Chad’s Military Takes the Lead in Campaign against Boko Haram: Can Nigeria’s Embarrassment Equal Multinational Military Success?

Andrew McGregor

From Tips and Trends: The AIS African Security Report, March 2015

Chad Troops in MaliChadian Troops in the Field in Mali

In a six-week campaign, Chad’s military has mounted an air-supported ground offensive against Nigeria’s Boko Haram militants that has crossed into both Nigeria and Cameroon. In the process, Chad has shattered Boko Haram strength in the Lake Chad border region but now finds further progress stalled as Abuja denies permission to pursue the fleeing gunmen further into Nigeria. With Chadian operations having scored major successes against Boko Haram, there is now a danger the still inefficient Nigerian military will attempt to take over operations on its own territory to bolster the electoral chances of Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan, who faces an election on March 28.

Chad’s Military Intervention in Nigeria

A brigade size group (1500 to 2000 men) was sent with some 400 military vehicles to the Lake Chad border region on January 16, 2015. The legal framework for Chadian intervention in the region was already established by the 1998 agreement between Chad, Nigeria and Niger to form a Multinational Joint Task Force (MJTF) to combat cross-border crime and militancy. Since their arrival in January, Chad’s military has reported a series of spectacular, if numerically unverifiable victories, including a battle at Gambaru in which the army reported the death of 207 Boko Haram militants to a loss of one Chadian soldier killed and nine wounded (Reuters, February 25, 2015) [1]. Nonetheless, the poorly coordinated offensive is still taking a toll on Boko Haram, reducing its strength and expelling it from towns (and economic support bases) taken in recent months. Boko Haram counter-attacks persist, but most are driven back without great loss.

  • On January 29-30, Chadian forces crossed into Nigeria for the first time, using jet fighters and ground forces to drive Boko Haram fighters from the village of Malam Fatori in Borno State after a two-day battle (ThisDay [Lagos], February 1, 2015; Daily Trust [Lagos], January 30, 2015; al-Jazeera, January 30, 2015).
  • On January 31, 2015, Chadian forces reported killing 120 Boko Haram fighters in a battle in northern Cameroon centered around the town of Fatakol and used two fighter jets (most likely Sukhoi Su-25 recently obtained from Ukraine) to bomb the Nigerian town of Gambaru (Reuters, January 31, 2015; AFP, January 31, 2015).
  • On February 3, Chadian troops backed by armored vehicles took Gambaru after a fight of several hours (Independent, February 4, 2015). One Chadian battalion commander who took part in the attack on Gambaru had little praise for the Boko Haram fighters that had resisted months of Nigerian operations in the area, saying “yesterday’s offensive made us realize that the fighters of the sect, mainly composed of minors, are only cowards” (Alwhihda [N’Djamena], January 30).

The rapid success of Chadian forces against Boko Haram fighters in the border region revealed the sham war that Nigeria’s military has mounted against the Islamists – Malum Fatori, for example, had been held by the militants since October, even though it fell to the Chadians in one day. Chad has succeeded by using aerial bombardments on Boko Haram targets prior to massive assaults with ground troops and armor. These tactics stand in contrast to those of the Nigerian military, which has become notorious for poor ground-air coordination and failing to press attacks, often citing inferior arms or ammunition shortages. Nigerian warplanes were blamed for the death of 36 civilians when two fighter-jets attacked a funeral party in the Niger border town of Abadam on February 17 (Reuters, February 18). [2]

Nigeria – No Longer a Regional Military Power

Nigeria’s foreign minister, Aminu Wali, has tried to explain why Nigeria requires international assistance in combatting Boko Haram:

It is not that the Nigeria army isn’t fighting, it actually is. But in the context of an unconventional war, that is something else. The same thing applies to the war on terror. So the conventional armed forces aren’t adapted to this kind of conflict. We have to retrain them so that they will be capable to fight this particular conflict that they’ve never known before (RFI, January 30, 2015).

