UPDF soldiers line up caskets containing bodies of their fallen colleagues from Somalia off the UN plane at Entebbe Airbase on September 3. INDEPENDENT/JIMMY SIYAAMISOM responds late to al Shabaab re-organisation and tactics
On July 23, Stratfor – the American-based intelligence firm- issued an optimistic analysis of the African Union force in Somalia, AMISOM, effort against the militant group, al Shabaab.
The analysis was titled, ‘In somalia, African forces make gains against al Shabaab’ and was based on three observations.
First that AMISOM will overcome temporary setbacks to build on accomplishments from its large-scale offensive operations in Somalia. Two that despite gains by AMISOM and Somali forces, al Shabaab will continue to be a potent guerrilla and terrorist threat in the region.
Three that the deployment of Ugandan helicopters to Somalia will serve as a force multiplier and a step toward establishing a strong Ugandan military with regional capabilities. Exactly one month after that report appeared, on Sept.01, the al Shabaab struck an AMISOM base at Janaale, in the Lower Shabelle region of Somalia. Many AMISOM soldiers were killed in the attack on a base run by the Ugandan contingent of AMISOM. Depending on where one stands on intelligence matters, Stratfor’s positive report, coming just days before a series of devastating al Shabaab attacks on AMISOM, could be another case of shallow intelligence. But it could be a sign of something even more dangerous; that al Shabaab has been re-organising and changing tactics and no one has picked up the intel – until now.
Pundits pushing the latter line point out that the date of the attack on Janaale was not coincidental. It marked the first anniversary of the slaying by American drones of the late al Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane.
Also known as Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr, Godane was al-Shabaab’s spiritual leader and is said to have masterminded the September 2013 attack on the Westgate Mall in Kenya.
Force morale issues
But just two days before the Janaale attack, Uganda’s Deputy Chief of Defense Forces (D/CDF) and Inspector General of UPDF, Lt Gen. Charles Angina, flew to Somalia. Ahead of his visit, reports were circulation that the Ugandan contingent of AMISOM was reportedly under strain relating to morale and combat readiness.
Gen. Angina appeared to confirm this when he sought to reassure the troops that issues of morale – possibly stemming from going for months without pay in some cases, would be addressed.
“I came to assess the force’s morale and level of combat readiness in performing their duties in AMISOM and United Nations Guard Force. I also came to address issues of their facilitations. There are a few challenges but these can be managed over a time and am glad that the forces have maintained morale,” he said after inspecting troops in Mogadishu, Arbiska, and Marka.
According to a press statement, he visited and inspected troops and key installations and had meetings with the Commander of the AMISOM Uganda Contingent Brig Gen Sam Kavuma, the overall AMISOM Force Commander Lt. Gen Jonathan Rono from Kenya and the United Nations Deputy Special Representative for Somalia, Raisedon Zenenga. It appears, however, his intervention came too late. Exactly, one day later the al Shabaab struck. According to AMISOM, the militants used a car loaded with explosives to trigger the attack and to facilitate their forced entry into the camp. They then engaged AMISOM soldiers in a gun battle.
AMISOM says it undertook a tactical withdrawal following the initial vehicle borne explosive attack, but later consolidated and regained full control of the base.
In the aftermath of the attack, al-Shabaab claimed to have killed more than 50 AMISOM soldiers, but the UPDF says 10 soldiers were killed and injured about a dozen. Many unconfirmed reports of casualties that kept swirling around as AMISOM verified numbers fuelled speculation that numbers could, in fact be higher.
The gravity of the attack also appeared to be cemented when on Sept.2, the UPDF Chief of Defense Forces Gen. Katumba Wamala rushed to Janaale to assess the situation. Reports from Somalia say he was briefed and shown around the Janaale camp by the AMISOM Ugandan Contingent commander Brig. Sam Kavuma. Afterwards, the chief sought to reassure the troops.
“I just want to give assurance to our partners and also to the other soldiers that all is under control and definitely nothing much to worry about. Our hearts go out to the gallant soldiers who lost their lives as they were executing this noble task of defending and protecting the civilians in this country against the bad fellows Al Shabaab.”
Behind the scenes, the UPDf was taking action against those in command, including Commander of the Uganda Battle Group 16 under which Janaale falls, Col. Bosco Mutambi. Others affected are the 13th Battalion Commander, Maj. Noel Mwesigwa, and the commander of the affected company, Capt. Swaibu Yusuf. The UPDF also set up a commission of inquiry into the attack.
Mistakes and propaganda
But the attack is also being seen as a propaganda ploy, building on recent mistakes by AMISOM, including an alleged massacre of a wedding party by Ugandan troops in the port town of Marka which is in the same region as Janaale. The Ugandan troops in a convoy in Marka were on July 31 targeted by an al Shabaab bomb. Following the attack, the UPDF allegedly entered several houses in Marka’s nearby Rusiya neighborhood, including one in which a wedding was taking place.
According to a Human Rights Watch, when the troops entered the house of the Moalim Iidey family where the wedding was being celebrated, they separated the men from the women and shot the six adult men – four brothers, their father, and an uncle. Four died immediately, one brother hid under a bed after being shot but later died, and the father died during the night after the soldiers allegedly refused to allow the family to take him to the hospital.
At the time, Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch said although AMISOM forces face difficult challenges, it makes respecting the laws of war even more crucial.
“Gunning down people at a wedding or anyone else in cold blood as punishment for insurgent attacks will only make things harder for the African Union forces in the future,” she warned. Burnett’s warning appears to have been portentous. Following the Janaale attack on UPDF, the al Shabaab issued a statement claiming they were avenging the Marka attack. “This blessed raid comes as a revenge for the massacre of innocent Muslims in Merka perpetrated by the Ugandan crusaders, where they brutally killed 40 Muslims, including six members of the same family who were killed during a wedding celebration … (Al-Shabaab) vows to safeguard the lives of Muslims, defend their honour and protect them against the aggressive crusader onslaught spearheaded by the Ugandan crusaders.”
It is not missed on observers that the attack on Janaale was the second major one this year. In June, the al Shabaab attacked and overran an AMISOM base in the town of Lego that is run by the Burundian contingent. The Al-Shabaab is thought to have killed many soldiers although the exact body count is still disputed. Some reports suggest more than 50 were killed. That was long before the alleged AMISOM attack at Merka. But the Merka attack appears to be one in a series of AMISOM indiscretions that al Shabaab propagandists are grabbing at to discredit the peace enforcers.
According to Human Rights Watch, several witnesses have said that on July 21, alleged AMISOM forces had killed at least 11 civilians, including a woman, two teenagers, and two elderly men, in separate incidents in the Jujuuma, Aw Balle, and Rusiya neighborhoods of Merka. AMISOM initially denied reports of civilian deaths and said that its forces had killed five Al-Shabab fighters during a patrol operation.
According to HRW, AMISOM has since carried out a preliminary investigation into the July 21 killings, and has since created a board of inquiry to look into both that and the July 31 incidents in Merka.
Marka and Janaale are in the Lower Shabelle region which remains a volatile region despite that falling under AMISOM and Somali army control since 2012.
According to some commentators, the success of recent al Shabaab attacks on AMISOM could be a sign of failing intelligence at the AU forces become more and more distanced from the civilian population. In the HRW report, Somali villages speak of “fearing” AMISOM troops. After the attack on AMISOM by al Shabaab that sparked the alleged Marka massacre, for example, HRW quotes an eye-witness says “everyone in that area ran, because people fear AMISOM a lot”. The witness is quoted to have added: “I think the family thought they would be protected because they were celebrating a wedding and thought that would stop AMISOM from killing them. Instead AMISOM turned the wedding into bloody event.” If confirmed, this is a major departure from AMISOM operations elsewhere in Somalia where they strictly maintain cordial relations with civilians. The civilians have in the past reciprocated by providing good intelligence to AMISOM.
In the case of Janaale, this appears to have failed. Instead, some reports say, some civilians joined al Shabaan in ransacking and looting the AMISOM base.
Whatever the basis of the success of al Shabaab attacks on AMISOM, commentators say they could easily reverse the perception of the capabilities of the peace enforcers.
The AMISOM bases that have been attacked so far in Janaale and Lego were believed to be heavily fortified bases. One commentator said: “If even its bases are not safe, then what about airports and government buildings and public spaces that are much less secure? It means that when Al-Shabaab issues its threats against beaches and nightclubs and hotels, Somalis are much more likely to take them seriously.”