Al-Shabaab Counteroffensive in Mogadishu Threatens African Union’s Military Gains

Andrew McGregor

November 3, 2011

The cautious consolidation of its control over Mogadishu by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) encountered a pair of serious setbacks in late October as al-Shabaab Islamists ambushed a Burundian patrol on October 20 and mounted a suicide attack on Ugandan troops in their base at the German Metal Factory near Mogadishu Stadium.

ugandan soldier draggedBody of Ugandan Peacekeeper Dragged by Somalis Through the Streets of Mogadishu (Feisal Omar)

A statement from al-Shabaab describing the “Mogadish Bloodbath” claimed two “martyrdom seekers” disguised as Transitional Federal Government (TFG) troops infiltrated the camp housing Ugandan troops and forces of Somalia’s TFG and set off their bombs, killing themselves and a number of Ugandan soldiers. This much is acknowledged by AMISOM; the Shabaab statement, however, describes a more complete victory obtained when mujahideen followed the blasts by raiding the base, securing all access routes in and out and massacring all Ugandan and TFG forces contained within. [1] Al-Shabaab spokesmen later claimed at least one of the two suicide attackers was an American citizen who had joined the Somali mujahideen (AFP, October 30). Uganda’s Lieutenant General Katumba Wamala claimed the Ugandans had suffered only three killed and two wounded in the attack, though some reports have suggested far greater losses (Sunday Nation [Nairobi], October 30). Nevertheless, sources in Mogadishu have confirmed that gunmen wearing TFG uniforms rushed the camp after the bombings, killing at least ten soldiers (AP, October 29; Reuters, October 29). Following the attack, a senior AMISOM officer promised that the African Union forces would soon “destroy” al-Shabaab (Shabelle Media Network, October 28; Horseed Media, October 28).

Corpses Alleged to be those of Burundian Soldiers Put on Display by al-Shabaab

Though al-Shabaab claimed to have killed anywhere from 76 to 150 Burundian troops in the earlier ambush in Dayniile district and displayed dozens of bodies wearing AMISOM gear afterward, the real figure appears to be closer to 50. Burundian authorities have claimed a much lower figure of ten killed, but this figure appears intended to ward off domestic opposition to the mission in politically volatile Burundi.The Bujumbura government reaffirmed its commitment to the AMISOM mission after the clash, urging its troops to “double their efforts and vigilance” while calling on the international community to supply the African Union peacekeepers with enough “hardware” to carry out their mandate (PANA Online [Dakar], October 27).

Al-Shabaab now describes their sudden August withdrawal from most of Mogadishu not as a sign of weakness, but rather as a strategic operation designed to focus efforts on causing as much damage to AMISOM as possible without having to defend ground. According to the Shabaab statement on the Dayniile clash of October 20, “The recent battles have lured the AU forces, who previously sought refuge behind their heavily fortified bases and underground bunkers, out into the open; thereby exposing their intense vulnerabilities and proving their inability to fight in an urban area(, October 24; Mareeg Online, October 24; Africa Review [Nairobi], October 25).  Al-Shabaab’s general withdrawal from Mogadishu has presented the undermanned African Union mission with the dilemma of how to occupy and consolidate its gains in Mogadishu without spreading AU forces too thin. According to AMISOM spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Paddy Ankunda: “The outer north and eastern fringes of the city must still be cleared, but key ground and buildings are no longer under the control of the extremists” (AFP, October 11). The Shabaab strategy also has the benefit of freeing up forces to fend off Kenyan occupation of the Shabaab-held port of Kismayo, which would constitute a crippling financial loss to the Islamist movement.


  1. Press Office, Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, “The Mogadishu Bloodbath – 80 Ugandan Soldiers Killed,” October 29, 2011.

This article first appeared in the November 3, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Burundian Forces Take Heavy Losses in Successful Fight against Somalia’s al-Shabaab

Andrew McGregor

March 10, 2011Burundian Troops 1Burundian Troops in Somalia

While the world’s attention focuses on the uprisings in Arab countries, Burundian troops have made significant progress in leading an offensive against Somalia’s al-Shabaab movement, the first sign of real military progress since the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) was created in early 2007. Burundi’s contribution of four battalions represents roughly 3,000 of AMISOM’s total of 8,000 troops, with the rest drawn from Uganda’s military.

The offensive is a joint operation involving AMISOM forces and troops of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG). The AMISOM offensive began by rolling up the elaborate system of trenches and tunnels that al-Shabaab has used to infiltrate their fighters into government-held areas of Mogadishu. Burundian troops supported by Somali TFG militias seized the old Ministry of Defense, the Milk Factory and a number of other important sites in Mogadishu that had acted as bases for al-Shabaab forces, reportedly killing 80 Islamists (Agence Burundaise de Presse, February 24; Shabelle Media Network, February 28). Al-Shabaab forces counter-attacked in an effort to retake the Defense Ministry building on March 5, but were repelled by Burundian forces in heavy fighting (Shabelle Media Network, March 5). An AMISOM spokesman claimed African Union forces now controlled 60 to 70% of Mogadishu, representing a major reversal of fortunes for the Islamist radicals (Daily Monitor [Kampala], March 7).

