured them briefly to reinstate their earlier
leadership or choose a new one.
The following day, the Islamists typically hold a public rally in
which they defend their actions while promising better security and
services. Rallying around Quranic teaching and stressing that the
TFG and Ethiopian forces are infidels serving anti- Muslim masters,
the group has been winning support similar to what they had before
being disposed by Ethiopian forces in 2006 (Garowe Online, April 27).
With the Islamist insurgents capturing towns, TFG and Ethiopian
soldiers have been organizing counter attacks, but al-Shabaab
withdraws to safety with its battle wagons and weapons before the
forces arrive. The aim is to stretch the TFG forces to the breaking
point while avoiding a face to face encounter with the far better
equipped Ethiopian army (Geeska Magazine [Hargeisa, Somaliland],
On April 27, al-Shabaab briefly took over the town of Jowhar for the
third time in a single month. The group's leaders told rallies that
the fighters had not come to impose their rule, but were responding
to the invitation of the local people. In 2006, the ICU preached a
similar message when they ran over town after town across southern
and central Somalia. The ICU leaders said they had been invited to
the villages, districts and regions and promised to deal with
criminals terrorizing the people of the areas. But instead of
occupying Jowhar this time, the forces withdrew before the arrival
of Ethiopian and TFG forces (Garowe Online, April 27).
Reports say eight towns in districts like Bu'ale, Qansax Dhere and
Ufurow Bay and Middle Juba have fallen into the hands of Islamists.
These are now under control of the radical young fighters after TFG
administrators abandoned their posts before al-Shabaab arrived
(Garowe Online, April 28). The Islamists say they are capable of
keeping the territories they have captured, but do not want battles
that will lead to loss of life. The Ethiopian retaliatory attacks
have killed thousands of Somalis and wounded thousands of innocent
civilians. "We are capable of holding the areas we capture. But we
always want fewer losses…. We want no harm to come to the civilian
population … Until people become independent, the fighting will not
stop," Muhammad Ibrahim Suley, a member of the ICU, was quoted as
saying (Hiiran.com, March 27).
Al-Shabaab's aim is to destabilize the Ethiopian forces by worsening
the chaos in central and southern Somalia, thus drawing off forces
from the capital. It will also increase insecurity to the point that
the population will call on the Islamists to save them. But with the
killing of Ayro, it is possible al-Shabaab may either stage quick
and violent revenge attacks or make a tactical withdrawal to plan
their next move.
Sunguta West is an independent journalist based in Nairobi.