With al Shabaab orchestrating deadly attacks on a near-weekly basis, the terrorist group continues to pose a significant threat to regional stability in the Horn of Africa. Despite concentrated international efforts to root out al Shabaab from its areas of operation in southern Somalia, the al Qaeda affiliate remains a potent fighting force capable of inflicting mass casualties on civilians and militaries alike.
“Al Shabaab’s current capabilities are probably at their strongest since the group’s loss of the city of Kismayo in October 2012,” explains Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Cipher Brief expert and the Senior Fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“[Al Shabaab’s] threat level is very high,” says Phil Carter, Cipher Brief expert and former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea. “They can act whenever they desire to do so.”
Throughout the summer, al Shabaab has conducted a series of attacks against civilians, as well as against Somali and African Union Mission In Somalia (AMISOM) troops, which have illuminated the organization’s lethality. In June, an al Shabaab attack on an AMISOM military base in the town of Halgan resulted in the deaths of 43 Ethiopian troops. Then in July, at least 13 people were killed by an al Shabaab suicide bomber at the gates of the African Union’s main peacekeeping base in Mogadishu.
August provided no respite for Shabaab attacks, as more than 50 people were killed in at least three suicide bombings across the country.
Earlier this week, al Shabaab attacked the town of El Wak near the Somali-Kenyan border, killing at least seven Somali soldiers. On Sunday, an al Shabaab suicide bomber rammed a car into a Somali military vehicle killing eight soldiers including a high-ranking Somali general.
Although there has been a spike in al Shabaab attacks in recent months, the threat posed by the terrorist organization is longstanding. Al Shabaab’s origins can be traced back to the 1990s when a militant Salafist group known as al-Itihad al-Islami (AIAI) fought against Somali troops during the country’s civil war. Over time, several of the younger and more hardline members of AIAI, who became known as “al Shabaab,” meaning the youths, split off to join another organization, named the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which sought to implement Sharia law throughout Somalia. Al Shabaab ultimately emerged after the ICU was decapitated in 2006, in part due to U.S. military efforts.
The U.S. State Department designated al Shabaab as a terrorist group in 2008 and in 2012, al Shabaab merged with al Qaeda. Today, it remains al Qaeda’s affiliate in East Africa. The group maintains its primary areas of operation in southern Somalia, but has carried out several attacks across the country, as well as in the self-declared republic of Somaliland and in neighboring Kenya, Uganda, and Djibouti.
A recent report by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an eight country trade bloc in East Africa, claims al-Shabaab is an expanding transnational security threat, pointing to elements of the group in five other nations: Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Djibouti, and Tanzania.
“Al Shabaab has morphed to become more of a regional terrorist organization and should no longer be considered an insurgency group within Somalia,” says Ambassador Carter.
AMISON troops have worked fervently to beat back al Shabaab and to ensure that the group does not infiltrate their home countries. However, with the AMISOM mission set to expire in May 2017, all that al Shabaab has to do is wait out the next nine months.
“The fact is from al Shabaab’s perspective, they don’t have to win; they just don’t have to lose,” states Carter.
The U.S. also continues to provide assistance in the campaign to defeat the terror group. America launches drone attacks against al Shabaab targets – including a strike that killed 150 al Shabaab militants in March – trains and advises Somali forces, and accompanies them during ground assaults. Additionally, since 2006, the U.S. has provided Somalia with $1.5 billion in humanitarian assistance.
But the jury is out on whether U.S. efforts are working. “The U.S. has done a million different things to try to counter al-Shabaab. It’s done a million different things to create al-Shabaab as well,” remarks Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center and Cipher Brief expert Bronwyn Bruton.
According to former Somalia Special Envoy to the U.S. Abukar Arman,“On one hand, the U.S. forces have helped train a small contingent of Somali special operations forces. On the other, they are still freewheeling on the same failed policy that relies mainly on private contractors, aerial predators, and clandestine operations that may score high prize killings but almost always create more terrorists.”    
So the question remains: what more can be done to counter al Shabaab?
“There is no easy answer regarding what can be done to more effectively combat al Shabaab,” explains Gartenstein-Ross. “The fact is that you’re not going to be able to significantly increase the quality of manpower against it or the amount of resources that are dedicated to keeping Shabaab in check, which means that options are limited.”
Perhaps a key starting point for mounting a more effective counterinsurgency against al Shabaab is a stronger and more stable Somali central government.
“It comes down to the question of the development of the federal government of Somalia,” says Carter. “It’s a government on paper, and it’s ability to extend control beyond Mogadishu, some would even say within internal parts of Mogadishu, is limited at best.”
With Somali parliamentary elections scheduled to start this Saturday, could this be the moment that turns the tide in the fight against al Shabaab? Don’t hold your breath.
Bennett Seftel is deputy director of editorial at The Cipher Brief.

Source:The Cipher Brief