How Kenya’s Failure to Contain an Islamist Insurgency is Threatening Regional Prosperity

Andrew McGregor

October 27, 2017

Life in parts of Kenya’s traditionally Muslim coastal region has become a nightmare of beheadings and midnight raids by masked assailants, compounded by the ineptitude of local security forces. In Lamu County, an historic center of Swahili culture, growing ethnic and religious tensions have proved fertile ground for the spread of a Kenyan offshoot of Somalia’s al-Shabaab terrorist group. The struggle for Lamu is not an unfortunate but obscure episode in the war on terror however; it is a battleground for the economic prosperity of East Africa.

Lamu County (

Lamu County is the planned site of one of the most ambitious economic initiatives attempted in Africa – the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport Corridor (LAPSSET), a $24.5 billion project creating a network of roads, rail-lines and pipelines connecting South Sudan, Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya, with the additional construction of three resort cities and a modern port and refinery at Lamu.

The county faces the Indian Ocean. It is culturally and religiously distinct from most of inland Kenya and traditionally Sunni Muslim, with an emphasis on Sufism. The county is divided into two parts – the mainland sector, and a region of 65 islands once prosperous from the trade in slaves and other products of the African interior. The largest economic activity is tourism, mostly restricted to the centuries-old Swahili trading ports on the islands. On the mainland, locals rely on agriculture, fishing and mining.

The local population consists of Swahilis, the dominant culture formed by a mixture of Bantu peoples with Arab and Persian traders that began in the 9th century; Orma, related to the Oromo of Ethiopia, Somalia and northern Kenya; Bajuni islanders; and the Aweer and Watta, both traditional hunter-gatherer groups.

Politically uninfluential and subject to ethnic and political violence in recent years, the region has been designated an operational security area since September 15, 2015. Social services such as healthcare and education are lacking, fresh water is scarce, food supplies are insecure and unemployment is high. [1]

Much of the region’s violence is the result of a strategy by al-Shabaab to punish Kenya on its own soil for initiating an operation by the Kenya Defense Force (KDF) – named Linda Nichi (Swahili for “Protect the Country”) – against al-Shabaab within Somalia in October 2011. The operation’s declared intent was to stifle cross-border incursions by Somali militants. In practice, however, the deployment has created a Kenyan-controlled buffer zone known as Jubaland in southern Somalia.

The Mpeketoni Massacre

On June 15, 2014 al-Shabaab struck Lamu County, massacring 65 men, mostly Kikuyu Christian migrants from inland Kenya. The local police station offered no resistance and was quickly overrun, the police fleeing, leaving behind their weapons, which were collected by the attackers. Despite the presence of nearby police and military installations, the attack continued for ten hours without interference from security forces, who were apparently watching a broadcast of a FIFA World Cup soccer match.

Al-Shabaab claimed the massacre was in response to the “Kenyan government’s brutal oppression of Muslims in Kenya through coercion, intimidation and extrajudicial killings of Muslim scholars” (Daily Nation [Nairobi], June 16, 2014).

Rather than address the al-Shabaab threat, Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, a Kikiyu, attempted to shift blame for the attack to opposition politicians, claiming the massacre had nothing to do with al-Shabaab, despite al-Shabaab claiming responsibility for the attack on its official Twitter account earlier the same day (Reuters, June 16, 2014; Daily Nation [Nairobi], June 16, 2014). Kenyatta also claimed that local police had received advance warning of the attack but ignored the warning (BBC, June 18, 2014).

Ethnicity is a relevant factor here. During the 1952-1960 colonial-era Mau Mau rebellion, British administrators used the Mpeketoni region for the resettlement of Kikiyu from Kenya’s Central Highlands where the rebellion was concentrated. Mpeketoni was later used as a resettlement site for Kikiyu farmers who had returned to Kenya from Tanzania in the 1970s. These transfers of members of Kenya’s largest and most powerful ethnic group created a lasting turbulence over land ownership issues and turned the Muslim Swahili community into a religious and ethnic minority in their traditional homeland. [2]

Typical of more recent attacks in Lamu County was one conducted on the evening of September 5-6, when terrorists in military gear struck two villages in the Hindi district of Lamu. Calling residents out by name, the gunmen beheaded four individuals in front of their wives and children before fleeing into the Boni Forest. Protests the next day over the security forces’ inefficiency were broken up by riot police (The Standard [Nairobi], September 6). The Hindi police chief was later suspended for sleeping on the job (Daily Nation [Nairobi], September 11).

Operation Linda Boni: Security Failure in Lamu County

Kenya’s counter-insurgency effort in the region, Operation Linda Boni, began in September 2015 and was expected to last 90 days (Daily Nation [Nairobi], November 16, 2015). Operation Linda Boni is now in its third year, despite repeated pronouncements that all its objectives have been achieved. The operation involves a number of security agencies, including the KDF, the National Police Service, the Administration Police and the National Intelligence Service (NIS). Agents of the latter infiltrate the villages to identify supposed terrorist collaborators.

Despite the operation’s massive expense, the Boni Forest, used as a base by Islamist militants, is still far from secured even though US special forces reportedly provide logistical and training support to Kenyan troops operating there (The Star [Nairobi], February 10; Daily Beast, August 2). The multi-agency operation suffers from infighting, poor coordination and inappropriate equipment. Mounting casualties have demoralized police and soldiers who have little to show for their efforts, and the increasing tempo of attacks in Lamu County has alarmed Kenyan security officials.

Coast regional coordinator Nelson Marwa, an outspoken security hardliner, made some pointed criticisms of the Operation Linda Boni: “We have the Operation Linda Boni in place. It is now almost two years and the way things are, it’s like we haven’t achieved the objective of flushing out criminals inside the forest… How do al-Shabaab find their way past our forces … to get into villages, kill people and go back into the same forest or cross the same borders where our KDF soldiers are? We have enough airplanes and I wonder why most of them are just lying in the bases instead of being put out there to patrol these places. People must be [held] responsible…” (The Nation [Nairobi], September 10).

Lamu County Commissioner Gilbert Kitiyo responded by claiming, without documentation, that the operation had reduced al-Shabaab’s capacity to mount attacks by 80 percent (Daily Nation [Nairobi],

September 20). On October 5, Operation Linda Boni director Joseph Kanyiri announced the al-Shabaab presence in Lamu County was “almost at zero level” (The Star [Nairobi], October 6).

LAPSSET: East Africa’s Economic Hope

In a region already beset by land ownership disputes, the LAPSSET project has led to rampant speculation and fraudulent land transactions. The project is being implemented without consultation with the local community and is expected to bring an influx of one million migrants to the region, few if any of them Muslims. It will be a massive and irreversible demographic shift that al-Shabab’s Jaysh Ayman unit is already exploiting to recruit local Muslims.

Despite government promises, local benefits of LAPSSET are already proving illusory. A presidential directive to LAPSSET to provide 1,000 scholarships worth $550,000 to train local youth on the technical aspects of port operations was ignored by the agency, which provided only ten scholarships worth $17,000 to non-locals (Business Daily [Nairobi], September 17).

The construction of Kenya’s pipeline to Lamu from the oilfields in Turkana County is also now in jeopardy after its budget was cut by 70 percent to help pay for a court-ordered repeat of the fraud-plagued presidential election on October 26, and the failure to pass the 2015 Petroleum Bill after President Kenyatta attempted to cut local communities’ revenue shares in half (Business Daily [Nairobi], October 8).

Al-Shabaab’s Kenyan Affiliate

Though directed by Somalia’s al-Shabaab movement, Jaysh Ayman (“Army of the Faithful”) presents itself as a local movement defending Swahili Muslims while fighting a corrupt Kenyan government and pursuing the creation of a caliphate on the Kenyan coast. As well as night attacks on settlements, Jaysh Ayman has struck power infrastructure and frequently ambushes cars, passenger buses and trucks on highways running through Lamu County (The Star [Nairobi], August 8; Standard [Nairobi], August 2; The Star [Nairobi], August 7). Security on the main roads has grown so bad that vehicles can only move safely in police-escorted convoys.

Mallik Alim Jones (il

As well as hundreds of Kenyan Muslims, Jaysh Ayman includes foreign fighters. Maalik Alim Jones, a Maryland native and Jaysh Ayman volunteer, was arrested in December 2015 while trying to board a boat from Somalia to Yemen. A convicted child abuser who abandoned his family in the US to join al-Shabaab, Jones pleaded guilty to various terrorism-related charges on September 8 (Baltimore Sun, January 18, 2016; September 8).