In October 2014, Chad, Nigeria, Niger, and Cameroon agreed to coordinate their military efforts against Boko Haram, though follow-up was slow. Nigerian relations with Cameron have been historically strained by rival claims to the Bakassi Peninsula in the resource-rich Gulf of Guinea, which was eventually awarded to Cameroon through international arbitration in 2009. Since then, Cameroonian oil infrastructure in the region has been subject to attacks by a hybrid criminal/separatist movement seeking unification with Nigeria.[3]

Since the joint offensive began, Nigerian military performance has improved, which the government chalks up to newly purchased arms and Special Forces reinforcements being sent to help the ill-equipped, poorly-led and occasionally mutinous Nigerian 7th Division, which took over responsibility for the sector from the Nigerian Joint Task Force (JTF) in August 2013 (at one point troops of the 7th Division’s 101st Battalion fired at former division commander Major-General Ahmadu Mohammed, who only narrowly survived – see ThisDay [Lagos], May 16, 2014). The retaking of Baga by Nigerian troops on February 21 deprived Boko Haram of a major base and gave a boost to the political fortunes of President Goodluck Jonathan, but the town could have been taken weeks earlier if the Nigerian Army had not rebuffed Chad’s offer of a joint offensive, according to Chadian Army spokesman Colonel Azem Bermandoa (Reuters, March 3, 2015). Baga was the scene of a firefight in April 2013 in which the JTF and Boko Haram displayed a callous disregard for the lives of civilians in the town, killing over 185 people. The town was taken by Boko Haram in January 2015 when fleeing Nigerian troops allowed the militants to massacre hundreds of civilians (BBC, February 2, 2015).

Northeast Nigeria MapNortheast Nigeria – Zone of Chadian Operations

Colonel Bermandoa has likewise complained that Chadian forces took the ancient Nigerian town of Dikwa in mid-February but were ordered by the Nigerians to evacuate it so the Nigerians could launch an airstrike on the community. Chadian forces were compelled to retake the town on March 2 at a cost of one dead and 34 wounded (AFP, February 19, 2015; Reuters, March 2, March 3, 2015; Premium Times [Lagos], March 2, 2015; RFI, February 3, 2015).

Cameroon and Niger have played secondary but important roles in the offensive, pouring their forces into their border regions where they have repulsed attacks, cut supply routes and prevented Boko Haram fighters from slipping away across the borders.

Why Chad is Fighting in Nigeria

Landlocked Chad’s main trade routes cross through areas of Nigeria and northern Cameroon that have been blocked by Boko Haram occupation and operations, leading to shortages of goods (including food from Nigeria), interruption in the important export trade in Chadian cattle and rapidly rising prices for most goods (Wall Street Journal, February 26, 2015).

Economic effects have also been felt in northeastern Nigeria, where the important supply of smoked fish from Lake Chad has been disturbed as a consequence of trade routes being cut by the militants and the fear of fishermen on the Nigerian side of the lake that they will be conscripted into Boko Haram, resulting in shortages and soaring prices for fish in Nigeria (AFP, February 25, 2015).

Boko Haram leader Abubakr Shekau threatened to launch a war against Chad, Cameroon and Niger in a January 2015 video in retaliation for their alleged pro-French sympathies. The Boko Haram leader also took the opportunity to mock the Nigerian military, which has long complained a lack of equipment and arms is preventing them from properly engaging Boko Haram:

All this war equipment that you see being displayed in the screen are gotten from [the captured Nigerian towns of] Baga and Doro. Your army kept deceiving the world that you can’t fight us because you have no arms. Liars! You have all that it takes; you are just coward soldiers (Premium Times [Abuja], January 21, 2015).

In late January, Boko Haram spokesman Abu Musab al-Barnawi used a video to issue new threats to Chad and its MJTF partners:

We say to Niger and Chad that if they stop their assault on us and we will stop our assault on them; otherwise, just as you fight us we will fight you. We will inflame a war of which you have not before tasted its bitterness. Withdraw your soldiers before you regret what will come soon and you have no time to regret. (Premium Times [Lagos], January 28, 2015).