Though government officials claimed only light casualties in the Mogadishu offensive, military sources in Bujumbura have confirmed a total of 43 dead and 110 wounded is closer to the mark since the offensive began on February 23 (AFP, March 5). Wounded soldiers are being transported to the Bouffard French military hospital in Djibouti (Suna Times, March 2; AFP, March 2). Al-Shabaab claims to have taken a number of Burundian prisoners and says it is holding the bodies of 18 dead Burundian soldiers (BBC, March 4). The Islamists have also posted photos of burnt and mutilated Burundian soldiers on the internet.

In ritual fashion the bodies of dead Burundian soldiers were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by al-Shabaab fighters and sympathizers. Al-Shabaab radio reported: “Many Muslim residents and top Islamist officials turned up at the stadium where the bodies of the dead soldiers were displayed and dragged. The residents expressed satisfaction over the death of the Christian forces” (Radio Andalus [Kismayo], February 24).

Burundian Troops 2General Godefroid Niyombare

Burundi’s military commanders have attempted to downplay the losses; Chief of Staff General Godefroid Niyombare responded to inquiries by saying, “Whether six, ten or 20 are dead, I don’t see what would change if I told you,” adding, “What matters is not so much the number of victims in the Somali war as the work already done by our courageous soldiers“ (AFP, March 2; PANA Online [Dakar], March 2). With questions being asked in Burundi regarding the apparently open-ended Burundian commitment to a military mission in Somalia, government authorities appear to have implemented a plan to keep awareness of Burundian casualties to a minimum. Families have complained of a lack of news about their dead or wounded and local media coverage of burial ceremonies has been banned (Radio Netherlands, March 10).

At the height of the offensive, al-Shabaab leader Shaykh Ahmad Abdi Godane “Abu Zubayr” issued an audiotape directed at “the people and government of Burundi,” calling for the withdrawal of Burundi’s military from Somalia:

It is obvious that your boys and your forces have been deceived and that they do not have a clue or understand the realities that exist in Mogadishu. You have to know that in Mogadishu, countries and alliances that are much stronger than you have been defeated. The United States failed in Mogadishu with their coalition from all around the world. Ethiopia lost after they brought a power that is much stronger than yours. Now, your beating started and the evidence is the dead bodies of your forces being dragged in the streets and your prisoners seized in the fight. If you do not take that as a warning, your loss will be even worse than that of the previous occupiers (, March 2).

The message did not mention Ugandan forces, suggesting Godane was trying to create internal divisions within Burundi even as his al-Shabaab fighters were under heavy pressure by Burundian forces.

The operations in Mogadishu are part of a larger coordinated offensive involving AMISOM, TFG and even Ethiopian forces at several vital points in southern Somalia. AMISOM forces aided by Ethiopian troops are reported to have taken the towns of Bulo Hawo and Luq near the Kenyan border from al-Shabaab elements. There are also reports of large Ethiopian troop movements in central Somalia, apparently heading to the al-Bur district to hook up with the Somali Sufi militia Ahlu Sunna wa’l-Jama’a for an offensive against al-Shabaab strongholds in the area (AFP, March 8). The controversial presence of Ethiopian troops in Somalia was confirmed by TFG president Shaykh Sharif Shaykh Ahmad, though the president, who had once led the fight against the 2006 Ethiopian invasion and occupation, qualified his remarks by stating the Ethiopians were only providing logistical support to TFG forces (Shabelle Media Network, March 6).

Though the Libyan uprising has overshadowed important developments in Somalia, the Libyan crisis may have an inadvertent effect on AMISOM operations – Qaddafi’s Libya supplies 15% of the budget for the African Union (East African [Nairobi], March 7). If the regime falls it will have a direct effect on AMISOM operations unless the United States and Europe steps in to make up the lost revenues.

Somali Islamists and Congo-Based Rebels Threaten Security in Burundi

Andrew McGregor

November 18, 2010

Shaykh Fu’ad Muhammad Qalaf “Shongole,” a leading member of Somalia’s al-Shabaab Islamist militia, told a gathering in Mogadishu on November 4 that Bujumbura and Kampala would be the target of al-Shabaab attacks if Burundi and Uganda did not immediately withdraw their troops from Mogadishu (Sunday Vision [Kampala], November 6; Garowe Online, November 4). Al-Shabaab forces have been strongly pressured in recent weeks by a Transitional Federal Government (TFG) offensive supported by Burundian and Ugandan troops of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

Burundi 1FNL Leader Agathon Rwasa

A more immediate threat comes from the Forces nationales de liberation (FNL – National Liberation Front), formerly known as the Parti pour la libération du peuple hutu (PALIPEHUTU), a Hutu rebel movement formed in 1980 in Hutu refugee camps in Tanzania. Agathon Rwasa, leader of the FNL, is a former Hutu militia leader who took control of the party in 2002. Rwasa fled Bujumbura in July after the opposition accused the government of rigging local polls in May. Rwasa later claimed in an audiotape that he had feared for his life in Burundi, but is believed to be preparing a new round of armed opposition to the Tutsi-dominated government of Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza from bases in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) (Daily Nation [Nairobi], August 1).

