Is Al-Shabab on the Way Out in Somalia?

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Civilians seek aid at an AMISOM-run medical center Stuart Price / UN-Corbis

Somalia is one of the last places you'd find most U.S. investors. The war-ravaged country hasn't had a functioning central government in 21 years, since the fall of Mohamed Siad Barre's dictatorship. Nearly every block in the capital, Mogadishu, stands in ruins, many of them so old that trees and thick vines have grown up through the wreckage, and the few houses that haven't been entirely gutted by mortar fire are riddled with the bullet scars of past street battles. But that devastation is precisely what has brought Liban Egal back to the city of his birth. The Somali-American businessman wants to get in early.

Egal emigrated from Somalia in 1988 amid armed insurrections that would burst into full-blown civil war in 1991. He spent the next 20 years in America, building a string of businesses—convenience stores, pizza parlors, fried-chicken shops, check-cashing services—before he paid a visit to his hometown last August and found a new world of opportunity. Residents say Mogadishu's downtown feels more secure these days than it has since the fighting began. "That gave me the hope that this is the beginning of something," says the 42-year-old Egal. "In business, you have to pick up on trends early enough to take advantage of them." Like the shopkeepers who have finally begun repainting their battered storefronts, like the local businessman who's building a hotel, Egal is gambling that the city's newfound security will last.

Egal's arrival in Mogadishu coincided with a pivotal moment in the war. That same month, the al Qaeda–linked group Al-Shabab was driven out of the city by African Union peacekeepers and Somali troops under the flag of the U.S.-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG). The militants presented the pullout as merely a tactical maneuver, but the peacekeepers, the city's residents, and the U.S. government all say Al-Shabab departed under intense duress. "Infighting, financial hardships, and continuous loss of fighters and strategic positions in city battles" made the group's retreat inevitable, says Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda, a spokesman for the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

Nevertheless, the struggle for control of the city continues. Reinforced by the AMISOM outposts that now dot Somalia's eastern coast, the peacekeepers have formed a perimeter around the city and have gradually pushed outward. Sniper fire remains a part of everyday life on the town's outskirts, where the front lines weave in and out through the living rooms, kitchens, and courtyards of partially demolished houses. Peacekeepers say they take fire from the militants most nights, and at times the shooting gets heavy. But inside the perimeter of peacekeepers and ragtag TFG troops, the Al-Shabab threat seems to be subsiding in a city where previous pacification attempts have failed spectacularly.

AMISOM began five years ago in the wake of Addis Ababa's ill-advised 2006 intervention in Somalia, a move that had only worsened the bloodshed. The fiercely nationalistic Somalis have a history of armed conflict with neighboring Ethiopia, going back hundreds of years, and they were unpersuaded by the insistence of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi that his country was only seeking to protect its own borders. Instead, rising Islamist factions like Al-Shabab were able to exploit the incursion to rally the Somali public's support. Wanting no repetition of that disaster, the African Union excluded Somalia's immediate neighbors from AMISOM's ranks.

The peacekeeping forces now number nearly 10,000, most of them from Uganda and Burundi, but their deployment has been anything but smooth. At first AMISOM was severely underfunded and underequipped, lacking essentials like reliable flak jackets and armored personnel carriers that could withstand the militants' roadside bombs. Hundreds of malnourished AMISOM soldiers fell ill with the dietary deficiency beriberi, and at least a half dozen died from it.

The supply situation has vastly improved since then. A Western security expert says AMISOM owes its recent gains largely to a shift that began two and a half years ago in the way the peacekeepers work with the TFG's soldiers. "AMISOM decided to jump in and fight in the trenches [beside them]," he says, asking not to be named because he isn't authorized to speak to the media. "Before, AMISOM would take ground, then hand the keys over to the TFG. And by 10 p.m., the TFG had given it back [to Al-Shabab]. They couldn't hold." Advancing and holding is a much more demanding strategy for the AU's forces, he admits, but it works better, especially in an urban setting.

On one particularly contested section of the front line in the city's Dayniile neighborhood, the bunkers most directly in the line of fire are occupied by the Burundians. The adjoining section is controlled by the TFG's men, who fight beside the Burundians to fend off the nightly Al-Shabab assaults. Deployments are staggered that way all along the perimeter, AMISOM commanders say. "We need to involve the people in the conflict, to be part of the problem solv-ing," says the Ugandan contingent's commander, Col. Paul Lokech. "That's why you see TFG everywhere here," he says, gesturing toward the Somali soldiers posted at a roadblock at the Ugandan base's entrance and toward others lounging in the shade of a shot-up building. "I always believe that [the TFG] is my strength. They may be having their weaknesses, but I must try my best to observe their strength and suppress their weaknesses."

It makes a difference that AMISOM's senior officers are prepared to accept heavy casualties when necessary. The Burundians in Dayniile lost at least 50 men (and possibly more than 70) in a single day last October, pushing just three miles farther along the road toward an Al-Shabab-controlled strip of land known as the Afgooye Corridor. "Some of the former peacekeeping groups that did not do as well as we have were sophisticated," says the peacekeepers' top commander, Maj. Gen. Frederick Mugisha. "They had all the technology. But technology [alone] in this environment does not work out. You need to be in the trench, to accept some of these terrible conditions."