Boko Haram made its first attack on Chadian soil on February 13, using motorized canoes to set a fishing village on fire before being repulsed by Chadian soldiers in what the local Chadian governor described as a “publicity stunt” (Reuters, February 13, 2015).

Most Boko Haram members, including its leaders, belong to the once powerful Kanuri community whose former Bornu Empire straddled the modern borderland between Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger. Though most of Boko Haram, including its leadership, are Kanuris, most of the militant group’s victims have also been Kanuri, dispelling any notion that the Islamist movement somehow represents the Kanuri community. Nonetheless, it is clear that Boko Haram members have been able to utilize family ties and other types of kinship to facilitate the cross-border movement of arms, supplies and personnel across local borders. Given this cross-border movement, it seems likely that Chadian security forces will have a close look at the local Kanuri community in southern Chad during their deployment in the region.

Keeping the military busy in the south may also appeal to the Déby regime; the last attempt by factions of the military to mount a coup was less than two years ago, while Déby himself came to power in a 1990 coup. However, continuous deployment to various theatres runs the risk of internal military breakdown and Chad is already committed to maintaining 1,000 men of its small army in Mali as part of UN peacekeeping operations.
Aware of the danger of reciprocal attacks from Boko Haram, Chad’s security forces have stepped up security, mounting roadblocks, securing the entrances to the capital, N’Djamena, guarding assembly points such as schools, markets and places of worship and rounding up suspected Boko Haram sympathizers in N’Djamena. Many of those arrested belong to the Kanuri community, though Interior Minister Abderahim Bireme Hamid insists that “The arrests are not targeted at a particular social group or community, but those suspected of being close to Boko Haram” (Xinhua, January 28, 2015).

Prior Performance in Military Interventions

Chad’s expeditionary force in Mali performed well in 2013 and did much of the fighting to expel the various armed Islamist groups that had seized northern Mali. However, heavy losses from ambushes and suicide bombings compelled President Déby to announce he was withdrawing the Chadian contingent because “The Chadian army does not have the skills to fight a shadowy, guerrilla-style war that is taking place in northern Mali” (Reuters, April 14, 2013).

Some observers have contrasted the Chadian military’s performance in Mali with their more controversial intervention in the Central African Republic from 2013-2014, where they were accused of political manipulation, arming the Séléka [4] rebels and brutality towards the non-Muslim population that culminated in the massacre of 30 unarmed civilians and the wounding of 300 others when they opened fire on a crowded Bangui market without apparent provocation. [5]

While there was much that was questionable and even indefensible in the performance of Chad’s army in the CAR, it must be recognized that the troops were carrying out N’Djamena’s own agenda in the country, which both modern Chad and pre-colonial sultanates in that region have always regarded as a political and economic hinterland (and prime source of slaves for Chad’s pre-colonial Islamic sultanates) whose rulers were determined by their northern neighbors. In this case, Déby pursued an agenda that involved installing a pliant, Muslim-dominated government in the CAR that would secure the oilfields of southern Chad and prevent opposition forces from using the CAR as a staging-post. Ultimately, pursuit of this policy led to large-scale protests against the Chadians in Bangui and the withdrawal of the Chadian mission.

Chad – A Growing Military Favorite of France and the United States

Chad’s more serious approach to military development and reform has attracted the support of the United States, which now finds serious flaws in its former Nigerian security partner. U.S. training programs and arms sales have broken down in recent years as a result of American concerns with human rights abuses, corruption in the officer corps, infiltration of the Nigerian security forces by Boko Haram and the failure of Nigerian forces to act on U.S.-supplied intelligence (New York Times, January 24, 2015). American concerns with infiltration are not unjustified; a number of senior Nigerian officers have been charged with divulging intelligence to Boko Haram.

Chad is currently host to Flintlock 2015, this year’s version of Flintock, a U.S.-led multinational military exercise conducted by Special Operations Command Forward – West Africa in the interests of improving cooperation and capacity in Saharan counter-terrorism operations. The three-week exercise, which began on February 16, involves more than 100 soldiers from the U.S. 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) as well as trainers from a number of Western nations.

