Al-Shabaab's stranglehold over Somalia appears to have weakened in recent months, with the al-Qaida ally suffering an ugly string of military losses to Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) forces and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeeping force.
Last month, government and African Union forces recaptured the Somali Defense Ministry in Mogadishu from the jihadists, and last week they repelled a coordinated al-Shabaab effort to retake the building. The facility is now a base for Burundian members of AMISOM.
The New York Times reported that AMISOM forces "have spearheaded the fighting, deploying tanks, armored bulldozers and artillery to pound insurgent positions in Mogadishu." African Union forces wrested several city blocks from al-Shabaab, uncovering an extensive system of trenches and tunnels used by the jihadists to stage attacks in the capital.
Al-Shabaab has also suffered losses near the borders with Ethiopia and Kenya. Witnesses describe al-Shabaab fighters fleeing towns that came under siege from advancing Somali and Ethiopian troops. Last week, government-aligned militias drove al-Shabaab out of several villages in southern Somalia near the border with Kenya.
The State Department, which has been sharply critical of the TFG, acknowledges the new reality. "One can no longer say, derisively, that only six or seven city blocks are controlled by AMISOM forces. AMISOM now controls 60 to 70 percent of Mogadishu and continues to make serious and significant headway against Shabaab forces in the area," Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson said Tuesday.
It remains to be seen whether Somali or African Union forces are capable of translating this success into a larger strategic victory over al-Shabaab. The TFG is hampered by corruption and internal division, and AMISOM's effectiveness is limited by rules of engagement that prevent it from carrying out a sustained counterinsurgency campaign against al-Shabaab, said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies' Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization. Without a change in strategy, recent battlefield successes by pro-government forces could prove to be "just a short-term victory," Gartenstein-Ross told the IPT.
What's clear is that in recent months, the TFG and AMISOM forces have won a number of victories, while al-Shabaab has lost territory and suffered a series of high-profile defections from its ranks.
On Monday, Somali government officials announced they had captured six al-Shabaab militants, all of them under the age of 18, after the group launched a series of hit-and-run attacks against Somali Army and TFG forces in Mogadishu.
A day earlier, Somali intelligence officials displayed to reporters a 16-year-old boy they said had deserted from al-Shabaab. Adam Abdiwali said he had been kidnapped from his home in September and was trained at an al-Shabaab military camp in southern Somalia.
"I have seen with my own eyes some of my companions being killed by al-Shabaab after they retreated from [the] frontlines because of the extreme bombardments from Somali forces and AMISOM," Abdiwali told reporters in Mogadishu. "They want you to fight until you die."
The youth said he had not contacted his parents for six months and that they had no idea whether he was dead or alive.
It was just the latest in a series of high-profile defections from al-Shabaab. Mohammad Ibrahim Suley, a Somali, said he became disillusioned after seeing commanders send child recruits to the front lines while they stayed out of harm's way. Suley, who spent five years with the group, said he left after a foreign jihadist fighter shot him in the back for stopping to help a wounded friend.
On Dec. 19, the TFG presented six deserters from the group to reporters in Mogadishu, according to a report by the Jamestown Foundation.
The six described how al-Shabaab orders its military commanders to kill fellow soldiers who are seriously wounded in combat and has a policy of killing members who defect if they have served with the group longer than six months. One defector said had been forced to execute his deputy, who had been wounded in combat, on orders from Omar Hammami - an American citizen and al-Shabaab commander also known as Abu Mansour al-Amriki.
Ayanie Abdi, a Nairobi businessman, described the slaying of his brother Muhammad Abdi, a 21-year-old al-Shabaab official. Abdi was shot to death in Mogadishu in November, just weeks after deserting the group. He was recruited to join al-Shabaab in 2007 to fight against Ethiopian forces who invaded Somalia in order to oust the Islamic Courts Union, the Islamist group which dominated Somalia in 2006-2007.
In a desperate effort to replace soldiers lost through combat and desertion, al-Shabaab has been urging Somali mothers to send their children for training at jihadist camps and to register with the group for recruitment purposes. Somali journalists report al-Shabaab has stepped up efforts to recruit and train female suicide bombers.
Although al-Shabaab is reeling from recent setbacks, veteran observers of events in Somalia caution that much more sustained military action will be necessary to defeat the group.
The Somali government and military will continue to require substantial foreign military support from African Union forces for some time to come, and the Ugandan and Burundian governments (which comprise the bulk of AMISOM force and have taken substantial casualties in fighting al-Shabaab) may come under domestic pressure to limit their involvement in Somalia, said Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal.
Analysts say the AU's effectiveness is hampered by rules of engagement that prevent it from carrying out a counterinsurgency campaign against al-Shabaab and by a lack of air support. The United States (which supplies the Somali military and plays a major role in funding AMISOM), could play a larger role in assisting the Somali military through expanded use of Special Forces against al-Shabaab.
Al-Shabaab remains "one of the most successful jihadist products going on in the world right now," Roggio told the IPT. The Somali government will continue to need substantial foreign support, "including a long-term commitment of foreign troops" to continue its recent progress against the group. Roggio believes that, for now, the best-case scenario may be a "stalemate" between the Somali government and al-Shabaab.
Gartenstein-Ross expressed concern that Washington lacks a coherent strategy toward Somalia and al-Shabaab. Pointing to attacks like this July 2010 suicide bombing that killed 74 people in Uganda, Gartenstein-Ross said it is "foolish and myopic" to dismiss the idea that al-Shabaab could eventually become a transnational terrorist threat capable of striking outside Africa.
"Al-Amriki made clear in 2007 that their religious ideology is the same as that of bin Laden and Zarqawi," he said. He added that is in the U.S. national interest to take action to prevent al-Shabaab from keeping Somalia "a training ground for terrorists."