Andreas Martin Muller (left) and Thomas Evans

Jones was a suspect in the Mpeketoni massacre and appeared in an al-Shabaab propaganda video before joining an unsuccessful June 14, 2015 attack on a KDF camp in Lamu County (Daily Nation [Nairobi], January 12, 2016). Also prominent in the video was a 25-year-old English al-Shabaab volunteer and convert to Islam, Thomas Evans (aka Abd al-Hakim, or “the White Beast”), who was killed in the attack. [3] Evans, who married a 13-year-old Somali girl and gained a reputation for beheading Christians, is seen in the video greeting a German fellow convert and al-Shabaab fighter, Andreas Martin Muller, (aka Abu Nusaybah, or Ahmad Khalid) (Express [London], June 25, 2015; Telegraph, October 11, 2015). Eleven other Jaysh Ayman members were killed in the firefight, including Luqman Osman Issa (aka Shirwa), who is believed to have directed the Mpeketoni massacre (Reuters [Nairobi], June 15, 2015).

Weak Security Response

A particularly effective al-Shabaab tactic involves ambushing rescuers after a poorly protected armored personnel carrier (APC) has struck a mine. As anger over poor equipment grows in the ranks, the government has promised to purchase and deploy mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) APCs.

The militants make extensive use of roadside improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to dissuade security forces from patrolling. The bombs take a steady toll on security personnel who remain helpless against an invisible enemy. The Chinese-made VN-4 “Rhinoceros” multi-role light APCs, in use by government forces, protect only against small arms fire. In addition, they are poorly ventilated, making them unsuitable for use in the hot and humid conditions of the coast. The only other export customer for the VN-4 is Venezuela, which has used them extensively against civilian protesters but not in combat situations.

Thirty of the VN-4 APCs were purchased in February 2016 after widespread criticism of the capabilities of Serbian, Chinese and South African-made APCs obtained through a corruption-plagued procurement system (The Standard [Nairobi], June 1, 2017; Defence Web, June 26, 2014). The VN-4s are deployed by the General Service Unit (GSU), a paramilitary unit within Kenya’s national police that dates back to the Mau Mau uprising. Many GSU members have received Israeli training, while some officers have been trained in the UK.

In partial fulfillment of the government’s promise, 35 CS/VP3 “Bigfoot” APCs were delivered to the government by China’s Poly Technologies in January 2017 (Daily Nation [Nairobi], June 11). Classed as MRAP and already in use in Nigeria and Uganda, the APCs were sent to the Rural Border Patrol Unit, established in 2008 after multiple disturbances along the Somali border. The border patrol unit is part of the Administration Police (AP), a paramilitary police force responsible for guarding public buildings and providing a rapid deployment unit for emergency use.

Kenyan officials and security experts have suggested al-Shabaab is being provided with local intelligence by elements within Kenya (Sunday Nation [Nairobi], June 4). This gives the militants an edge over police forces, which are often drawn from Christian inland communities and view the Muslim communities of the Coast with suspicion and distrust at best. The heavy hand of the KDF and other security forces in terms of torture, disappearances and the unsolved murders of dozens of Kenyan Muslim leaders in recent years continues to work against the development of an effective intelligence network in Lamu County. [4]

Sacrificing Boni Forest

An investigation by a Nairobi daily found a number of security agents asserting that intelligence reports from 2012 that described how al-Shabaab was establishing bases in the 517 square mile Boni National Reserve were ignored. The reports detailed how al-Shabaab was bringing in equipment including GPS trackers and night-vision goggles. According to one agent: “We alerted local police to be aware and watch over these dense forests. No one cared” (Daily Nation [Nairobi], July 20).

The Boni Forest canopy is dense, restricting aerial surveillance, and roads are few, limiting the mobility of security forces. Al-Shabaab’s strategic placement of mines and IEDs complicates the efforts of security forces to infiltrate the forest.

Coast Regional Coordinator Nelson Marwa (left) with Coast Regional Police Commandant Larry Kieng (Kevin Odit/Nation Media Group)

Marwa, the Coast regional coordinator, has insisted on the necessity of bombing “that forest completely,” adding in bombastic fashion that he “will enter the forest if others fear going there … I am ready to die while fighting al-Shabaab in the forefront as the commander” (The Star [Nairobi], June 29).

Bombing the Boni Forest, however, poses a risk to its native inhabitants, the Aweer (or Boni), a group of 3,000 indigenous hunter-gatherers whose traditional lifestyle has already been challenged by forced resettlement and a government ban on hunting. The Aweer are now forbidden to enter the forest during military operations, but have not been provided with food aid since last year (Standard [Nairobi], June 18). The forest is also home to several rare endangered species.

Joseph Kanyiri, the director of Operation Linda Boni, has struck back at environmentalist critics of the bombing: “I cannot comprehend why someone feels this way when a number of trees are destroyed in order to save a thousand lives … This is serious business and that’s why I am asking activists and conservationists to stick their necks elsewhere. We are here to protect lives and end terrorism and that will happen at any cost. The Aweer community remains intact and their lives go on. After all, the bombing is happening thousands of miles away from their habitats” (The Star [Nairobi], August 25).

In reality, the Boni Forest measures roughly 25 miles by 25 miles and the bombing has made it impossible for the Aweer to forage for food or to obtain food from traders who are now afraid to venture into the region.

Putting Pressure on the Government

Al-Shabaab and its Jaysh Ayman offshoot share a determination to expose the weaknesses of Kenya’s security forces, terrorize Christian migrants to the region and inhibit the tourism industry. It seeks to put pressure on the government by creating a general state of insecurity in a part of the country where, as a result of LAPSSET, the administration now has a substantial interest.

On the government side, there is a pattern of corruption constraining action by the security forces, while intelligence is being collected but not acted on. This appears to be a result of lassitude on the part of the security forces and a belief among government officials that the blame for poor performance can be quickly and easily shifted to others.

Even though al-Shabaab’s radical Salafism has little appeal in a region traditionally influenced by Sufist Sunni Islam, the movement is trying to exploit Muslim alienation from the central government and the bitter land issues that are at the core of much of the violence in Lamu County. It is unlikely that al-Shabaab actually believes there is an opportunity to create a caliphate on the Kenyan coast. Instead their real goal is to hold the LAPSSET development hostage and encourage local and regional pressure on Nairobi to abandon the KDF’s deployment in southern Somalia.


  1. M. Bradbury and M. Kleinman, “Winning Hearts and Minds? Examining the Relationship between Aid and Security in Kenya,” Feinstein International Center, 2010,
  2. Herman Butime, “Unpacking the Anatomy of the Mpeketoni Attacks in Kenya,” Small Wars Journal, September 23, 2014,
  3. Captured al-Shabaab video of the dawn firefight is available here.
  4. Michael Nyongesa, “Are Land Disputes Responsible for Terrorism in Kenya? Evidence from Mpeketoni Attacks,” Journal of African Democracy and Development 1(2), pp. 33-51

This article first appeared in the October 27, 2017 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor


Al-Shabaab Opens a New Front in Puntland

Andrew McGregor

May 30, 2015

While the success of Somali government and African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) offensives against al-Shabaab insurgent formations in central and southern Somalia is welcome, it has unfortunately resulted in the migration of beleaguered al-Shabaab fighters to the northern Somalia region of Puntland, an area offering superb refuges in rough terrain with only a lightly-armed paramilitary to defend the region, which has only been lightly touched until the last  year by the fighting with al-Shabaab in the rest of Somalia.

Puntland GalgalaPuntland’s Galgala Hills

Puntland emerged as an autonomous region in 1998 in an effort to separate the largely peaceful north from the political chaos consuming central and southern Somalia at the time. Though it acts largely independently of the central government in Mogadishu, Puntland is normally a strong supporter of a federal Somali state with many powers devolved to regional administrations. The region has a population of roughly 4 million, at least half of whom continue to pursue nomadic lifestyles.

Al-Shabaab fighters have been reported pouring into the Galgala Hills, a remote region of Puntland 50 kilometers east of Bossaso (Puntland’s major port and commercial center) that has been the subject of a struggle for control between the Majerteen and Warsangali clans. The region was cleared of Shabaab-sympathetic insurgents with great effort last year but remains attractive to al-Shabaab as it sits outside the mandated range of African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) operations in Somalia, though a UN spokesman has promised the organization is considering an expansion of its operational area (Reuters, May 7).