Though President Déby was publicly musing about expelling all French troops from Chad only a few years ago, there has since been an about face on this policy, with Chad welcoming a boost in French forces as part of France’s major redeployment of its military forces in Africa, a shift in focus to mobile counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency units and bases known as Operation Barkhane. As part of this redeployment, French forces in Chad were boosted from 950 to 1250 men, with N’Djamena providing the overall command center at Kossei airbase, with two smaller bases in northern Chad at Faya Largeau and Abéché, both close to the Libyan border. Chadian opposition parties and human rights organizations were dismayed by the new agreement, which appears to legitimize and even guarantee the continued rule of President Idris Déby, who has held power since 1990 (RFI, July 19).

France is currently mounting reconnaissance missions in the Lake Chad border area and is supplying intelligence, fuel and munitions to the military coalition as well as providing ten military specialists to help coordinate military operations from Diffa in Niger (Reuters, February 5, 2015).

Despite the presence of roughly 200 ethnic groups in Chad, the military continues to be dominated by members of President Déby’s northern Zaghawa group despite being only somewhere between 2 to 4% of the population. This situation, however, seems to trouble President Déby more than it does his French and American allies.

The MJTF is slated to be replaced by an expanded and African Union-mandated version of 8750 men that will include troops from Benin as well as Chad, Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon. Logistical and intelligence support will be supplied by France and the United States. Command of the new force will rotate amongst member nations, beginning with Nigeria. The force is proposed to include the following contributions of troops: Nigeria 3500; Chad 3500; Cameroon 750; Niger 750; Benin 250 (BBC, February 25, 2015). A mandate for the mission from the UN Security Council is being sought with French support; this would provide greater funding and access to equipment and training.


If Chad succeeds where Nigeria failed, the result might be a collapse in confidence in Nigeria’s federal government leading to a further break-up of the country as various regions and ethnic groups seek to provide for their own security. The trick will be how to integrate Nigerian forces into the multinational group’s operations despite a well-deserved lack of confidence in the Nigerian military’s ability to mount operations or safeguard intelligence, especially in the midst of a Nigerian presidential campaign pitting a northern Muslim against the southern Christian incumbent. At the moment, there is little cooperation between the various militaries in the Lake Chad region as each continues to operate largely independently – a state of affairs Abuja appears to favor. This appears to be a Nigerian vote in favor of continuing the regional status quo, in which multilateral cooperation is lacking, trade minimal and effective transportation networks so absent that it is impeding the struggle against Boko Haram. As one recent report noted, “it is still easier to fly to Europe from Nigeria than to any of Chad, Niger and Cameroon.” [6]

Given the resilient nature of Boko Haram, its appeal to local religious extremists and its growing connections to the international jihadi community, it is worth asking whether the Chadian deployment will have to be open-ended in order to prevent a Boko Haram revival even in the event current operations destroy existing militant formations. Nigeria’s military will not become reliable or capable overnight regardless of what types of weapons the government obtains during its current buying campaign from international illegal arms markets. An extended stay will be expensive for N’Djamena, which is suffering from a sharp decline in oil prices, but if the costs are covered by the West and compensation is offered in terms of French and American advanced training and arms for the elite corps of the Chadian military, the prospect might take on a greater appeal for Déby and his Zaghawa-dominated regime. However, Chad’s army remains small, and the current tempo of operations cannot be maintained for long. There is a window of opportunity now for the destruction of Boko Haram, but it is slowly being shut by political considerations in the Nigerian capital.


1. Boko Haram spokesman Abu Musab al-Barnawi recently described the Hausa-language term “Boko Haram” (loosely translated as “Western education is forbidden”) as a media invention designed to denigrate the Islamist movement, which he insisted be described in future using its full and official name: “We say that we did not name ourselves “Boko Haram. “Our call is not limited to prohibiting foreign schools and democracy. We are Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah Lil Dawa wal Jihad. Therefore, this name [Boko Haram] is an attempt to bury the truth. We carry out the support for the Sunnah and establish governance of Allah in the land” (Premium Times [Abuja], January 21, 2015).

