Time to Secure Somalia

In the last month, gangs based in Somalia have kidnapped two tourists from Kenya. This has been followed by a massive suicide bomb in Mogadishu, which has claimed dozens of lives and shattered the illusion of progress. The events pose a fresh challenge to the Somali government's road map for security and development.

By Anna Rader, Associate Fellow, RUSI

5 October 2011

The murder of David Tebbutt and the kidnapping of his wife Judith Tebbutt in mid-September have reminded external observers that Somalia's devastating famine is only one aspect of its humanitarian crisis. Now another kidnapping has rocked the region after Frenchwoman Marie Dedieu was snatched on 1 October from the Kenyan coast. Three days later, Al-Shabaab, the jihadist insurgent group that abandoned the capital in August, exploded a devastating suicide bomb in Mogadishu, killing dozens and spreading fear and panic.

Deteriorating Security

When Shabaab withdrew from Mogadishu in early August it pronounced a change of tactics. Somalis on the ground, including the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeeping force, braced themselves for a wave of suicide and IED bombings. It did not seem to come, and the government used the breathing space to clear and hold former Shabaab territory in the capital and to progress its roadmap on security and development. But on Tuesday 4 October, the Al-Qa'ida-linked Islamist organisation announced a return to business: a massive truck bomb exploded outside a government compound in a Mogadishu neighbourhood that was supposedly within the safe zone controlled by government forces. Those killed include students waiting for exam results. It is a crippling blow to the sense of calm that has prevailed in the weeks since Shabaab's exit and shatters illusions that Shabaab had been cowed by this year's offensive push by AMISOM and government forces. Shabaab has been divided and weakened by its loss of territory and financial resources, but recent events - including pitched battles along the Kenyan border [1] - suggest Shabaab may be trying to re-exert itself. The transitional government must now face the prospect of a reinvigorated and more deadly opponent.

The Somali government must now also come to terms with the threat posed by the arbitrary kidnapping of foreigners from outside its borders. The problem of kidnapping is not new - countless numbers of Somali children and adults have been kidnapped and forcibly recruited by Shabaab, foreign shipping personnel have been held by pirates off the northeastern coast in a bid for ransom money, and the high risk of kidnap for foreign aid workers has led most international aid agencies to hire local contractors and pay extortionate security fees for expatriate staff. But the snatching of Tebbutt and Dedieu raises alarming questions about the gravity of Somalia's destabilised security situation.

The government's writ does not extend into the south-central regions, particularly not to the areas around Kismaayo and Baidoa where both Judith Tebbutt and Marie Dedieu are reportedly being held. This is Shabaab country, and Kenyan authorities were quick to blame Shabaab for both kidnappings. But this bears none of the Islamist group's hallmarks. Indeed, Shabaab press officers were amongst the first to deny culpability after Tebbutt's disappearance, blaming instead one of the many rogue militias in southern Somalia. Such gangs, perhaps associated with Shabaab or claiming affiliation, are just some of the armed groups that have gained prominence in the gap offered by Shabaab's supposed retrenchment.

Proliferating Militias

In addition to Shabaab, authorities have accused pirates operating along the south coast for the kidnappings and also members of the Ras Kamboni Brigade, an Islamist militant group operating out of Kismaayo and allied with Shabaab. Although Shabaab has been the most prominent and enduring opposition movement, there are pretenders who seek to take advantage of the organisation's position and name, creating a diverse network of jihadists and militants that extract rents and rule by the gun.

Added to this is the complex association of pirates operating up and down the coast, and the growing number of clan militias and those of the new regional and local administrations emerging along the Kenyan and Ethiopian fringes, which have taken advantage of Shabaab's decreasing popularity - accelerated by its much-criticised banning of drought assistance - to impose security in their constituencies. This makes for a fragmented and diverse security landscape in which it is difficult to map alliances and trace accountability.

