May 26, 2011
For several years now, Mogadishu’s densely populated and labyrinthine Bakara Market has served as a stronghold for local al-Shabaab militants as well as provided a major source of revenues for the movement through donations, extortion and “taxation.” A continuing offensive by Ugandan and Burundian troops belonging to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM)—supported by soldiers of Somalia’ s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the Sufi Ahlu Sunna wa’l-Jama’a militia—has now penetrated the southern and western boundaries of the market. While the battle for Bakara will undoubtedly present all the difficulties of urban warfare, its conclusion will play a large role in determining the future of both the rebel Islamist movement and the struggling TFG.
A new statement from al-Shabaab describes the “sinister motives of the Ugandan and Burundian troops and their apostate allies,” suggesting their efforts to take the Bakara market are intended to destroy the local economy:
At a time when the people of Mogadishu are recovering from the severe droughts that had crippled much of the country in the recent months, and started rebuilding their shattered lives, the African crusaders embarked on a brutal campaign to demolish everything the innocent civilians have thus far managed to construct… Lured by greed and an opportunity to pillage and plunder the wealth of the civilians, the apostate militia [i.e. TFG forces], aided by the tanks and artillery of the African crusaders, launched an offensive on Bakara Market, where tens of thousands of civilians gather every day to earn their living. And as the people went about their usual businesses, the militia raided them with mortars, shells and bullets, specifically targeting large companies, hotels, warehouses and stores, and indiscriminately killing dozens of innocent civilians (Press Office of the Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, May 24).
The Bakara Market is an important source of food, clothing and arms for local Somalis. The TFG is intent on ending the latter trade, which offers everything from assault rifles to anti-aircraft guns. In 1993, Bakara was the scene of fighting between Somali militias and U.S. forces, and in 2007, a major fire was started during combat between Ethiopian troops and fighters of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU).
As AMISOM forces tighten their grip on the approaches to the market, AMISOM commander Major General Nathan Mugisha has issued an appeal to local residents to “minimize unnecessary movements within the Bakara market area to avoid being caught up in crossfire” (Horseed Media, May 12). Shabaab fighters are digging trenches to prevent the entry of tanks or other military vehicles.
Shortly after the latest operation was launched on May 12, AMISOM forces reported killing Abdufita Muhammad, the Shabaab commander in the Bakara market, his intelligence officer Abdiwahab Shaykh Dole and two Pakistani mujahideen identified as Hussein Abassi and Abdullahi Yalb (SUNA Times, May 15).
The struggle for the market has also led to civilian casualties, though both sides deny shelling civilians. A mortar round fired at a women’s clothing market killed at least 14 people on May 18 (AFP, May 18). An AMISOM spokesman said the mission has “designated Bakara market a ‘no-fire’ zone and does not fire artillery or mortars into the market. We know that the extremists, who extort money from the businesses, have established a stronghold in the market and deliberately shield their reign of terror behind the civilians and business community who make their living there” (Horseed Media, May 21; AFP, May 20). The fighting is reported to have claimed 50 civilian lives and wounded 100 others in the period of May 22 to May 24 (Mareeg.com, May 24).
In a sign of confidence in AMISOM gains in Mogadishu, AMISOM has begun relocating its civilian staff and police element to Mogadishu from Nairobi, where they have been based since 2008 due to instability in the capital. The TFG has also promised to establish a police post in the market, promising that government forces will not engage in looting and robbery, a recurring complaint from local people (SUNA Times, May 23). Once reduced to a few square blocks around the presidential palace, the TFG and AMISOM now control roughly 60 percent of the city.
This article first appeared in the May 26, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.