Mogadishu, the war-battered Somali capital, can easily pick signs of an impending terrorist strike, especially after a lull in fierce fighting off the streets, a PANA Correspondent reported from here, quoting security experts.
PANA said that in the absence of street battles, less common since the ouster of the Al Shabaab from the capital, agents of Mogadishu’s security resort to routine checks for small weapons and Al Shabaab remnants.
The security agents, including members of the Somali Police and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) Police component, know their would-be attackers are often the unlikely lads, aged 10-14 years, who make up the Al Shabaab’s bomb-throwing squad.
The Al Shabaab has been undergoing tactical transformations since losing control over key revenue sources. In Kismayu, the Southern port city alone, the Al Shabaab was estimated to have lost upto US$ 50 million a year in port revenues which it used to finance its fight.
Security analysts say operational restructuring within the group over the past few years have largely prepared the group for a long-drawn insurgency in urban centres.
Al Shabaab’s Supreme Commander, Sheikh Ahmed Abdi Godane, (Muktar Abu Zubeyr), deputized by Sheikh Mukhtar Robow Abu Mansur, has largely centralized the group’s command, concentrating power around him and close allies within his spy network, known as the Amniyat.
Through the Amniyat, the Al Shabaab’s intelligence wing, the group is able to infiltrate highly secure government agencies, the Police and the military, gathering operational information. It is said the Al Shabaab leader also uses the Amniyat to improve his own personal protection.
US counter-terrorism analyst, Andrew McGregor, speaking at the seventh Annual Terrorism Conference at the Jamestown Foundation, said the Al Shabaab is undergoing a tactical transformation that would ensure it survives much longer even after losing ground.
The Al Shabaab branded 2013 as its year of the Westgate and vowed it would carry out a major strike this year, targeting a head of state of one of the East African countries in 2014.
'The Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi and a series of terrorist strikes in Somalia suggest that Al Shabaab is undergoing a tactical and organizational shift designed to centralize command of the movement as it de-emphasised guerrilla warfare in favour of suicide bombings, assassinations and other terrorist operations,' McGregor said.
Al Shabaab carried out 550 terrorist attacks, killing 1,600 people and wounding 2,100 others between 2007 and 2012, according to US State Department-sponsored University of Maryland's National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism (START).
The attacks rose from below 10 in 2007 to 200 in 2012, according to START’s 2013 report.
'Eliminating or even restricting Shabaab's sources of financing will do much to diminish their military strength...as we have seen throughout this conflict, there is a certain mobility on the part of fighters when either side has demonstrated an inability to meet its payroll.'
It is believed the Amniyat was responsible for much of the planning of the Westgate attack, which killed 67 people and wounded 200 people in a four-day-long siege.
Apart from intelligence gathering, the Amniyat units also carry out assassinations and bombing missions against opponents of the Al Shabaab. The group is also backed by a military wing, known as Jabhad, currently estimated to have force strength of 5,000 soldiers.
Hizb, the Police Unit, is thought to be less active since the group lost most of the territory it previously controlled, but its controls over Barawe, its last major urban centre, still makes it possible for the Police Unit and the Amniyat to continue trade.
Despite intensified series of air strikes, the Al Shabaab’s fighting force survived by avoiding direct military confrontation. It mostly avoided the fierce military offensive from a ruthless strike by Ethiopian forces in early 2007, when it operated under a different banner.
In Mogadishu, its fighters bowed out to a sustained military campaign by an African Union-led force, but resorted to a series of bombings, targeting senior members of the Somali government.
To disapprove its enemies that the strikes in Mogadishu had weakened the group, the Al Shabaab carried out a deadly attack against the UN Compound in Mogadishu in June 2013, killing 22 people.
It also carried out a suicide bomb attack at the Maka al Mukarama hotel in Mogadishu, on 8 Novovember, 2013, killing six people. Another attack on Beledweyne police station on 19 November followed by gun assault killed 28 people.
AMISOM’s former Force Commander General Andrew Gutti said the AU’s major gains in the war against the Al Shabaab, followed after his forces lured the Islamist fighters from densely populated areas and subjected it to urban warfare.
When the first contingent of AMISOM arrived in Mogadishu, the Al Shabaab fighters met them with a series of roadside bombs, which killed several members of the Ugandan Peoples Defence Forces (UPDF), the first such armed unit to arrive in Mogadishu at the time after 16 years.
An AMISOM Squadron Commander recalled the Ugandan troops taking heavy fire from the Islamists in 2007, at the time, hiding in abandoned government buildings and abandoned Palaces.
Commanded by provincial commanders, the Al Shabaab has five military divisions. In 2012, it re-organised its command structure to improve military tactics.
Somali government officials say their strategy against the Al Shabaab in 2014 will focus on the prevention of attacks at public places, restaurants, strengthen the military, training more military commanders, and seizure of more territory from the Al Shabaab, declared a foreign terrorist organisation by the US in February 2008.
However, security analysts consider the Al Shabaab’s guerrilla tactics, roadside bombs, remote controlled bombs as the last phase of its insurgency.
News Analysis by Kennedy Abwao