2. An amateur video purporting to show a hot firefight between Chadian troops and Boko Haram fighters can be seen at a pro-Chadian government news-site: Though there is the continual sound of gunfire it is difficult to tell whether any of the rounds are actually incoming. There are no apparent Chadian casualties despite the failure of many of the soldiers to seek any kind of cover; at one point a soldier crosses in front of the Chadian firing line without suffering harm. More credible video of Chadian operations in Nigeria can be seen at:

3. For the Bakassi dispute, see: Andrew McGregor, “Cameroon Rebels Threaten Security in Oil-Rich Gulf of Guinea,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor 8(43), November 24, 2013,

4. Séléka was a coalition led by the now-exiled Michel Djotodia and composed of the following groups: Front démocratique du peuple centrafricain (FDPC – led by General Abdoulaye Miskine [real name Martin Koumtamadji], a career rebel/freebooter in the Chad/CAR border region); Convention des patriotes pour la justice et la paix (CPJP); Union des Forces Démocratiques pour le Rassemblement, UFDR; Convention Patriotique pour le Salut du Kodro (CPSK); and the Alliance pour la renaissance et la refondation (A2R).

5. United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, Press briefing notes on Central African Republic and Somalia, Geneva, April 4, 2014,

6. Onyedimmakachukwu, “It’s Time for Lake Chad Countries to Move from War Comrades to Business Partners,” February 24, 2015,

Al-Qaeda Responds to Sectarian Clashes in the Central African Republic

Andrew McGregor

March 6, 2014

In a statement entitled “Central African Tragedy… Between Crusader Deceit and Muslim Betrayal,” al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has taken note of the ongoing reprisals against Muslims in the Central African Republic (CAR) being carried out by Christian “anti-balaka” militias, referring to the attacks as “a new episode in the series of spiteful crusades against Islam and its people.” [1] Over 15,000 Muslim civilians live in improvised camps where they are surrounded by armed militias intent on killing them for their alleged support of the largely Muslim Séléka rebel movement that briefly seized power last year (Reuters, February 25).

Troops of the French 27th Mountain Infantry Brigade secure Bangui Airport (

AQIM describes the international peacekeeping forces being sent to the CAR as arriving “only to increase the suffering of Muslims.” France comes in for special attention as “a malevolent colonial crusader… [that] continues to play the role of guardian of the African continent” while fueling conflict and looting wealth “in order to preserve their interests and satisfy their arrogant whims.” AQIM concludes by warning France: “Your crimes will not go unpunished and the war between us and you continues.”

The Islamist movement also condemns the “shameful silence” of the Islamic community, “a nation of one billion.” Noting that some conflicts involving Muslims gain the attention of the Muslim world while others do not, AQIM asks: “Why differentiate between a persecutor and a persecutor and a tragedy and a tragedy?”

The African Union peacekeeping mission in the CAR, the Mission internationale de soutien à la Centrafrique sous conduite africaine (MISCA), has some 6,000 troops from Chad, Congo Brazzaville, Cameroon, Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).  There are an additional 600 police officers from the same countries engaged in training local police forces. Part of MISCA’s difficulty in restoring order to the CAR lies in the fact that the mission is trusted by neither the ex-Séléka rebels nor the anti-balaka militias. It has already become clear that the combined forces of the 2,000 man French deployment (locally referred to as “Sangaris” after the name of the French operation in the CAR) and MISCA are far from sufficient to restore order and security in a large nation with little infrastructure or road systems.

MISCA raided the Boy Rab quarter of Bangui, a base for anti-balaka militias, on February 15, detaining a number of important militia leaders, including Lieutenant Konaté and Lieutenant Ganagi Hervé. Another important anti-balaka leader, Patrice Edouard Ngaissona, managed to evade the operation, though arms and ammunition were recovered from his home (RFI, February 15). The detainees attempted to escape Bangui prison on February 23, but were foiled by alert Rwandan MISCA guards (AFP, February 24).