FNL members who remain engaged in the political process deposed Rwasa as party leader in late July, saying the FNL had “lost a lot by pulling out of the electoral process” (Daily Nation [Nairobi], August 1). Rwasa was replaced by Emmanuel Miburo as the party’s new chairman.

Security appears to be breaking down in the Burundi capital as well as along the northwest frontier with the DRC. On the evening of October 25 one group of gunmen attacked a police post in the capital while another group attacked the guards of intelligence chief General Adolphe Nshimirimana (AFP, October 26). Though observers saw Rwasa’s hand behind the attacks, Burundian authorities lay the blame for all such attacks on “unidentified bandits.” The renewed violence has raised fears that a new civil war could be in the offing – Burundi suffered a thirteen year conflict between Hutus and Tutsis that claimed 300,000 lives from 1993 to 2006. Rwasa’s movement was involved in two notorious atrocities – the 2000 “Titanic Express” massacre of 21 civilians on a bus and the 2004 Gatumba massacre of 152 Banyamulenge (Congolese Tutsis).

Burundi 2General Adolphe Nshimirimana

Despite the careful language used by Bujumbura, a senior government official recently told the French press that Rwasa was reorganizing and rearming in the Sud-Kivu province of the DRC and had reached terms with a Hutu rebel movement led by Rwandan genocidaires active in the eastern DRC, the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR). There are also suggestions that Rwasa may be cooperating with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), best known for its mass atrocities in northern Uganda. Rwasa’s deputy described the allegations as an attempt to “demonize” the movement (AFP, October 22).

The army has also engaged armed gangs in the Rugazi Commune of Bubanza Province (Burundi’s provinces are divided into “communes” and further sub-divided into “collines”), a stronghold of the FNL (AFP, November 10;, November 11). The Rukoko Marshes and the neighboring Kibira forest near the border with the DRC have also been the sites of repeated engagements between insurgents and government forces (AFP, November 2). The marshes are only a few miles north of Bujumbura and have become largely depopulated due to attacks on the civilian population by gunmen (AFP, September 18). FNL fighters also clashed recently with troops of the DRC south of Bukavu, the capital of Sud-Kivu province (AFP, November 6; Net Press [Bujumbura], November 9; RFI, November 9).

This article first appeared in the November 18, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Islamist Suicide Attack on Burundian Peacekeepers in Mogadishu

Andrew McGregor

April 16, 2008

A late afternoon suicide attack on the Burundi Army base in Mogadishu claimed the life of one Burundian peacekeeper and five civilians on April 8 (Shabelle Media Network, April 8). Two other Burundian soldiers were injured in the first strike by Islamist insurgents on the Burundian peacekeepers. A pickup truck loaded with explosives targeted the recently arrived Burundian contingent of AMISOM, the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia. Responsibility for the attack was claimed by Shaykh Mukhtar Robow, the leader of al-Shabaab, a military wing of the Islamic Courts Union (Radio Shabelle, April 9).

Burundi - SomaliaBurundian Troops Man Defensive Line in Mogadishu (AP/Stuart Price)

The powerful explosion at the base on the grounds of the now-closed Banaadir University was heard throughout Mogadishu and shrapnel that spread 100 meters injured scores of people (HornAfrik, April 8; Radio Simba, April 9). A roadside bomb targeting a Burundian military convoy the next day failed to cause any casualties (AFP, April 9).

Muhammad “Dheere” Umar Habeb, a former Jowhar-based warlord who now acts as governor of Banaadir Region and mayor of Mogadishu, claimed that the perpetrator was “brainwashed” and acting under the orders of al-Qaeda (Somaaljecel, April 10). It is customary for officials of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) to attribute all terrorist attacks in Somalia to al-Qaeda in order to secure military and financial support from the United States.

1,500 Ugandan troops arrived in Somalia in March 2007. They were expected to be the vanguard of an 8,000-strong African Union peacekeeping mission intended to support the TFG, establish stability, facilitate the provision of humanitarian aid and create conditions for long-term reconstruction and reconciliation. Since then, however, only 850 troops from Burundi have arrived to assist the hard-pressed Ugandans, who have been targeted several times for lethal attacks by the Islamist insurgents. Contingents from Nigeria, Ghana and Malawi have all failed to appear.

The attack on the Burundians seemed to fulfill a promise made last year by notorious ICU militant Aden Hashi Ayro: “We will fight and assassinate [Ugandan] officers. All other African troops sent to Somalia will face the same fate” (Qaadisiya, November 14, 2007). With its diminished numbers, the AU mission has had little impact and many Somalis view the peacekeepers’ mission to be one of support to the Ethiopian occupation force and the U.S.-backed TFG warlord government. Force de défence nationale (FDN) spokesman Lt. Col. Adolphe Manirakiza stated that the sole objective of the Burundian troops was to “help the Somali brothers reconcile,” noting that “every trade has its risks…” (Panapress, April 9). The FDN initially claimed it was unable to fulfill its commitment to AMISOM due to equipment shortages and transportation difficulties but has since received assistance from France and the United States (, April 9).

This article first appeared in the April 16, 2008 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus