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 Under pressure from both the KDF and forces from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), Al Shabab has withdrawn from a number of cities and towns, leaving Kismayo as its last major stronghold and a critical source of income.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?