NAIROBI: Military pressure by Horn of Africa countries is slowly dismantling Somalia’s al-Qaeda-allied Shebab rebels, who have lost two bastions in six months but can remain a serious threat. “They are at their weakest. A little more push and we will stabilise this country so that Somalis can live a better life,” said Fred Mugisha, the commander of the African Union troops protecting the feeble Somali government.
“They are losing ground all the time, we are looking at an implosion. Shebab is most likely going to implode in not so distant future.”
The ruthless militia emerged five years ago to battle Ethiopia’s invasion that toppled an extremist movement they belonged to, rising to become a powerful political and fighting force that controlled much of southern and central Somalia.
But this week, Shebab fighters lost the southern Somalia town of Baidoa to Ethiopian soldiers, who redeployed to the anarchic country in November.
The fall of Baidoa dealt a blow to the extremists just weeks after being acknowledged by al-Qaeda. Six months earlier, it abandoned bases in the capital Mogadishu after failing to oust the Western-backed government there.
However, a fragmented Shebab could still wreak havoc on peace efforts in areas captured by the foreign forces, as the rebels focus more on guerrilla attacks, a tactic they have often employed against their enemies.
“They are in a difficult situation. They prefer not to fight and instead manage their fighters, but they have not lost their capacity to fight,” said Gerard Chaliand, a conflict analyst.
“They can decide on a strategy of harassment, wearing out their foes over time. For me it is not the end.”
In southern Somalia, Kenyan forces who crossed the border in October have led a campaign of aerial and ground attacks against the extremists, who Nairobi blames for a spate of kidnappings and cross-border raids.
The Kenyans are aiming for the rebel-held port of Kismayo, but have made slow progress since deploying. They are expected to have their contingent “re-hatted” and folded into an enlarged African Union Mission in Somalia.
“Kismayo is what matters. (Any guerrilla army) needs external help,” Chaliand said.
“Without a means of receiving supplies and a hideout, it is difficult, so depriving them (Shebab) of Kismayo will be a huge blow.”
But the Shebab now eschew holding onto territory in the face of multiple assaults, said Roland Marchal, a researcher with the French National Scientific Research Centre.
What is important for the rebels is to “spare fighters, not to protect territory. The military tactic has changed, it is now a guerrilla war,” Marchal said.
Lawless Somalia has often been described as a failed state since the 1991 ouster of president Mohamed Siad Barre unleashed cycles of bloodletting that have defied numerous peace bids.
Somali and world leaders gathered Thursday in London to tackle the country’s protracted crisis that has turned it into a safe haven for pirates and foreign extremists.
The Shebab said they would sabotage the outcome of the London conference.
“The signatories to the London conference do not hold the keys to the future or the stability of Somalia,” the rebels said in a statement.
“We now stand more defiant, stronger and more determined in the face of this imperialistic campaign.”
Observers say that the international community should help Somalia establish an inclusive government to reverse the years of chaos.
“The most effective and durable solution to these ills is to build gradually an inclusive, more federal government structure that most clans can support,” the International Crisis Group said in a report this week.
“Otherwise, Al-Shebab (or some similar successor) and other disparate groups of would-be strongmen with guns will exploit continued dissatisfaction with Mogadishu and innate Somali hostility to ‘foreign occupation’.”
The Shebab have vowed to avenge the territorial losses and carry on fighting the Somali government and its backers.