In the meantime, al-Shabaab maintains a persistent presence in the rocky hill country After a week of heavy fighting in January, Puntland’s security authorities announced the capture of the last al-Shabaab camp in the Galgala region, the death of 20 militants and the capture of two al-Shabaab commanders (Horseed Media, January 7, 2015). Yet a little more than a month later, authorities were announcing a successful battle in the same region that killed 16 al-Shabaab militants (Horseed Media, February 14, 2015; Garowe Online, February 14, 2015). Al-Shabaab gunmen and terrorists are using the hills as a base for attacks on Bossaso and, more recently, the Puntland capital of Garowe:

  • On February 7, al-Shabaab gunmen in four cars attacked a military post in Bossaso, sparking a three-hour gunfight that left a number of terrorists and security personnel dead (Horseed Media, February 8, 2015).
  • On April 5, gunmen attacked a security checkpoint near the Hotell Yasmin in the heart of Bossaso. Two militants and a soldier were killed (Somaliland Sun, April 6).
  • On April 18, three al-Shabaab fighters attacked the Balade police station in Bossaso with RPGs. It was the second such assault on the Balade station in two months (Garowe Online, April 18, 2015).
  • On April 20, a suicide bombing on a UNICEF vehicle killed four foreign UNICEF workers and two Somali security guards while sending a further six (including an American) to a Garowe hospital. It was the first such attack in Garowe, which is otherwise enjoying a wave of development. Following the attack, al-Shabaab spokesman Ali Mohamud Rageh vowed that his movement would continue its strikes against US agencies, accusing the UN of facilitating the “invasion” of Somalia and promising UN staff would “taste our bullets” (Horseed Media, April 23, 2015).
  • On May 5, al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for a grenade-tossing attack on a police post in the port of Bossaso and a larger attack using RPGs and heavy machineguns against another police post at Yalho on the outskirts of Bossaso (Horseed Media, May 5, 2015). The latter post was briefly taken and three policemen killed before security forces retook it in a counterattack (Reuters, May 5, 2015).

Members of Puntland’s parliament have also been targeted in a broader campaign of assassinations similar to those carried out previously by al-Shabaab in southern Somalia. MP Adan Haji Hussein was killed in April while the latest such death was that of MP Saeed Nur Dirir, a close ally of Puntland’s president,  Abdiweli Mohamed Ali ”Gaas” (Garowe Online, May 8, 2015).

Puntland Defense ForceArmed Federalism: Troops of the Puntland Defense Force on Patrol in Mogadishu

The political chaos in Yemen, a short distance from Puntland, is also complicating Puntland’s security situation, with refugees, arms, escaped prisoners and possibly even fighters making the short trip by boat across the Gulf of Aden to Puntland. Some 2,000 refugees have arrived in northern Somalia so far, though UN experts expect as many as 100,000 more in the next few months, a number that simply cannot be accommodated by northern Somalia’s meagre resources. Beside fears that militants might use the exodus to infiltrate Somalia, the fighting in Yemen has collapsed markets for Puntland goods there, including markets for the all-important fish industry (Raxanreeb, April 19, 2015).

Puntland authorities have lately the appearance of using a firm hand in dealing with al-Shabaab terrorists – in mid-March, three men suspected of planning and carrying out terrorist attacks in Puntland were executed by firing squad only days after a quick trial (Horseed Media, March 16, 2015). According to sources in Puntland, the three were among dozens of al-Shabaab suspects who have been handed death penalties, life imprisonment or lesser terms (Garowe Online, March 16, 2015). However, a report by the UN’s Monitoring Group on Eritrea and Somalia issued last October raised serious questions regarding the determination of the Puntland regime to address the al-Shabaab threat. The report notes the impediments thrown up by the administration (particularly the office of the president) to UN efforts to investigate the growth in al-Shabaab activity in Puntland, suggesting that this “is indicative of its unwillingness to robustly address the threat of al-Shabaab.”[1] The report further suggested the government of President Abdiweli Mohamed Ali had adopted a “catch and release” policy respecting al-Shabaab suspects, allowed the infiltration of its security services and had even intervened in the prosecution and detention of al-Shabaab members.[2]

On February 22, deputy commander-in-chief of police Mohiyadin Ahmed Aw-Musse was sacked by the Puntland president after expressing his fury with the quick release of al-Shabaab members collected in a security sweep, some of whom were allegedly freed by presidential decree. Having been the target of al-Shabaab assassins only two weeks before in an attack that killed two of his bodyguards, Aw-Musse’s displeasure with such policies was understandable. Puntland Intelligence Agency (PIA) director Abdi Hassan Hussein was also fired on February 22 (Garowe Online, February 22, 2015).

Most of the counter-terrorism work in Puntland is handled by the American-trained Puntland Intelligence Agency (PIA), formerly the Puntland Intelligence Service (PIS). Puntland also relies on a frontier paramilitary of roughly 7,000 men known as the Puntland Dervish Force, some of whom have received training in Uganda. Regular payment of security forces remains a problem, leading to frequent strikes by police and troops (Garowe Online, January 26, 2015). Despite these problems, Puntland has agreed to commit 3,000 of its troops to the growing Somali National Army (Reuters, May 7, 2015).

Puntland Galgala 2Puntland Security Forces in the Galgala Hills

Some of the arms used by al-Shabaab appear to be imported through the Berbera port in neighboring Somaliland (a self-declared but unrecognized independent state), a traffic that Somaliland officials claim to be trying to stop, though Puntland officials routinely accuse Somaliland (with whom they are engaged in a bitter and long-standing territorial dispute in the Sanoog-Sool-Cayn region) of supporting al-Shabaab (Raxanreeb, January 30, 2015). Though several top al-Shabaab leaders have hailed from Somaliland in recent years, no evidence has been produced that these leaders have or had any connection to Somaliland authorities. According to the chairman of Kulmiye, the ruling party in Somaliland, Puntland accuses Somaliland of supporting terrorism “only to conceal its [own] security failures” (Somaliland Sun, February 21, 2015).


The obsession of Puntland’s authorities with Somaliland hinders the development of accurate intelligence regarding al-Shabaab’s true aims and activities, while accusing Somaliland of backing al-Shabaab prevents the resolution of the territorial dispute between the neighboring administrations. Puntland intelligence assessments tend to be heavily clouded by dislike of the Somaliland leadership.

Bossaso, due to its importance as a port with connections to Yemen and its proximity to militant bases in the Galgala Hills, will continue to experience a high degree of insecurity until superior military forces can undertake clearing operations in the region while securing entry points, a considerable but not unsurmountable task with some foreign logistical, surveillance and intelligence assistance. If al-Shabaab’s shift north is to be halted, close cooperation will be required between the security forces of Mogadishu and Garowe, cooperation that is threatened by yet another territorial dispute in Puntland’s southern Mudug region, where authorities are working to form a new federal state in combination with the neighboring Galgudud region (a stronghold of the Sufi militia Ahlu Sunnah wa’l-Jama’a), a process strongly opposed by the Puntland government and even by many residents of the Mudug region.


[1] United Nations Security Council, Letter dated 10 October 2014 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolutions 751 (1992)and 1907 (2009) concerning Somalia and Eritrea addressed to the President of the Security Council. October 13, 2014,

[2] Ibid, pp. 69-74.

After Garissa: Kenya Revises Its Security Strategy to Counter al-Shabaab’s Shifting Tactics

Andrew McGregor

April 17, 2015

Al-Shabaab’s April 2 attack on Kenya’s Garissa University College that killed 147 non-Muslim students was the latest installment in al-Shabaab’s campaign to force Nairobi to order a withdrawal of the Kenyan Defense Force (KDF) from the Jubaland region of southern Somalia. So far, the Kenyan government has presented an uncoordinated response that has largely focused on Islamist militancy as a foreign problem that is being imported (along with hundreds of thousands of unwanted refugees) across Kenya’s porous border with neighboring Somalia.

KDF in SomaliaKDF Troops in Southern Somalia


The KDF moved into southern Somalia in 2011 as part of Operation Linda Nchi, designed to deter cross-border infiltration of radical Islamists, create a Kenyan-controlled buffer zone in southern Somalia and establish suitable conditions for the return of the massive Somali refugee population dwelling in Kenya’s largely ethnic-Somali North Eastern Province. KDF troops in Somalia joined the larger African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) in February 2012.

