The port city of Kismayo, Somalia (map) has long been a target of the Kenyan Defense Forces (KDF), who entered the country last October to help defeat the rebel movement Al Shabab. Under pressure from both the KDF and forces from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), Al Shabab has withdrawn from a number of cities and towns, leaving Kismayo as its last major stronghold and a critical source of income. Kenyan forces have been steadily shelling Kismayo and preparing for a final battle since August. On Monday Kenyan troops battled Al Shabab in Birta-dher, a town some 24 miles from Kismayo, and now they are reportedly closing in on the city itself. Al Shabab seems to feel the city’s capture is likely:
Young armed men from the Islamist army, Al Shabab, still patrolled, but higher-ranking officers had today disappeared from their usual tea shops and command bases. Even Al Andalus, Al Shabab’s radio station, was off the air.
“They are fleeing toward various locations, some are going north, some are going into the forests. It is all the senior men; the young boys are still here in town,” says Abdi Qani Ahmed, a Kismayo trader.
Kenyan forces Tuesday were reported to be less than 50 miles from Kismayo, battling for control of at least two towns on the road into the city, according to Abdinasir Seyrar, a Somali Army officer. “We are a short distance from Kismayo now and we can reach it immediately we want to,” he says.
The looming fight has already created serious humanitarian concerns:
The United Nations and United States warned Wednesday that civilians must be protected as forces battling Somalia’s Islamist fighters tightened the noose around the key insurgent bastion of Kismayo.
More than 6,000 civilians have fled ahead of the anticipated assault on the strategic port city, the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR said Wednesday, with aid agencies preparing for a potential swift escalation of those needing support.
The capture of the city would not necessarily end these humanitarian concerns, nor will it answer the political questions concerning who will rule Kismayo and how. As Horn of Africa analyst Tres Thomas comments, “It does not appear that there are adequate plans to manage Kismayo if taken.”
Assuming Kismayo does fall, what will Al Shabab do? Three answers occur to me. One is that they will continue to carry out terrorist attacks, including suicide bombings targeting key buildings and persons in Mogadishu and elsewhere. Part of that trend may include continued attacks outside Somalia, especially in Kenya. A second answer is that they will retain a presence in rural areas of southern Somalia. And a third answer, suggested in the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia’s most recent report (pp. 15-16), is that Al Shabab may seek refuge in the semi-autonomous polity of Puntland and also head for destinations outside Somalia, such as Yemen.
Find more speculation about Al Shabab’s future at Al Jazeera. What are your thoughts? Do you expect Kismayo will fall easily? What comes next for Al Shabab?
AMISOM’s full-spectrum advantage is too great to expect a prolonged holdout, and mobile warfare offers more reward for less risk. Given al-Shabaab’s sporadic resistance in the rest of its urban territory, Kismayo’s military battle is likely to be an afterthought of the battle for political authority (although fresh local reports claim that al-Shabaab has mobilized). There’s no definitive information that local clans, businessmen, military groups, politicians and foreign interests from Kenya and Ethiopia have settled on a political construct for Jubbaland, although the Somali national option trumping a regional autonomous zone seems likely.
The insurgency can only attempt to grind down AMISOM over the next years, as it lacks a political plan and military resources that are needed to confront an alliance of conventional forces and unconventional proxies. Al-Shabaab will now pursue a looser asymmetric war during this transition, but the situation may finally force a split between its nationalist and transnationlist leadership. A nationalist rebranding and/or political contacts with the new government won’t be surprising. If not, the insurgency has few options except wait for AMISOM and Somalia’s new government to fail.
“The Kismayo port is the single biggest issue at hand,” Ken Menkhaus, an associate professor of political science at Davidson College and one of the United States’ top Somalia experts, said in Washington on Wednesday. “In the future, Shabaab will probably try to continue to hold large rural tracts, but it will become increasingly weakened without ports access.”
The United States in particular needs to be willing to take a chance, he says, and to expect the new Somali government to make decisions that are met with distaste and frustration in Washington. Two realistic but particularly difficult scenarios could be the possibility of negotiated settlements with parts of Al Shabaab and the cooption of certain warlords.
PROF A.I. SAMATAR
A clear manifestation of the depth of the sectarian political disease is the fact that three of the top four candidates in the second round of the presidential vote came from a relatively small genealogical group that populates parts of the old capital.
Many Somalis wonder how could this be and some conjecture that such domination of the process by a small segment of the population is because the cosmopolitan old capital has lost its national lustre and has become an insular city. Others add that because of this insularity candidates from other communities do not have the political and economic support base in Mogadishu and consequently are significantly disadvantaged.
Somalis are holding their breath and praying for a bold, sensible and strategic political programme that can inspire the people and translate their goodwill into productive assets for the nation. …If the new team fails to measure up to the challenge, history and the Somali people will judge them harshly. Let us hope that the new President has the courage and the wisdom to act faithfully!
If they do seek refuge out of Somalia proper (or even outside of Africa) they will be largely at the mercy of their hosts.
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New Somalia president has asked foreign al shabaab fighters to leave Somalia. Aparently, he is interested in taking to Somalia al shabaabs. He has training and experience in conflict resolution. Besides he has previously negotiated an agreement with al shabaab which allowed him to continue running SIMAD [the university he headed in Mogadishu] while al shabaab chased everyone else from their areas of control. A clear split of the al shabaabs – foreign vs Somali may determine which way they go.
inform me when kismayo is fully captured and normancy resumes