There is a significant risk that Al-Shabaab can regroup and re-surge amid the COVID-19 outbreak, as government forces and assets are redirected to tackle the pandemic. A withdrawal of foreign military aid in the form of AMISOM and AFRICOM will almost certainly allow the group to re-surge in the region. With a war of propaganda underway and intensifying terror attacks, the pandemic could become a potential lifeline for the group. In contrast, the group also faces issues themselves for their own dwindling finances and supply lines. The same negative effects facing government forces may also become a reality for the group, this Grey Dynamics African Intelligence Article speculates on the issues at hand.
KJ-1. 16th March, the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) confirmed the first case of COVID-19.
KJ-2. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for a global ceasefire. Al-Shabaab (AS) leader Abu Ubeida announced the suspension of activities following the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak.
KJ-3. Despite the announcement, the group continues attacks on government and AMISOM assets in their area of operations.
A Terror Triangle
Somalia, Kenya, and to a much lesser extent Ethiopia, have been prime targets for AS operations in this order. Al-Shabaab conducts cross-border operations in Somalia and Kenya and hopes that a ceasefire amid the COVID-19.
On March 18th, two days after Somalia’s first confirmed coronavirus case, AS mortars targeted a fortified military compound in Mogadishu. On the 25th, a suicide bomber entered a shop in Mogadishu. The ensuing detonation killed two people and symbolises the lack of willingness to engage in a ceasefire amid the pandemic. The militants killed Abdisalan Hassan, Nugaal region governor, in Puntland following a targeted suicide bombing. In the Gedo region, the group’s last significant stronghold, Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) were ambushed on the 3rd April on the outskirts of Luuq town.
This was 2 days after an IED had killed two SNA troops. Johan Kruger, UN Head of Transnational Organised Crime, Illicit Trafficking & Terrorism Programmes for East Africa, told Grey Dynamics at this point AS operations in Banadir continue. Adding that a reduction of SNA, NISA, AMISOM, and AFRICOM would certainly see an increase in operations. A local source close to the matter assesses that AS will take advantage of the pandemic, comparable to other groups in Chad and Nigeria.
In Kenya, Christians in the northeastern provinces are under threat by the group which demands their removal. As the region is so far not seeing high numbers in coronavirus cases, religious gatherings continue. This will raise the threat and likelihood of an AS attack on Christians, especially with Easter approaching. In Ethiopia, large-scale attacks have been successfully diverted but the redirection of resources amid the pandemic presents the group with an opportunity it will likely consider. Terror attacks displace large amounts of people, speeding up the movement of people, which in turn may cause a rise in the virus’s spread. The Infectious Disease Vulnerability Index (IDVI) by Rand, ranks Somalia as the worst prepared for the pandemic globally. An escalation of conflict may spell disaster for the country.
Propaganda War Front
Another spectrum of the conflict is being intensified on the propaganda efforts amid the pandemic. Al-Shabaab is spreading false information that the COVID-19 virus is being spread “by the crusader forces who have invaded the country and the disbelieving countries that support them”. AS controlled areas in the country are lacking medical and government information to stop the spread, instilling their own propaganda instead. AS leader Fuad Mohamed Khalaf Shongole is claiming coronavirus is a disease sent by Allah, undermining efforts to stop the spread. In contrast, with Koranic schools known as Madrassas shut, Imams and Islamic teachers have formed an “anti-corona army”. By using loudspeakers to inform the public, supported by local reputation, these individuals are decreasing the counterproductive efforts of AS.
The Effect on Al-Shabaab
It is certain that governments in the region and inadvertently security forces will be affected by the virus. Economic strains and ensuing low unemployment are all favourable conditions for a terrorist group to capitalise on, combined with the strain and redirection of military assets. This is not to say the group will not also be immune to the strains. The group is currently facing an internal rebellion, leading to a 5-day conference in an undisclosed location amid dwindling finances and increasing pressure from the Somali military forces/AMISOM and US airstrikes. With common targets of choice such as public places and military bases in semi-lockdown, there will be little incentive to attack as there will be a lack of media exposure for the desired terrorism platform.
Image: Garowe Online (link)