In military terms, the KDF presence has exerted a slow but ultimately relentless pressure on Somalia’s al-Shabaab movement. The seizure of the port at Kuday Island (southern Juba region, south of Kismayo) by KDF and Somali National Army (SNA) forces during an amphibious operation on March 22 drove al-Shabaab from its last access point to the sea, dealing the organization a severe blow and leaving it effectively surrounded by hostile forces (Raxanreeb, March 22). Military pressure from AMISOM and financial pressures created by the gradual loss of access to every port prompted a strategic overhaul of the group’s activities. For al-Shabaab, direct confrontations with Somali security forces or the much stronger AMISOM deployment are out; a greater focus on terrorist tactics (including bombings, assassinations and assaults on soft targets by well-armed gunmen) is in. Expelling the KDF is a priority, and the movement is willing to exploit ethnic tensions in Kenya’s North Eastern Province to achieve this goal.

The region’s ethnic-Somali population (belonging largely to the powerful Ogadeni clan) was geographically divided in 1925, when Britain gave the northern half of the region (modern Jubaland) to Italy. The southern half of the region is now Kenya’s North Eastern Province. The division was massively unpopular with the region’s ethnic-Somalis, leading the British to close the region from 1926 to 1934. Dislike of the Kenyan government (dominated by the Kikuyu tribe) erupted into the Shifta War of 1963-1967. Dissatisfaction with the administration has been punctuated by sporadic political violence in the region ever since, the worst example being the 1984 Wagalla Massacre of thousands of ethnic-Somalis by Kenyan security forces. [1]

The Assault on Garissa College University

Kenya’s security forces may have relaxed prematurely after seizing Kismayo, al-Shabaab’s largest port, in 2012. While taking Kismayo fulfilled Nairobi’s objective of creating an autonomous buffer zone (“Jubaland”) between Kenya and the rest of Somalia, it only intensified al-Shabaab’s hatred of Kenya and its determination to retake Somali-inhabited areas of Kenya, even if it means the use of terrorist atrocities targeting Kenyan civilians. The border became no less permeable with the creation of a Kenya-reliant Jubaland administration, yet the Kenyan government continued to neglect border security in the North Eastern Province, where roads and other infrastructure are few and far between.

The attack at Garissa appears to have been well-planned—university administrators said two of the terrorists had posed as students while using a room on campus as a “command center,” complete with food and supplies that appeared to be intended for a long battle (Standard [Nairobi], April 10). Survivors described the attackers as speaking Swahili (Kenya’s main language) rather than Somali (Mail & Guardian [Johannesburg], April 4). Militants told at least one survivor of the attack: “Tell your President to withdraw KDF from Somalia and ensure that North Eastern [province] belongs to Muslims. Garissa must also be part of Somalia and not Kenya” (Standard [Nairobi], April 11).

While helicopters were made available to take the Interior Cabinet Secretary (who routinely assures Kenyans the government is keeping them safe) and the Inspector General of Police to Garissa, the elite counter-terrorist Recce company of the paramilitary General Service Unit (GSU) got stuck in traffic on their way to the airport, where they were transported to Garissa by fixed wing aircraft while their equipment travelled by road (Star [Nairobi], April 11). The aircraft that should have been available to transport the Recce unit was unavailable as it had been used that morning to fly private individuals to Mombasa and pick up the daughter-in-law of police air-wing chief Rogers Mbithi (Daily Nation [Nairobi], April 13; Star [Nairobi], April 15).

This suggests that Kenyan authorities have not absorbed the lessons of the 2013 attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, particularly in regard to having transport available for its rapid response units. In the Westgate incident, Kenya’s elite 40 Rangers Strike Force arrived at the mall from their base at Gilgil (roughly 75 kilometers north of Nairobi) 12 hours after the attack began, and promptly engaged in a gunfight with members of the General Service Unit (GSU), a paramilitary wing of the National Police Service. Action against the terrorists still inside the mall was confused as many members of the police and military devoted themselves to looting the mall rather than rescuing hostages. In response to the resulting public outrage, the Kenyan military sacked and jailed two members of its elite 40 Rangers Strike Force and declared the matter finished (Standard [Nairobi], October 30, 2013).

KunoAlleged Attack Planner Mohamed Kuno

Though the Kenyan government continues to treat al-Shabaab as an external threat, there is evidence that the radical Islamist threat is an internal problem, albeit one inspired by al-Shabaab. The alleged planner of the attack, Mohamed Kuno (a.k.a. Mohamed Dulyadin; a.k.a. Gamadhere; a.k.a. Shaykh Mohamud), has strong connections to Kenya’s ethnic-Somali community. Kuno worked as a teacher and principal of a madrassa in Garissa from 1997 to 2000, where he is remembered for his religious radicalism before his departure for Somalia (Daily Nation [Nairobi], April 2). Once in Somalia, Kuno acted as a commander in some of the heaviest fighting in Mogadishu, and, for a time, even served in the al-Shabaab-allied Ras Kamboni Brigade under Shaykh Ahmed Mohamed Islam “Madobe,” who ironically is now the Kenyan-backed “president” of Jubaland (Mail & Guardian [Johannesburg], April 4). The former teacher is the prime suspect in the massacre of 28 Kenyan Christians in Mandera County in November 2014 and the killing of a further 36 Christian quarry workers in Mandera in December 2014. At present, Kano is responsible for al-Shabaab operations in Jubaland and Kenya.

In the wake of the attack, opposition leaders continue to demand a KDF withdrawal from Somalia in order to concentrate on border security, suggesting that the United States try to persuade other nations without a common border with Somalia to replace the Kenyan troops (Standard [Nairobi], April 11).

A Failure of Intelligence?

In the border regions, there are few Kenyan intelligence officers from the local ethnic-Somali community, contributing to Kenya’s continued inability to secure its border with Somalia (Standard [Nairobi], April 12). In addition, Kenyan authorities appear to have ignored foreign intelligence reports passed to them:

  • Three weeks before the Garissa attack, UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond warned that Kenya was not acting on intelligence information regarding possible terrorist activity—only a day before the Garissa attack, President Kenyatta called British travel advisory warnings on Kenya an attempt “to intimidate us with these threats” (Standard [Nairobi], April 5).
  • Iran is reported to have supplied information on March 22 of pending attacks on Kenyan Christians in university areas of Garissa, Nairobi and Mombasa prior to the assault on the Garissa University, where Christians were singled out (Standard [Nairobi], April 12).
  • On March 27, Australia issued a warning of an impending terrorist attack in Nairobi (Reuters, March 28).
  • According to a student interviewed by Reuters, whose account was corroborated by northern Kenyan MPs, the administration of the Garissa Teacher’s College closed the school days before the attack, telling students that strangers had been spotted in the college and that a terrorist attack might be imminent. This action was not followed by the rest of the campus, which remained open. According to one MP, “Some of us have seen the intelligence reports, and I can assure you they were specific and actionable” (Reuters, April 3).

The Kenyan Response

The KDF’s immediate reaction to the Garissa massacre was to bomb al-Shabaab camps in Somalia, including Camp Shaykh Ismail, Camp Gondodwe, Camp Bardheere and what was described as a major camp in Gedo Region where some 800 militants were based. Though the KDF claimed each base was completely destroyed (unlikely considering that only ten aircraft were used and the cloudy conditions at the time), al-Shabaab made the equally unlikely claim that all the bombs had fallen harmlessly on farmland (Star [Nairobi], April 6).

Inside Kenya, critical assessments of Kenya’s response to terrorist threats posed by al-Shabaab and its Kenyan allies tend to be treated as unpatriotic outbursts that identify the holder of such sentiments as potential terrorist-sympathizers. Deputy President Ruto (the government’s point-man on the Garissa issue) recently demanded that some Kenyan leaders should stop “cheering” al-Shabaab attacks inside Kenya (Capital FM [Nairobi], April 12).

Beyond the military response, focus has concentrated on the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya’s North Eastern Province. The camp, the largest refugee center in Africa with between 350,000 to 500,000 Somali residents, was set up in 1991, and its population (mainly women and children) has grown every year despite claims from many Kenyan politicians that the facility harbors terrorists. Following the Garissa attack, Deputy President Ruto demanded that the UNHCR close Dadaab in three months’ time, or Kenya would relocate the refugees itself (BBC, April 12).

Recent remarks by former deputy prime minister Musalia Mudavadi (in which he was supported by several MPs) gave some indication of the political mood regarding the continued existence of the Dadaab camp and its alleged threat to Kenyans:

The camp accommodates Somalia terrorists who disguise themselves as refugees. They use the camp as a base to collect intelligent information about Kenyan institutions and relay back to their accomplices in Somalia… The refugees stay in the country, seek assistance from us, mingle with our people freely yet they gather information on how to lay a trap on us. They hide their true colors and plan on how to kill us. They need to move out immediately (Star [Nairobi], April 6).