Rwandan Peacekeepers examine amulets on a detained Anti-Balaka militant

The anti-balaka militias are reported to be divided over the CAR’s future political direction. One faction continues to call for the return of deposed president François Bozizé, while a more moderate faction is seeking to lower the intensity of the conflict and to cooperate with the new government of interim-president Catherine Samba-Panza (RFI, February 16). The anti-balaka rebels depend heavily on charms and amulets designed to ward off bullets and other threats.

Many residents of the CAR view the Chadians as biased towards the republic’s Muslims, who are often referred to by the Christian population as “Chadians” regardless of their origins. The arrival in Bangui of the projected EU force of 1,000 troops with heavy equipment is still believed to be a month away. The formation of a planned UN force of 10,000 peacekeepers (which would probably absorb most of MISCA) is opposed by Chad and is likely still six months away from materializing (VOA, March 3).

Chad traditionally regards the CAR region as its traditional backyard, dating back to the days when the Sultanate of Wadai (in present-day eastern Chad) used the region as a source of wealth in the form of slaves, ivory and other goods. In more recent years, Chadians have figured in the CAR as traders, mercenaries and even presidential bodyguards. N’Djamena’s influence on CAR politics is considerable and growing, considering Chad’s expanding and oil-financed military might. Most of Chad’s oil production is in the south of the country, just north of the unstable CAR.

Both the EU and the UN are calling on Turkey to contribute to the EU deployment, with the UN secretary-general even making a personal call to Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for assistance. The likelihood of such a commitment is, however, still uncertain, as Ankara is consumed externally with the Syrian crisis and internally by a corruption scandal and approaching elections (Today’s Zaman [Istanbul], March 2). Turkey is, moreover, heavily involved in the reconstruction of Somalia and may be wary of adding a military role in an unfamiliar area.

French forces currently deployed to the CAR include Alpine troops of the 27th Mountain Infantry Brigade, some of whom are specialists in urban warfare, and troops of the 8th Régiment de Parachutistes d’Infanterie de Marine (8e RPIMa), an airborne unit with experience in French Indo-China, Algeria, Chad and Afghanistan.

The French intervention in the CAR is not the first in that nation’s post-independence period; in September 1979, units from the Service de Documentation Extérieure et de Contre-Espionnage (SDECE – France’s external intelligence service until reorganization in 1982) and the 1st RPIMa seized Bangui’s airport, allowing transports carrying 300 troops to land with the purpose of replacing “Emperor” Jean-Bédel Bokassa with a new president, David Dacko, who helpfully arrived with the French troops.


1. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, “Central African Tragedy… Between Crusader Deceit and Muslim Betrayal,” February 26, 2014,

This article first appeared in the March 6, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Somalia’s al-Shabaab Movement: Tactical Overhaul in a Collapsing Insurgency

Andrew McGregor 

A Speech Delivered at the Jamestown Foundation Seventh Annual Terrorism Conference

Washington D.C.
December 12, 2013

Somalia’s al-Shabaab movement was incorporated as a new regional chapter of al-Qaeda with the blessings of Ayman al-Zawahiri in February, 2012. Faced with increasing military opposition and severe blows to its revenue streams, al-Shabaab faced the options of gradual annihilation in the field or scaling back operations to a more asymmetric model based on a diminished interest in holding territory and a greater use of terrorist tactics in an expanded zone of operations, one that includes Somalia’s neighbors and might possibly reach to the foreign supporters of Somalia’s national government and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). The Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi and a series of terrorist strikes in Somalia suggest that al-Shabaab is undergoing a tactical and organizational shift designed to centralize command of the movement as it de-emphasizes guerrilla warfare in favor of suicide bombings, assassinations and other terrorist operations.

Assessing al-Shabaab’s Military Strength

Following the devastating loss of both Mogadishu and Kismayo, al-Shabaab finds itself operating in an ever more restricted space, with the only urban centers of any importance still under their control being the port of Barawe in Lower Shabelle and the town of Badhere in Gedo region. According to the Somali Minister of Defense, Abdihakim Haji Mohamud Fiki, al-Shabaab’s military strength has been heavily weakened, leading the movement to carry out a series of desperation attacks.