He's talking about the "Black Hawk Down" incident. On the afternoon of Oct. 3, 1993, Somalis led by the warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid shot down two U.S. helicopters. Eighteen American soldiers were dead before it was over, and a mob dragged some of their corpses through the streets. President Bill Clinton responded by ordering an end to hostile operations against Aidid and soon pulled out of the country entirely. The Western security expert has studied the battle intimately, and he continues to ponder its aftermath. "In the early 1990s, the Americans had the philosophy of 'no casualties,'" he says. "By noon on Oct. 4, we could have walked to the stadium. Aidid was out of bullets. We could have fixed Somalia for the rest of our lifetime."

Security in Mogadishu has reached a tipping point, says a civilian adviser working with AMISOM. After years of watching the ebb and flow of conflict in the capital, he predicts that AMISOM's progress will stick this time. "People needed to see a winner," he says. "And AMISOM gave them a winner." Al-Shabab gained popular support at first simply because it seemed able to bring stability. Most Somalis tend to be pragmatic above all, says Egal: "A lot of people I know who don't even pray are pretending to be part of that religious lifestyle so they can be accepted." Now those businessmen are finding their names on U.N. sanctions lists and their assets frozen. The trend is shifting. Somalis have seen how ruthless Al-Shabab's version of Islam can be. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been driven to the edge of starvation by the group's blockades against Western food aid. And they're tired of war. "They have been in a conflict for 20 years, and they have seen a lot of suffering," says General Mugisha. "They also want some peace."

Last week the U.N. special envoy to Somalia, Augustine Mahiga, relocated from Kenya to Mogadishu for the first time in 17 years. The trouble is that Mogadishu remains the only city in Somalia where AMISOM and the TFG have an overt presence. In an interview with Newsweek, TFG Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali dismissed this characterization as no more than a popular "mantra"—the TFG controls many other swaths of the country, he says. In fact, what he calls government "control" is more accurately government "influence," according to AMISOM officials. Outside Mogadishu, the anti-Shabab forces are a hodgepodge of local clan militias and foreign-backed paramilitary groups.

In the past few months the fight against the militants has been unceremoniously joined by forces from Kenya in the south and Ethiopia in the west. At first TFG President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed objected to the Kenyan incursion. "We cannot accept military intervention which the Somali government is not aware of," he told reporters in Mogadishu. Several days later he reversed his position, and now the U.N. Security Council is considering expansion of the African Union's mission to nearly 18,000 peacekeepers, allowing the Kenyans to fight under AMISOM's banner. The Ethiopians have no such standing, but they're said to be working side by side with TFG forces.

Most Somalis are sufficiently sick of Al-Shabab to support—or at least not oppose—anyone who can stop the militants. "Putting additional pressure on Al-Shabab at this moment, when it has already been pushed back in Mogadishu, I think is going to be helpful," says James Swan, the U.S. special representative for Somalia, speaking to Newsweek in Nairobi. "So from a purely military standpoint we see potential advantages in having multiple fronts." Not that he blames the Somali president for being taken aback by Kenya's abrupt invasion of southern Somalia in October. "It was well known that Kenyans were training Somali forces with the expectation that those forces would go into [southern Somalia], so we were certainly aware of that," says Swan. "I think that the decision, however, by the Kenyan military to send its own troops into Somalia did come as a surprise, so that's why we saw a bit of a scramble in the immediate aftermath."

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Overgrown ruins in the capital. Nichole Sobecki / Corbis

The big question now is what comes next. In particular, what will fill the void if Al-Shabab is forced out of its strongholds? "If [the military operation] is going to be effective, it's also going to have to be linked to local administrations that are reflective of clan dynamics in those areas and local political influences," Swan says. "Ideally, it would have a linkage back to the TFG in Mogadishu."

Still, no one has much confidence that Somalia's fractious political leaders can actually run a country. What happens if they prove incapable of building a working peacetime government? "I cannot foresee in the near future having a fully functional government in place," says AMISOM's deputy representative, Wafula Wamunyinyi, at his office in Mogadishu. "I don't foresee it." Bloody fistfights have broken out multiple times recently in the 550-member TFG Parliament, a bloated institution where corruption is endemic and clan rivalry is often heated. The latest bouts put several legislators in the hospital.

And yet Liban Egal remains optimistic. "I believe if the trend continues, investment will come," he says. "Then politics becomes less important, because it won't change your life." His pilot venture, the First Somali Bank, is scheduled to open in February, and his wife, Hibo, plans to be there for the opening ceremony. It will be the first time she's been back to Somalia since she left as a teenager in 1991. Liban Egal admits he's never run a bank before, but he has hired a team of specialists, including a Frenchman who has spent 25 years in investment banking and a former employee of Kenya's national bank. "Nothing's 100 percent," he says. "If security gets worse, this project will never work." But he's betting things won't fall apart again. "And if it takes time to get better, I'm willing to wait it out." Millions of war-weary Somalis are waiting with him.