Kenyan officials insist that KDF operations in southern Somalia have now created safe spaces suitable for the return of the refugees (BBC, April 11). However, a UNHCR spokesman cited a tripartite treaty with Kenya and Somalia specifying that any return by refugees to Somalia must be voluntary, adding rather bluntly that “moving that number of people [in an unsystematic fashion] will not be possible” (RFI, April 12).

Big Fences Make Good Neighbors?

While spectacular attacks such as that on Garissa University make international headlines, there is also a daily war of attrition going on in the border counties of northeastern Kenya. According to Kenyan anti-terrorism police, there has been a terrorist attack every ten days (135 in total) since the KDF deployment in Somalia began in 2011. Most of these attacks, killing over 500 people in total, occurred in Kenya’s North Eastern province. (Mail & Guardian [Johannesburg], April 10). Ali Roba, governor of Mandera County, said in March that up to 90 people had died from terrorist activity in Mandera in the previous seven months alone, adding that he himself had survived six assassination attempts (Standard [Nairobi], March 22).

Most of this activity is blamed by the authorities on the infiltration of al-Shabaab terrorists across the poorly defended border. Nairobi’s solution, despite Somali objections, is to build a massive wall of concrete and fencing along the border, separating the ethnic Somali residents of Kenya’s North Eastern Province from their fellow Ogadeni clansmen in Somalia’s Kenyan-occupied Jubaland State (Standard [Nairobi], March 22), The hastily-implemented “Somalia Border Control Project” will cost an estimated $260 million. The porous border with Somalia is 680 kilometers long, but it is still unclear if the project will cover that entire distance. (Mail & Guardian [Johannesburg], April 10). Defending the wall will require an enormous and expensive permanent deployment of police or troops whose supplies will need to be trucked in despite a general absence of roads in the region.

Police Recruits

Deep corruption in the security services, especially the police, has produced a certain lethargy in Kenya’s response to terrorist activity. Unsurprisingly, the Garissa massacre is now being used to legitimize corrupt police hiring practices that were recently the subject of an unfavorable ruling by Kenya’s High Court, which still maintains a reputation for honesty and independence from the executive branch. The ruling cancelled the 2014 recruitment of 10,000 police recruits who had paid substantial bribes for a place on the police force.

Despite the ruling, the president issued a directive that the 10,000 police recruits should report for training immediately to protect the border with Somalia. This led to a flurry of contradictory statements from various government and oversight sources that pointed to a severe breakdown between the executive branch and the judiciary. The president’s directive constitutes a violation of the Kenyan constitution, an offense for which the president could be impeached. Kenyatta, however, has the support of a majority of parliament, making impeachment proceedings unlikely (Standard [Nairobi], April 12).

Amniyat on the Ropes?

Created by late al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane “Abu Zubayr,” Amniyat is a secretive unit within al-Shabaab that acts as the organization’s intelligence unit while also providing internal security, operational planning and bodyguard services for al-Shabaab’s leader. In Godane’s hands, Amniyat was used to crush internal dissent through a string of assassinations and to orchestrate ruthless attacks on civilians both inside Somalia and beyond in AMISOM-member nations like Kenya and Uganda. Godane used Amniyat to consolidate his control of al-Shabaab by suspending the al-Shabaab Shura and making Amniyat the most powerful force within the organization while reporting directly to him. Amniyat has been particularly successful in infiltrating the Somali security forces and even the highest levels of the Somali Federal Government, enabling the group to carry out brazen attacks within Mogadishu and other cities before melting back into the population (, October 22, 2014). Nonetheless, with massacres like Westgate and Garissa to their credit, Amniyat’s leaders have become targets for Somalia’s central government and its ally, the United States:

  • In January 2014, a U.S. drone strike killed Sahal Iskudhuq, a senior Amniyat member.
  • In late December 2014, a U.S. drone strike killed Abdishakur Tahlil, the new Amniyat commander, only days after he succeeded Zakariya Hersi as leader of the unit (BBC, December 31, 2014).
  • Former Anmiyat leader Zakariya Ahmed Ismail Hersi defected from al-Shabaab to the government in January. The former al-Shabaab intelligence chief renounced violence at a government-sponsored news conference, but his defection may have been due to a feeling of insecurity due to tensions within the group’s leadership (Business Insider, January 28).
  • In early February of this year, a U.S. drone strike in Dinsor killed Yusuf Dheeq, a senior Amniyat member, and several other al-Shabaab fighters (Dalsan Radio [Mogadishu], February 6).
  • In late March, high-ranking Amniyat operative Mohamed Ali Hassan surrendered to Somali National Army forces in the Bakool region of southern Somalia (Garowe Online, March 30).
  • Adan Garaar, believed to be the head of Amniyat’s external operations, was killed in a U.S. drone strike at Bardhere in mid-March. Garaar was a leading planner of the September 2013 Westgate attack in which 70 people were killed, as well as being especially active in organizing a wave of terrorist attacks and massacres in northeast Kenya’s Mandera County (Star [Nairobi], March 14; Standard [Nairobi], March 22).

Amniyat appears to have responded to these relentless attacks on its leadership by mounting ever more spectacular attacks on civilian soft-targets, especially within Kenya, where it operates with little local interference.


The presence of 2.5 million ethnic Somalis in Kenya’s chronically underdeveloped northeast region can no longer be ignored by Nairobi if it is to deal with the terrorist threat from al-Shabaab, which is also eager to recruit non-Somali Muslims in Kenya. President Kenyatta appears to have accepted the internal nature of the Islamist threat on April 4, when he told the nation: “Our task of countering terrorism has been made all the more difficult by the fact that the planners and financiers of this brutality are deeply embedded in our communities” (Guardian, April 5). At the same time, however, Kenya’s efforts are likely to be in vain so long as Kenya’s security forces fail to learn from or even acknowledge past mistakes in order to protect their reputation. In addition, Nairobi’s larger strategy of creating a buffer-state in Jubaland must also be regarded as a financially and diplomatically expensive failure in terms of ending the cross-border movement of terrorists and refugees.

Though the KDF is now in control of southern Somalia, the question is how long it would take after a KDF withdrawal for al-Shabaab forces to begin rebuilding their movement by retaking important ports like Kismayo. Recidivism is a common theme in al-Shabaab ideology (ethnic-Somalis are currently spread across several countries) and remarks made by the attackers at Garissa indicate the movement may have greater aspirations in northeastern Kenya than merely putting pressure on Nairobi. Kenya’s incursion into Somalia may have locked the nation into a long and costly struggle, pitting a government, which is determined to hold onto northeastern Kenya, against radical Somali Islamists who are intent on reversing the colonial division of 1925.


  1. The number of dead ranges from 380 (a government estimate) to 5,000. The victims were members of the Degodia, an ethnic-Somali clan resident in Kenya that is part of the larger Hawiye confederation.


This article first appeared in the April 17, 2015 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor


Evaluating Sierra Leone’s Military Mission in Somalia

Andrew McGregor

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

As part of an effort to modernize the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF), 850 Sierra Leonese soldiers were sent to join African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeeping forces in April 2013. The force was reported to have received extensive training from British and American troops before their deployment to Somalia (Standard Times Press [Freetown], May 20, 2012). The RSLAF had some prior peacekeeping experience, deploying a reconnaissance unit to Darfur in 2009 as part of the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID). Sierra Leone continues to contribute roughly 100 police and a few military specialists to the Darfur mission.

The RSLAF contingent in Somalia, consisting of Sierra Leone Battalion 1 (LEOBAT 1) was under the overall command of Colonel Mamadi Mohamed Keita, a veteran of the ECOMOG deployment in Liberia in 1990, [1] followed by service in the long fight against Foday Sankoh’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone (1991-2002) (Sierra Express Media, September 20, 2012).

S-L Troops in SomaliaBrigadier General Mamadi M. Keita with RSLAF Troops in Kismayo

The first contingent of the RSLAF arrived in Kismayo via Kenya on April 2, 2013 and were greeted with al-Shabaab land-mines on the road into Somalia. According to battalion commander Colonel Abubakr Conteh, “Somalia as a nation is a gossip society and information relating to the war spreads around quickly and al-Shabaab was fully aware of our arrival in Somalia” (Awoko [Freetown], April 2, 2013). After their arrival in Kismayo, the men of LEOBAT 1 began working in tandem with Kenyan forces already deployed in the region. Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti and Ethiopia also contribute forces to AMISOM, which is heavily financed by the United States and the European Union.