Negotiation and Recovery

Kenyan security teams are working closely with French and British diplomatic staff and special forces to uncover the locations of the abductees and retrieve them unharmed. Previous incidents of foreigners kidnapped in Somalia have most often been resolved by the payment of a large ransom - including the well-documented cases of Canadian Amanda Lindhout and Australian Nigel Brennan in 2009 and British couple Paul and Rachel Chandler released in 2010. [2] In both of those incidents, the hostages were held for over a year. Though there is yet no indication that the same group carried out both of the most recent kidnappings, the fact that they have occurred within a few weeks of each other is cause for concern. In both cases negotiators are working against the clock, not least because without an early resolution the women could be held indefinitely or terminated: a nightmare scenario.

The situation is complicated by the British government's declared no-ransom policy, as well as the difficulty of operating on the ground in Somalia where insecurity is rife and the government has little or no penetration beyond Mogadishu. The best hope is for the local community to facilitate the women's rescue, and clan elders have reportedly been working behind the scenes to negotiate Tebbutt's release. [3]

Securing Somalia

After twenty years of state failure and a five-year insurgency, the security situation in Somalia is extremely precarious. Somalis, as well as foreigners, are at acute risk from the predations of violent militias, bandits and pirates. Somalis fleeing south-central Somalia - the epicentre of the famine, where a sixth state was recently declared part of the emergency - have been exposed to extreme violence, including banditry and rape, from opportunistic and desperate militiamen. Humanitarian aid workers have for years described Somalia as the most dangerous place to work; these incidents will only reinforce that risk assessment, making it more difficult for long-term famine relief and aid to take place.

There are no easy answers to Somalia's condition, but steps can be taken to improve security institutions and capabilities. The African Union peacekeeping force is under-strength: of 20,000 forces promised, it is trying to secure Mogadishu against Shabaab's resurgence with 9,000 - AMISOM's spokesman says they need at least 12,000 to hold the city. [4] AMISOM also needs logistic and materiel support, and more personnel who are trained in counter-insurgency, paid on time and properly resourced. Shabaab has lost its toehold in the capital, territory that will not easily be regained, and AMISOM and government forces must be able to capitalise on that. The government's security strategy must also be joined up with Kenya's efforts along the border, including support for militia groups there, and Ethiopia's support for Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca, the Sufi militia that controls parts of central Somalia.

There must be more support for ongoing efforts to build capacity in Puntland and south-central Somalia to defy the pirate scourge. If pirates are to blame, then this is a blow for the international maritime mission since it suggests that the naval flotillas have simply encouraged the opportunistic pirate gangs to move further down the coast and engage in operations designed for easy ransom. Sending more ships to patrol the shipping lanes without a broader strategy of engagement will not address the causes of piracy - poverty, environmental degradation, underdevelopment, weak law and order - but will close off the hijacking of large cargo ships in favour of criminal activity that is more difficult to police and prosecute.

This is a dreadful ordeal for both Judith Tebbutt and Marie Dedieu, their family and friends, including those who have also lost David Tebbutt to Somalia's dysfunction. Recovering both women alive, and preventing further kidnappings, is a priority for the British and French governments. But, as this most recent truck bombing demonstrated, the security situation within Somalia is acute, and Somalis in the capital and beyond may be at risk from a stepped-up insurgency in which civilians will lose their lives. Regional and international supporters of Somalia should now focus on serious, sustained efforts to build indigenous capacity and bolster the African Union peacekeeping force in order to assist Somalis to secure their country.

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


[1] Jeffrey Gettleman, 'Fighting Erupts on Somalia's Border With Kenya', New York Times, 30 September 2011.

[2] BBC News, 'Somali captors free Australian and Canadian reporters', 25 November 2009; BBC News, 'Timeline: Paul and Rachel Chandler kidnap', 14 November 2010.

[3] Will Ross, 'Kenyan kidnap: Pirates "bring shame on Somalia"', BBC News, 23 September 2011.  Clan elders also played a role in negotiating the release of Frans Barnard, a Save the Children contractor, kidnapped in October 2010: BBC News, 'UK aid worker's joy at release from captors in Somalia', 20 October 2010.

[4] Lt Col Paddy Ankunda, 'World must act fast on Somalia', Hiiraan Online, 30 September 2011.


Anna Rader

Associate Fellow

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