Here in Somalia, there are quite a few armed groups kicking around. Some are on the good side of the Somali government, other groups, not so much. Let me run you through the good guys, first.
Somali Police Force
The Somali Police Force isn’t your typical law enforcement agency. Some of its members are former militiamen from back in the day, and some of them are nice dudes. They run the day-to-day jobs here in Mogadishu, man checkpoints, and deal with violent situations. And here, those happen a lot and can involve gunfights and machete attacks. The police are also here to limit the presence of al-Shabaab.
These men have seen a lot of fighting in their past—some have 20 years or more of fighting experience. It’s safe to say these guys have seen their fair share of violence over the years, and as such, they are just like the regular Somali army. Here in the city, they more or less do the same job and act the same way. They also share the same mentality: They act as a fighting force rather than a protection force. They sometimes wear the same uniforms as regular military, which can make it hard to tell who is who.
I personally think this causes a lot more problems than it solves. The police are drawn into every counterinsurgency campaign, and meanwhile, the people need a more friendly, accessible force to go to and share information. It’s proven that the police are a more approachable force than the military. But because the two intertwine here, I feel as though the country is missing that element in this fight. I have heard a number of stories while I have been here of the police being scared and on edge. This has led to gun fights and innocent people getting shot, which does nothing to generate trust or rapport with citizens.
I can’t blame these guys, though. They get paid very little or not at all, and get next to nothing in training or support. “Here is an AK, now go stand at that checkpoint.” Some of these guys are young and inexperienced, too, and given that Mogadishu is one of the most dangerous cities in the world, with a well-organized enemy kicking in doors, it’s asking a lot of these policemen to even show up.
Al-Shabaab is able to launch high-profile attacks and kidnappings in and around the city. The police still have to live here when they take that uniform off, leaving them and their families at risk. This place sort of reminds me of Mexico and the country’s struggle with drug cartels. It has that feeling of danger around every corner. Total insecurity.
Somali Armed Forces
As with the Somali police, one of the primary things the Somali army struggles with is a lack of training and regular pay—sometimes these guys don’t get paid at all. They do a wide range of jobs, from launching large operations against al-Shabaab to doing police work in some of the harder towns to get to. They man checkpoints around the country and provide convoy protection for food and water. Just like the police, they are, in my eyes, undertrained, which can lead to mistakes—sometimes fatal ones. Also like the police, some of these guys are former militiamen from the civil war. They are well experienced in combat, but still not to the standard one would expect from an organized fighting force.
These men tend to have a lot of heart and love for their country, but their ranks are undermanned. Another issue plaguing the army is that it is comprised of fighting men from different clans, some of which are at odds with one another. Inter-clan fighting and tension occurs even within the army. I was told by a source that a man’s clan is placed before his religion. In order for the Somali army to move forward to becoming a better fighting force, each man needs to let go of their roots and put aside their clan to become part of a unified fighting force.
Gaashan Special Forces
Gaashan translates into “shield.” These guys are better trained than the standard army. The soldiers from this unit were trained at a military academy in Istanbul by way of a 2010 bilateral defense cooperative agreement in which Turkey agreed to provide training for the new Somali army.
SNA commander, General Dahir Aden Elmi, said the first unit of 150 special operations soldiers began training in October 2013, adding that training for the second unit was already underway. “They are receiving special training for fighting in the jungle and in the city. They can conduct any kind of operations in modern warfare, [including] guerrilla-type warfare.”
This all a part of the European Union Training Mission in Somalia (EUTM). The graduation of the EUTM recruits coincided with the U.S. confirming it has trained two SNA commando units of 270 special operations soldiers in counterinsurgency, counterterrorism operations, executive protection, and rapid reaction. Although I have not had the chance to meet with anyone from this unit, I have no doubt that they will be trained to an exceptional standard and serve Somalia well.
As of July 2014, the Gaashaan counterterrorism force constitutes a fundamental part of the National Intelligence and Security Agency. Alpha Group is Gaashan’s first component, and includes around 40 soldiers and three officers who were chosen from among 190 special Somali Armed Forces troops. According to Somali defense officials, this unit received training in the United States between late 2009 and early 2010. It is also believed that Alpha Group has close ties to the CIA.
U.S. counterterrorism expert Derek Gannon says, “Alpha Group’s training regimen includes counterinsurgency, counterterrorism operations, and executive protection, with an emphasis on quick reaction in an urban environment. These soldiers are also armed with guns equipped with night-vision scopes, among other modern military hardware.”
Gaashaan’s second counterterrorism unit is the Bravo Group. It received training at the Aden Adde International Airport (Mogadishu Airport) in 2011.
A third commando unit, Danab (“Lightning”), is being trained by a U.S. PMC to respond more like a quick reaction force. It is rumored to be modeled on the U.S. Ranger Regiment, and will take on a similar role.
African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISON)
The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) is an active, regional peacekeeping mission operated by the African Union with the approval of the United Nations in Somalia. It is mandated to support transitional governmental structures, implement a national security plan, train the Somali security forces, and assist in creating a secure environment for the delivery of humanitarian aid.