Al-Shabaab returned to the attack on June 21, 2013, with an attempted ambush of an RSLAF supply convoy near Tabda in the Kismayo region. The ambush was disrupted without casualties from the RSLAF but al-Shabaab struck again on June 23 in a night-attack on the RSLAF base using RPGs before being again repulsed with heavy Shabaab losses but no casualties reported in the RSLAF detachment (Shabelle Media Network, June 23, 2013; Sierra Express Media, June 26, 2013). An immediate operation to secure the area resulted in the capture of two al-Shabaab fighters.

Kismayo MapIn March 2014, Sierra Leone took command of AMISOM forces in Sector 5 (Kismayo) in relief of the former Kenyan commander. LEOBAT 1 constituted the bulk of the force, with additional companies of Kenyan and Burundian troops and a unit of Nigerian police (Sierra Express Media, January 15, 2014).

The first troop rotation was scheduled for June 2014 at the latest, but this, like several other deadlines, came and went without troop movement, leaving the troops of LEOBAT 1 on an unexpected extended mission after fully expecting to serve no more than a year in Somalia. Troops reported receiving threats of disciplinary action from their superiors if they continued to ask for a timely rotation, adding that they were depressed and missing their families to the point that one lance-corporal had passed away in hospital from “frustration and depression” (Politico [Freetown], May 8, 2014).

Morale was also affected by persistent rumors of misappropriation of the soldiers’ pay back in Freetown (Politico [Freetown], May 8, 2014). The first group of peacekeepers to return were assured by Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (DCDS) Brigadier John Milton that their back-pay was safe and would be distributed as promised: “All of you have your individual accounts that only you will access; all the instructions you left us, is what we did and now that you are back, the public will know the truth” (Awoko [Freetown], January 15, 2015). In any case, there were already reports that the glimmer of extra pay to be obtained by serving in peacekeeping missions abroad had begun to pale in light of the unexpected and determined resistance put up by al-Shabaab forces in the Kismayo region (AfricaReview, May 11, 2014).

Those RSLAF troops remaining in Sierra Leone played an important part in containing the Ebola outbreak, most notably through Operation Octopus, the deployment of 750 soldiers to enforce quarantines in the hard-hit eastern part of the country (Reuters, August 4, 2014). LEOBAT 2 was isolated at a pre-deployment camp in preparation for the planned rotation, but an individual soldier who tested positive for Ebola had taken an unauthorized leave and returned infected (Reuters, October 14). Rather than leaving for Somalia, 800 men entered a 21-day quarantine.

In October 2014, the Somali government wrote in an official capacity to the African Union and the Sierra Leone government demanding a halt to further deployments from Sierra Leone and a halt to any possible visits to LEOBAT 1 by officials or other individuals from that country (Raxanreeb Broadcasting Corporation, October 23, 2014; Horseed Media, October 23, 2014). On December 20, 2014, chief of defense staff Major General Samuel Omar Williams announced that the RSLAF force in Somalia would be withdrawn and not replaced.

In his welcome address to returning RSLAF peacekeepers, President Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma promised he would do “everything possible” to ensure that LEOBAT 2 would go on peacekeeping operations abroad after the disappointment of the cancelled Somalia mission (Patriotic Vanguard, January 30, 2015).

According to battalion commander Colonel Abubakr Conteh, his troops faced a difficult challenge in operating in a battle-zone with no defined area in which nearly any Somali encountered by RSLAF personnel could be a member of al-Shabaab. Nonetheless, Conteh maintained that it was “a worthwhile experience every commander will like to experience. I’m glad to have been part of the peacekeeping and [it] made me have more confidence in the army” (Awoko [Freetown], February 10, 2015). Total losses for the force during the Somali deployment amounted to one combat death and five others from “natural causes” (Awoko [Freetown], January 15, 2015; February 10, 2015).

Ethiopia quickly pledged to replace the Sierra Leonese troops with its own forces. Ethiopia operated unilaterally in Somalia for several years before formally joining AMISOM in January 2014. The new Ethiopian deployment will join 4400 Ethiopian troops already operating in Somalia. Ethiopia’s deployment to Kismayo is part of a larger expansion of its peacekeeping role in Africa that includes a deployment to the disputed Abyei border region between Sudan and South Sudan and the new deployment of three helicopter gunships to South Sudan (Sudan Tribune, February 6, 2015). Ethiopia has roughly 12,000 peacekeepers active in Somalia, South Sudan, Abyei and Darfur.


1. ECOMOG (the Economic Community of West Africa States Monitoring Group) was a Nigerian dominated multilateral military force drawn from the nations of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

An Islamist View of Somalia’s Political Crisis: An Interview with Abdurahman Abdullahi Baadiyow, Leader of Somalia’s National Unity Party

Andrew McGregor
October 13, 2013

In recent weeks, Somali security forces working in unison with troops of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) have made significant steps in its battle against al-Shabaab extremists, retaking the coastal towns of Barawe and Adale. Shabaab has responded to the military campaign by mounting assassinations and terrorist strikes within the Somali capital of Mogadishu, including an October 12 car bombing of a Mogadishu café that killed 15 people and wounded another 18. Amidst the ongoing violence and security concerns, Somalia’s Federal Government continues to struggle with issues of regional rights, development, foreign investment, corruption, federalism and national reconciliation. In the following AIS exclusive interview, an insider’s perspective of the political struggle in Somalia is provided by Abdurahman Abdullahi Baadiyow, a candidate in the 2012 presidential elections and the current leader of Somalia’s broad-based National Unity Party (NUP). [1]

Abdurahman 1Abdurahman Abdullahi Baadiyow

1. Can you describe the political approach of the National Unity Party and its relationship (if any) with the Somali Islah Movement?
After the collapse of the Somali state, the first national government was formed in 2000 through a traditional power sharing formula based on clan quotas that empowered traditional elders to nominate members of the parliament. The current political trend is to move away from a clan-based system to a citizen-centered approach in which political parties are formed and elections are held. Along those lines, we have initiated the National Unity Party (NUP), which was officially announced on February 26, 2014. According to its principles, the party stands for the restoration and preservation of national unity and social solidarity, espouses individual liberty, democracy, institutionalism, federalism, protection of human rights, socio-economic development, empowering women and youth and striving for the realisation of the regional integration of the peoples and states of the Horn of Africa. The NUP is independent from the Islah movement and its members belong to different social and religious affiliations. All citizens have equal opportunity to join the party and internal democracy is exercised to elect its leadership.

2. Two years after its establishment, has the Somali Federal Government made progress in restoring security in Somalia? Have attacks on members of parliament affected the ability of the government to move forward on essential issues?
The Somali government has been trying to rebuild the Somali national security system. However, progress is very limited for many objective reasons and due to low performance. The continuous assassinations of MPs, attacks on the symbols of the state sovereignty such as the parliament building, the state house and the regional court, are clear evidence of the fragility of Somalia’s security institutions. Al-Shabaab militants are still very dangerous even though efforts were made to fight against them with the support of international partners.
With respect to achieving major milestones towards “Vision 2016,” which includes completing the constitution, conducting a countrywide census and holding free and fair elections, the government unfortunately lags behind. [2] The main reason is not security alone, as the overall performance of the government is far from satisfactory.

Somali government troops fight along side AMISOM peacekeepers against Islamic rebel groups in the north of the capital MogadishuSomali government troops in action alongside AMISOM armor.

3. In recent weeks there have been a number of cases of undisciplined behavior by soldiers operating under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) banner. Do you view the continued presence of AMISOM troops in Somalia as a positive or necessary contribution to the restoration of security in the region?
AMISOM’s presence is essential for restoring peace in Somalia and undisciplined soldiers should be held accountable for their alleged crimes. On the other hand, Somali society is very sensitive and suspicious of foreign troops and their presence is used by al-Shabaab as the main reason for their sinister activities. Moreover, for Somalia to stand on its own feet, building its security institutions should be given priority and a clear exit strategy for AMISOM must be developed. Such a strategy is not yet known to the Somali public.

4. The trend towards establishing new federal administrations in Somalia appears to be a continuing process. Is federalism the answer to creating political unity in Somalia, and do you see sufficient popular support to make it work?
The National Unity Party supports federalism. Without the adoption of a federal system, the national unity that our party stands for will be endangered. Opposition to federalism is narrowing and the majority of Somalis are now very busy establishing a federal state in various regions. More established federal entities such as Puntland are adamant in their support for federalism and will not compromise on it. The case for federalism also strengthens the position of Somaliland unionists who can advocate among their constituencies that the era of a strong central and oppressive state in Somalia is over and the new federal but unified Somalia will be a win-win scenario for all Somalis. However, the process of establishing these federal regions should be improved to include all those living in each federal state’s territory while the monopoly of power by certain clans over others should be avoided.

5. Resource-sharing has been one of the main issues to emerge during the debate over Somali federalism, particularly in light of Puntland’s insistence that it has the right to negotiate its own deals for offshore gas and oil exploration. Should regions have the power to make their own agreements regarding resource development, or should this responsibility lie with a centralized government in Mogadishu?
The issue between the national government and Puntland concerns not only resource-sharing and oil exploration, which was a hot issue even during President Abdullahi Yusuf’s tenure (2004-2008), even though Puntland was his constituency. It is about different perceptions regarding how the national state should relate with the federal states. Puntland considers itself an established federal state and demands more autonomous federalism; it expects better engagement and a consultative role with the national state. Besides the grievances and scars of the unresolved civil war that continually nags and instigates clan sentiment, there are many failed agreements between the two sides. However, resource sharing laws and procedures are still to be completed so that there is a collective responsibility by the national and federal states. Such laws are still in the making and hopefully will be finalised when other federal entities are established. Finally, I hope the recent agreement during the official visit of the Prime Minister Abdiwelli in Puntland will contain various grievances.

6. You have played a prominent role in the national reconciliation process. Do you see this effort as making progress at this time? What are some of the obstacles to national reconciliation?
True, I played important role in reconciliation since 1994 when I was elected as the Chairman of the Somali Reconciliation Council, an NGO based in Mogadishu. I was a member of the Somali technical committee in the Djibouti Reconciliation Conference of 2000 where the first Somali government was established since the collapse of the state in 1991. Recently, I visited Puntland and the Juba administration to diffuse growing clan sentiments and pave the way for reconciliation. Also, it is worth mentioning that armed conflicts between Somali clans have to a certain extent faded away and conflict is now mainly between the national government and al-Shabaab. There are also fracases between emerging federal states. There is continuous wrangling within the national state institutions such as the President and the Prime Minister’s offices while the government is frequently changed and parliament is busy with motions to topple the government. However, genuine reconciliation is not taking place. What is happening is mostly power sharing conferences without true reconciliation. I believe reconciliation that addresses past grievances and a legitimate power sharing approach is what Somalia needs to recover and prosper. The main obstacle is the vision of the national leaders who do not see national reconciliation as a priority for state-building.

7. Alleged corruption in the Somali Federal Government has inhibited development and even led to a temporary suspension of development aid from Turkey (one of the largest promoters of Somali reconstruction) in February 2014. What steps would you recommend to create greater transparency to assure foreign donors that funds will be used in a transparent and responsible way?
Corruption is rampant in Somalia because various state institutions are yet to be established. In reaction to alleged high profile corruption scandals, a donor-backed committee that includes the Governor of the National Bank, the Minister of Finance and officials from the World Bank, African Development Bank and International Monetary Fund was formed. As a result, eight contracts, such as the agreements with Schulman Rogers, Soma Oil and Gas, Favori and others are under scrutiny, since none of them went through a competitive tender process, according to the World Bank. In Somalia, corruption and commercialization of politics is openly exercised by the state institutions and sometimes by the highest authorities. Somalia does not need to reinvent the wheel in fighting corruption; it has to follow the internationally proven procedures of transparency and those responsible must be prosecuted.

8. The southern region of Jubaland has developed its own administration with the support of Kenya, which appears to desire the establishment of a buffer region along its northern border under the influence of Nairobi. Is this an inevitable process, or is there still room for Jubaland to return to greater integration with the rest of Somalia?
Jubaland is part of Somalia and one of the emerging federal states of Somalia. There is no tendency of breaking away and their leaders are hard-core unionists. Kenyan involvement was motivated initially by the threat of al-Shabaab, which was endangering the national security of Kenya. As a result, Kenya dispatched its armed forces to Somalia, where along with the Somali army and militias they liberated the important port city of Kismayo from al-Shabaab. Kenyan troops later joined AMISOM forces. We hope that Somalia will be able to establish its own security institutions capable of maintaining its security and that the foreign forces that helped Somalia will be offered an honourable exit and appreciation.

9. What role do you see for Islamist political formations in the reconstruction of the Somali state?
According to the Somali constitution, Islam is the ultimate reference of laws. The constitution says: “The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Somalia is based on the foundations of the Holy Quran and the Sunna of our Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and protects the higher objectives of Shari’a and social justice” (Article 3:1). Therefore, the era of dividing the Somali people into secularists and Islamists is over since the constitution resolved that issue forever. Thus, no particular group or political party should claim a monopoly on religion and its interpretation. Political parties should be established on political vision, principles and performances. This is a turning point in which Somalia needs to move away from parochial politics based on clans and affiliation to particular Islamic persuasions to a new political culture founded on the choices of individual citizens without discriminating between any group or clan.

10. There is talk of impeachment for first-term president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. Is this a realistic possibility? Are Somali political institutions strong enough to endure such a development without experiencing a general collapse?
Impeaching President Hassan is a very difficult task and is not the right way to solve our difficulties, besides the fragility of state institutions and the judiciary branch of the state. I believe Somalia requires stability in which differences and conflicts between the presidency, government and parliament are contained. Such conflicts always weaken emerging national state institutions and harm the national leadership. This culture of conflict between the president and the prime minister on one hand and the government and parliament on the other has continued since 2000, when every president appointed three prime ministers within 3-4 years. However, I hope, we can overcome such a culture.

11. You are touring Europe to establish chapters of your National Unity Party. What is the importance of the Somali Diaspora for the party?
It is estimated that more than 20% of Somalis live in the Diaspora. A large number live in Europe, North America, Middle East and the greater Horn of Africa region. They are very influential in Somali politics and many of them have become members of the parliament, prime ministers and cabinet ministers. The political program of the NUP advocates for the improved political engagement of the Somali Diaspora, such as their right to vote in the Somali elections while they are in their Diaspora constituencies. Therefore, tapping their human and financial resources is very crucial for the party. So far, we have formed chapters in Alberta (Canada) and Finland and are in the process of forming other chapters in other countries.

12. You were a prominent candidate in the 2012 presidential elections. Will you stand as a candidate for the 2016 elections?
In 2012, I was independent candidate in the presidential race. I was not a member of a party. Now, we have established a party and our decision will a collective party decision. If the party leadership decides to assign me such a position, I will not hesitate. I will also accept and support the decision if the party decides otherwise.


1. See the NUP website: . For an earlier interview with Abdurahman Abdullahi, see Andrew McGregor, “The Muslim Brotherhood in Somalia: An Interview with the Islah Movement’s Abdurahman M. Abdullahi (Baadiyow),” Terrorism Monitor 9(30), July 29, 2011,[tt_news]=38256#.VDwa7hZ0a3M
2. “Vision 2016” was a five-day national conference held in Mogadishu in September, 2013 to focus on key political process issues in the run-up to 2016 elections. For the conference resolutions, see: “Vision 2016: Principles and Recommendations,” Mogadishu, September 26, 2013,

Are Corruption and Tribalism Dooming Somalia’s War on al-Shabaab Extremists?

Andrew McGregor

February 21, 2014

After decades of conflict that have nearly destroyed the nation, Somalia now stands poised to make a final drive with international assistance to shatter the strength of radical al-Qaeda-associated Islamists in central and southern Somalia, but there are indications that Somalia’s leaders may be posing an even greater obstacle to Somalia’s successful reconstruction.

Arms Embargoes and Missing Weapons

In mid-February, the UN Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group issued a report to the UN Security Council’s sanctions committee claiming that weapons obtained by the Somali government under a temporary easing of UN arms sanctions were being sold to Somalia’s al-Shabaab extremists in what was described as “high-level and systematic abuses in weapons and ammunition management and distribution” (Reuters, February 13). A UN arms embargo was placed on Somalia in 1992, but in the last year the Somali government has been able to obtain once-restricted small arms and other weapons such as rocket-propelled-grenades under a partial lifting of the embargo designed to help fight al-Shabaab terrorists.

Among the observations contained in the report were the following:

  • Shipments of weapons from Ethiopia, Djibouti and Uganda could not be accounted for.
  • The Somali government cancelled several UN inspections of armories
  • A key presidential adviser from President Hassan Shaykh Mohamud’s own Abgaal sub-clan was involved in planning weapons transfers to al-Shabaab commander Shaykh Yusuf Isse “Kabukatukade,” another member of the Abgaal.
  • A government minister from the Habr Gadir sub-clan made unauthorized weapons purchases from a Gulf state that were transferred to private locations in Mogadishu for use by a Habr Gadir clan militia.
  • The Monitoring team photographed rifles sent to Somalia’s national army for sale in the Mogadishu arms market with their serial numbers filed off (Reuters, February13; AFP, February 16).

The easing of the Somali arms embargo is scheduled to end in March. Though a final decision on its future has yet to be made, it seems likely that the easing will remain in place until a new report on arms violations is due in October. The Somali government is looking for a complete removal of the embargo, allowing it to obtain heavy weapons and sophisticated military materiel (Reuters, February 14). The Monitoring Group has recommended either the full restoration of the embargo or a heightened monitoring regime to accompany an extension of the partial easement.

Somali security officials have complained that the UN monitors have not provided them with any information regarding the alleged arms sales to al-Shabaab or the alleged activities of Abgaal and Habr Gadir insiders at the presidential palace arranging such arms sales. One security official complained that the UN allegations could not be proven without examining al-Shabaab’s arms: “If they haven’t inspected al-Shabaab’s [arms], how are they arriving at the conclusion government weapons are being sold to al-Shabaab. This is a dangerous and creative position by the UN” (Suna Times/, February 18).

General Dahir Aden Elmi “Indhaqarshe”

The head of Somalia’s military, General Dahir Aden Elmi “Indhaqarshe” described the UN report as fabricated, false and without credibility, though he acknowledged an investigation into how al-Shabaab obtains its arms would be worthwhile, as the movement “does not get arms from the sky.” However, the Somali army commander sees darker purposes behind the work of the UN monitors: “The UN Monitoring Group want al-Shabaab to be an endless project in order to gain funds from the world while they are struggling hard to make Somalia’s government weak and nonfunctional” (Raxanreeb, February 17).

Shady Dealings and Economic Challenges

Some light was shed on the murky financial dealings of Somalia’s central government when central bank governor Yussur Abrar quit after only seven weeks on the job following repeated efforts to force her to approve dubious transactions benefiting members and friends of the government. In her resignation letter to Somali President Hassan Shaykh Mohamud, Abrar described corruption and constant government interference in Central Bank operations:

From the moment I was appointed, I have continuously been asked to sanction deals and transactions that would contradict my personal values and violate my fiduciary responsibility to the Somali people as head of the nation’s monetary authority… The message that I have received from multiple parties is that I have to be flexible, that I don’t understand the Somali way, that I cannot go against your [Mohamud’s] wishes, and that my own personal security would be at risk as a result (Suna Times, October 30, 2013).

Turkey has been the main supporter of Somali reconstruction, offering technical support, materials, medical teams, hospitals, machinery and various other means of assistance, including, apparently, lots of cash. A recent Reuters report cited various officials within the Turkish and Somali governments that Ankara had decided in December to stop its direct financial support to Mogadishu, which took the form of $4.5 million in U.S. $100 dollar bills transferred to the Somali central bank every month (Reuters, February 13). However, three days later, the Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that the payments were in line with procedure in light of the fact Somalia has no banking services and that efforts were “underway to provide budget support to the Somali Federal Government in the year 2014” (Hurriyet, February 16). The Turkish statement did not outline what measures, if any, were taken to trace the end use of these funds, but the potential for abuse is apparent in the absence of verifiable banking and accounting procedures in Mogadishu.

Over two decades of social and political chaos mean that the challenges to Somalia’s reconstruction efforts only begin with the elimination of al-Shabaab:

  • Somalia lacks trade agreements with the West, lacks a proper certificatory regime and is not a member of the World Trade Organization, making exports difficult. The vast bulk of Somalia’s current exports consist of charcoal and livestock heading to the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen.
  • Multiple currencies are in circulation, some of them worthless. Monetary control remains elusive with no new official bank-notes having been printed since the overthrow of Siad Barre in 1991, leading to a thriving black market in currency.
  • The national government has begun signing oil and gas deals that are in conflict with deals signed by regional administrations like Puntland during the absence of an effective central government. (IRIN, February 14).

AMISOM Operations: Fighting Somalia’s War

The growing deployment of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), now 22,000 strong, includes troops from Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone, as well as police from Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Uganda.

While Ethiopia has continued to mount its own independent military operations in regions of Somalia bordering Ethiopia since its general withdrawal from Somalia in 2009, lack of coordination with AMISOM tended to give al-Shabaab militants space to withdraw and operate elsewhere until Ethiopian operations were concluded. It was therefore regarded as good news when Ethiopia decided to integrate its Somali operations into the AMISOM command in January [Dalsan Radio [Mogadishu], February 18). Ethiopian forces followed their integration by deploying to Beledweyne in Hiraan Region (where they are establishing a new base) and to Baidoa in Bay Region, where they will be responsible for security operations in the Bay, Bakool and Gedo Regions (Shabelle Media Network [Mogadishu], January 28). Uganda, which has roughly 8,000 troops in Somalia, has just rotated in 1,600 fresh troops under Colonel William Bainomugisha (Xinhua, February 14).

The Somali army is about to launch new operations in cooperation with AMISOM forces to re-take Bardhere in the Juba River valley and the last major port under al-Shabaab control, Barawe, which has also acted as an important headquarters and training base for the militants since the loss of Kismayo to Kenyan troops (Garowe Online, February 11;, February 11). If successful, this new offensive would divide Shabaab forces, significantly reduce the area under its control and eliminate the movement’s last major source of revenue. Unfortunately, rather than align for a final push against the militants, some units of the Somali Army in the Lower Shabelle region have been using their new arms to fight each other, based on clan allegiances (Shabelle Media Network, January 28; January 30; Garowe Online, January 29).

According to AMISOM spokesman Colonel Ali Aden Humad (part of the Djiboutian contingent of 960 troops deployed in Hiraan Region), the offensive will suffer from a lack of naval forces (suggesting Kenya will continue its policy of consolidating the area it has taken in southern Somalia rather than move further north) and helicopters, which AMISOM hopes will still arrive from some African Union country. Most important, however, is the failure of the Somali Army to build up a force as large as AMISOM that could not only participate in operations in a meaningful way, but also undertake important garrison and consolidation duties that must now be carried out by AMISOM forces. Colonel Humad admitted it was a mystery that the national army remained small despite years of international training programs and funding: “AMISOM trained many Somali soldiers and equipped some. So, the question is where have they gone? When we train them, we turn them over to the government. So, where do they go? Where are they kept?” (Sabahi, February 7).

Al-Shabaab Leaders Go to Ground

The continuing American drone campaign in Somalia is a major concern for al-Shabaab, which has seen several senior members targeted and killed in the last year. The movement has responded with mass arrests of suspected spies believed to help in the targeting, including a number of al-Shabaab fighters. The drone strikes have also damaged communications within al-Shabaab and restricted the movements of its leaders, with many senior members, including al-Shabaab leader Abdi Godane, believing that contact with mobile communications equipment can be tracked to target drone strikes. Like the Somali army, there is infighting within al-Shabaab, which might divide into smaller groups if Godane is killed. Having narrowly survived at least two recent attempts on his life, Godane is reported to have even grown suspicious of his own bodyguards in al-Shabaab’s Amniyat intelligence unit (Sabahi, February 7). Al-Shabaab has actually succeeded in intimidating a major Somali telecommunications provider to cut internet service in southern Somalia to prevent any type of communications with U.S. or AMISOM intelligence groups (Suna Times, February 10). Last October, the United States began deploying a number of military trainers and advisors in Somalia.


Despite disappearing arms and soldiers and the distractions provided by incessant clan warfare, Somali Prime Minister Abdiweli Shaykh Ahmad Muhammad says that, with international assistance, “The plan is to have al-Shabaab out of the areas that they control by the end of 2014” (Xinhua, February 19). Meanwhile, the continued insurgency continues to wreak havoc across parts of central and southern Somalia. New UN figures indicate that two million Somalis (of 10 million) suffer from food insecurity, with 850,000 of those “in desperate need of food.” Most of the latter have been displaced by fighting and insecurity (Independent, February 19). In recent days, al-Shabaab attacks in Mogadishu and its airport have been on the rise, including a February 13 suicide bomb that killed seven just outside of Mogadishu’s Aden Adde airport, which also serves as a secure base for AMISOM and foreign diplomats (, February 13; Reuters, February 13). Eliminating the Shabaab threat will remain impossible no matter what degree of international assistance and funding is provided so long as service in national and local administrations in Somalia is seen as a means for personal self-enrichment and the furtherance of clan interests at the expense of national interests. Ultimately, the path Somalia will follow will depend not on UN assistance or AU military deployments, but rather on the interest Somalis themselves have in the national project.

This article first appeared in the February 21, 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.