Policy WATCH:Mubarak's Musings
Mubarak's Musings
The Battle For Mogadishu Is Not Over
By MUBARAK 03/07/2012

Mubarak's Musings is a Somalia Report weekly column published every Wednesday. Follow Mubarak on Twitter, at @somalianalyst.

Last week, African Union peacekeeping (AMISOM) forces captured the Maslah camp in Heliwa district on the outskirts of the city, one of the last Shabaab strongholds in Mogadishu (Daynille being the other district with a strong Shabaab presence). Transitional Federal Government (TFG) forces were not far behind, according to a journalist who arrived at the scene a day after the conquest of Maslah, once the initial fighting had subsided. Government commanders were quick to claim victory, but stated that they presently had no intention of moving beyond Mogadishu.

While this is a victory for the allied forces, it is not the elusive “end of the Shabaab” that government members claim is almost within reach whenever a new building or piece of territory is taken from the Islamist group.

To understand the significance of the latest developments in Mogadishu, we have to look at the location of Maslah in relation to other AMISOM-TFG positions in the area.

To the south of Maslah is SOS intersection, which leads to the Pasta Factory further south, and outside of Mogadishu to the east through Wahar Cade. AMISOM and TFG forces were present in the area before the attack on Maslah, and it was from there that they launched the attack, according to Islamist websites.

Mogadishu University (MU) is roughly located directly west of Maslah, and three kilometers to the northwest of Pasta Factory—yet another AMISOM base in the area, captured on January 20. MU has a big compound with a number of concrete buildings that are perfect for a forward base. The 82-mm mortars used by the Shabaab are useless in penetrating concrete; only soldiers keeping sentry or walking in unprotected areas are vulnerable.

Heliwa district, Mogadishu
Heliwa district, Mogadishu

When AMISOM took MU, they made it almost impossible for the Shabaab to quickly bring reinforcements from Elasha Biyaha; MU is strategically placed next to the Barakaat Cemetery, through which a dirt path passes through, and which the Shabaab used to quickly move in and out of the Suqa Holaha ("Livestock Market") neighborhood without detection by AMISOM forces on Wadada Warshadaha (Industrial Road).

The capture of Maslah completes the third point on the AMISOM security triangle. The Shabaab cannot now easily enter northern Mogadishu from Elasha Biyaha (protected by the troops in MU), Jidka Balcad (protected by the troops in Maslah), and Wahar Cade (protected by the troops in SOS).

Perhaps the weakest point in the triangle is Maslah, with its few concrete shelters, and relative distance from the next nearest base. Still, it is the most important outer base, and the allied forces seem to have adequately reinforced it with TFG/ASWJ and AMISOM troops. Shabaab and pro-Shabaab sources are downplaying the significance of the allied forces’ takeover of Maslah, threatening to annihilate them.

Nevertheless, it seems that the Shabaab may be poised to permanently lose their hold on one of their oldest strongholds in Mogadishu, the Suqa Holaha neighborhood. With the allied forces to the north, south, and west of Suqa Holaha, keeping safe houses in the area has now become too dangerous.

In response to the setback, the Shabaab attempted a show of force in Mogadishu. They held a military parade in Daynille district (most of which they still control), where the Shabaab governor of Banadir, Sheikh Mohamed Omar Abdirahman, claimed that the group was still active in every district in Mogadishu, despite having withdrawn from their static front line positions.

However, the very fact that the diminutive parade was held in Daynille, and not in Suqa Holaha, shows the success AMISOM’s latest moves have had on the Shabaab's ability to hold parades in the area, as they previously have, even after withdrawing from the front lines in August of last year.

The effectiveness of the allied forces in dislodging the Shabaab from their strongholds in northern Mogadishu has not, however, translated to a decrease in attacks by the Shabaab within the city. This may be a prelude to more, bolder attacks in the future, such as the commando suicide attacks that the group has previously employed to attack TFG and AMISOM targets.

The Shabaab continue to assassinate government soldiers and members of the internal spy agency. The latest such attack was on Monday night, when “unknown gunmen”—very likely the Shabaab—assassinated two former Shabaab members who had joined the TFG military.

Nevertheless, not all defectors are targeted by the Shabaab; many defectors are indeed infiltrators who feign defection and repentance to get admission to the various TFG security forces. According to IRIN News, journalists in Mogadishu believe that the Shabaab defectors are responsible for the continuing insecurity in Mogadishu. TFG officials naturally disagree, claiming that the militants who are still moving among the civilian population are to blame for the increase in attacks. In other words, young men who have left the Shabaab but have not joined the TFG are suspects, while the real culprits—Shabaab “defectors”—are let loose to terrorize the residents of Mogadishu. Another problem with the Islamists in government!

Despite the initial claim by some in the TFG military that they would stop the offensive and concentrate on pacifying Mogadishu, it is now clear some in the TFG are pushing for extending the push from Maslah to the Middle Shabelle region. This past weekend, military commanders from the TFG and AMISOM met with the TFG’s Middle Shabelle administration-in-exile in Maslah. According to Colonel Anod of the TFG, their plan is to invade the Middle Shabelle region towns of Balcad, Jowhar, and Mahadaay, and to have the Ethiopians open another front from Hiran region.

However crazy it sounds, TFG commanders are notorious for talking about their actual military plans on record to the media. I wouldn’t be surprised if at least some of what the colonel has said is true, and they do plan to invade Middle Shabelle; maybe not in the next 10 days, as he optimistically claimed.

The population of Middle Shabelle region will not be enthusiastic to welcome the TFG forces, especially as Abdi Jinow, an unpopular former warlord, is the TFG’s governor-in-exile.

The wise move would be for the TFG to spend a greater amount of time securing Mogadishu’s defenses in the fringe districts, while at the same time strengthening and improving the capacity of the forces within the city by purging defectors from the Shabaab and disciplining soldiers or police who rob the people.

That way, we will not only stop the Shabaab holding military parades in Mogadishu, but we will hopefully see a drop in their attacks behind the front lines.