As part of its duties, AMISOM also supports Somalia’s forces in their battle against al-Shabaab militants. AMISOM was created by the African Union’s Peace and Security Council on 19 January, 2007, with an initial six-month mandate. On 21 February, 2007, the United Nations Security Council approved the mission’s mandate. Subsequent six-month renewals of AMISOM’s mandate by the African Union Peace and Security Council have also been authorized by the United Nations Security Council.
The duration of AMISOM’s mandate has been extended in each period that it has been up for review, most recently in October 2014. The current mandate expires on 30 November, 2015. Until that time, its maximum allowed strength is 22,126 troops. In August 2014, the Somali government, assisted by AMISOM, launched Operation Indian Ocean to clean up the remaining al-Shabaab-held pockets in the countryside.
I’ve heard from high-ranking officers within the Somalian police and military that AMISOM is a waste of time, and that they do not help the situation in Somalia. They are scared of al-Shabaab and really don’t want to be in this fight. I have heard some outrageous stories of AMISOM just running off and abandoning their posts. Obviously, I would take that with a pinch of salt, but I have seen how well-equipped AMISOM is, and yet not that long ago, over 100 of them died in an attack down in the south as al-Shabaab overran one of their bases.
AMISOM just fled and left behind all of their weapons, equipment, and vehicles. All of this sounds far too familiar to me. It sounds exactly like what the Iraqi Army did when faced by ISIS back in 2014. I see AMISOM as our ISAF in Afghanistan. AMISOM needs better training and support, and to work outside the purview of the corrupt government.
The AMISOM mission is split into two different missions. The first is a police mission: They are to train, advise, and mentor. On top of this, they are to conduct police activities and support the Somali police. Unfortunately, they’re apparently doing a poor job at fulfilling this role, given there are areas in Mogadishu—large areas—still not under government control. So dangerous are these areas, I can’t even get close to them.
AMISOM’s second mission is to conduct military operations against al-Shabaab and gain control of the country. They are supposed to train, advise, and mentor the Somali army. In my opinion, and in the eyes of others, this is flawed logic. It doesn’t matter what kind of training you offer the Somali army if they’re not getting paid. Despite this and AMISOM’s mediocre combat record, without AMISOM, the Somali army would not stand a chance whatsoever against al-Shabaab.
I can’t find much on these Italians, but I have been told that they are in the country to provide diplomatic security. One thing’s for sure, they are here in force with some good kit behind them. Italy has a lot of ties to Somalia, as it was once an Italian colony. I am told that they think they are closer to the Somali population as a result. All I know is that they are here in force, although if they are here for diplomatic security, their embassy is based in Kenya, not Somalia.
Ras Kamboni Brigade
The Ras Kamboni Brigade was an Islamic insurgency group that operated in Somalia from 2006-2010, born from the days of the Islamic Courts. It began an uprising in 2006, focused predominately in the south of Somalia, in the Jubaland area. The leader of this group, Hassan Abdullah Hersi al-Turki, was designated a terrorist by the U.S. on June 3, 2004.
In February 2010, the group left Hizbul Islam and joined Harakat al-Shabaab Mujahedeen. After Sheikh Hassan al-Turki joined al-Shabaab, defecting commander, Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed Islam “Madobe,” left the organization to form his own anti-al-Shabaab militia, the Raskamboni Movement.
Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen
The most feared of all groups here in Somalia, al-Shabaab, has been active in the country since 2006. Al-Shabaab began as the Islamic Courts Union’s military wing. After the Islamic Courts were disbanded, al-Shabaab rose up against Ethiopia and the West, as they believe it’s the Americans who pushed Ethiopia into battle. Later, the group would swear its allegiance to al-Qaeda, becoming a force that still to this day prevents Somalia from becoming a peaceful country. Al-Shabaab maintains close ties to other terror groups in the region such as Boko Haram, the Nigerian terror group, and AQIM, which operates all over Africa.
In August 2014, the Somali government-led Operation Indian Ocean was launched to clean up the remaining insurgent-held pockets in the countryside. On 1 September, 2014, a U.S. drone strike—carried out as part of the broader mission—killed al-Shabaab leader Moktar Ali Zubeyr. U.S. authorities hailed the raid as a major symbolic and operational loss for al-Shabaab, and the Somali government offered a 45-day amnesty to all moderate members of the militant group. Political analysts also suggested that the insurgent commander’s death would likely lead to al-Shabaab’s fragmentation and eventual dissolution.
That being said, the group’s influence in this country is outstanding. It has informants in every part of Somalia and countless sympathizers. They are still a massive threat here. There have been a number of reports suggesting that the current commander of al-Shabaab gave an order to kill all foreign fighters within their ranks due to the massive risk of spies and informants hiding among them. This has hindered al-Shabaab’s ability to recruit, and even its Kenyan brothers are leaving.
The group is weak, yes, but it still receives a lot of money from kidnapping, extortion, racketeering, donors (predominately from Saudi Arabia), and secret deals struck with Kenyan high-ranking officers. The group still has a lot of money for which to pay its members, and here, that is a life-or-death distinction.