Al-Shabaab has faced an internal challenge as well, after movement leader Abdi Godane began a purge of internal opponents and suspected spies, centralizing command under himself in the process.Godane relies these days on a combination Praetorian Guard and secret service known as Amniyat to provide personal protection and enforce his will within the movement. Amniyat is already organized in a cell structure that would readily lend itself to a shift to purely terrorist tactics should Shabaab be driven from the field. Amniyat created a split in al-Shabaab during the fighting in Mogadishu when it began killing wounded Shabaab fighters from the southern Bay-Bakool region to save the movement the trouble of looking after them.

Amniyat’s assassination of movement notables like Ibrahim Haji Jama, Omar Hammami, Osama al-Britani (a.k.a. Habib Ghani) and Abdihamid Hashi Olhaye (Moallim Burhan) has created divisions within the movement at a critical time; in early November (Nov 10) at least ten Shabaab militants were killed in what was described as heavy fighting that occurred when one al-Shabaab faction attacked Godane loyalists in the Lower Shabelle region.

Shaykh Hassan Dahir Aweys

Elements of the Hizb al-Islam faction that merged with Shabaab in 2010 are now rethinking their commitment to jihad after the surrender of their leader Shaykh Hassan Dahir Aweys to government forces, Aweys preferring surrender rather than face assassination by Godane’s gunmen. There now appears to be a split in the remains of the original group, with one faction of Hizb al-Islam renouncing violence in favor of talks while another faction rejects any such notions.

In the face of pressure from powerful Hawiye clan elders, President Hassan Shaykh Mohamud has indicated that Aweys, a member of the Hawiye, could be released if he renounced violence and distanced himself from al-Shabaab, a step the shaykh appears unready to take yet.  Otherwise the former Hizb al-Islam leader may face a military court.

Another leading Shabaab commander, Mukhtar Robow (a.k.a. Abu Mansur), has fled Godane’s assassins to take refuge with his Rahanweyn clan. His loss is important, as his troops from the Bay-Bakool region were personally loyal to him and formed a significant part of Shabaab’s total manpower. The remaining Shabaab leaders still in the field all face the danger of being hunted by American drones running out of Ethiopia and Djibouti.

Al-Shabaab Finances

Though there are reports that al-Shabaab profits from the production end of the charcoal industry, the Kenyan military estimates that their incursion into southern Somalia has disrupted 75% of al-Shabaab’s revenue stream, mainly by ending Shabaab control of the important southern port of Kismayo. However, control of the charcoal trade from Shabaab-held Barawe is still worth millions of dollars each month.

Eliminating or even restricting Shabaab’s sources of financing will do much to diminish their military strength – as we have seen throughout this conflict, there is a certain mobility on the part of fighters when either side has demonstrated an inability to meet its payroll.

Tactical Change

While al-Shabaab may seek to impress Gulf region donors with terrorist attacks like that on the Westgate Mall, it risks at the same time the loss of diaspora donors who are morally opposed to such attacks or who are unwilling to risk prosecution for funding a group that can no longer be described by its diaspora backers as “a national resistance movement opposing foreign occupation.” Between the movement’s open declaration of allegiance to al-Qaeda and its headline-grabbing terrorist attacks, such evasions are no longer tenable.

Nonetheless, al-Shabaab is stepping up its use of suicide bombers:

  • A June attack on a UN compound in Mogadishu by a suicide bomber in a truck followed by a general assault  that killed 22 people
  • A suicide car bomb attack outside Mogadishu’s Maka al-Mukarama Hotel on November 8 killed six people. A Shabaab spokesman said the target of the attack was “apostate security forces and officials.”
  • An attack on the Beledweyne police station followed by a general assault on November 19 killed 28 people.

A UN Security Council report issued last July suggested that al-Shabaab has “preserved the core of its fighting forces and resources” by avoiding direct military confrontations. Nevertheless, if al-Shabaab are entering lean times, it will be difficult to hold the group together as many of its fighters consider the economic opportunities the movement offers to be as appealing as its ideology.

Assessing AMISOM’s Military Strength

In October, UN deputy secretary general Jan Eliasson assessed the progress of the African Union’s mission in Somalia, or AMISOM, saying that the offensive that began in August 2011 with the withdrawal of al-Shabaab from Mogadishu had “ground to a halt” because of a shortage of troops to exploit successes in the field.

In mid-November the Security Council addressed the issue, authorizing the deployment of an additional 4400 African Union troops, bringing the size of the force up to 22,100 troops. The Council also approved the use of 12 military helicopters from troop-contributing countries. After a period of 18 to 24 months, the Security Council hopes to hand over security operations to the Somali National Army and a UN peacekeeping force. However, it must be remembered that mere authorization does not translate to troops on the ground – it took three years for AMISOM to raise its forces to the previous authorized level of 18,000.  It can only be hoped that the response will be quicker at this crucial time rather than allow al-Shabaab the opportunity to regroup and reorganize.

AMISOM’s reputation has improved greatly since the Shabaab withdrawal from Mogadishu allowed the mission to begin humanitarian operations. During Shabaab’s occupation of the city, AMISOM frequently came under local criticism for its careless use of retaliatory fire when responding to Shabaab attacks. The 960 man Somali-speaking police and military contingent from Djibouti has had notable success in its deployment in the Hiraan region, but there is a limit to what that small nation can provide.

The addition of helicopter-gunships and surveillance aircraft would greatly enhance the effectiveness of AMISOM operations in territory now held by al-Shabaab. The use of Kenyan Air Force fighter jets in southern Somalia has been an important factor in driving al-Shabaab from their former bases there.

The other component of AMISOM’s mission is providing training and assistance in the creation of professional Somali security forces that can take on a greater share of responsibility for internal security.

Ethiopia is considering joining AMISOM, which would greatly enhance the operational ability of the force in squeezing Shabaab forces from the Somali interior.

Applying Pressure to the AMISOM Contributors

When al-Shabaab first proved its international capabilities in 2010 with coordinated suicide bombings that killed 74 people who had gathered to watch the World Cup in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, the movement warned:  “We are sending a message to every country that is willing to send troops to Somalia that they will face attacks on their territory.”

Having already lost vital revenues provided by the movement’s control of the markets of Mogadishu and the port of Kismayo, Kenya’s support for a new, autonomous administration in southern Somalia threatens to deprive Shabaab of operational mobility in one of its last strongholds. Unable to confront Kenyan troops in the field, al-Shabaab’s strategic response was the formulation of a devastating strike at a soft target in the heart of Kenya – Nairobi’s upscale Westgate Mall.

The Westgate Mall attack did not come out of the blue – over a dozen grenade and IED attacks have occurred since the Kenyan intervention in Somalia began. Most of these incidents have caused few casualties, leading to a senior Shabaab official telling his Kenyan associates to “stop throwing grenades at buses.” Westgate appears to be the result of top Shabaab planners taking over operations in Kenya to produce the kind of mass-casualty attacks they desire.

As al-Shabaab hoped, some Kenyan opposition politicians have called for a withdrawal from Somalia following the Westgate attack, but Nairobi is unlikely to pull out unless it is satisfied the Somali government can provide adequate security in the border regions. This proposition still seems far off at present, suggesting that Kenya will maintain both political influence and a military presence in southern Somalia for some time. A new security concern is created by Kenyan plans to build a new rail and pipeline corridor carrying oil from South Sudanese and Ugandan sources to the port of Lamu, less than 95 miles from the Somali border.

Al-Shabaab did not obscure the motive for the Westgate attack by offering to negotiate at any point during the standoff. The attack was solely retaliation for Kenyan interference in Somalia with the purpose of influencing public opinion against government policy. The attackers had no expectation of survival – in fact al-Shabaab reacted with great anger to suggestions that any of them might actually have escaped. The loss of Kismayo was a severe blow to al-Shabaab’s financing and ability to re-supply, so Godane decided it was time for radical measures in the face of his movement’s obvious inability to expel the Kenyans by military means.