Only his second day in office and Somalia's new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, was immediately introduced to the mercilessness of militant Islamist group al-Shabaab, when he narrowly escaped a suicide bomb attack at the Jazeera hotel in the capital Mogadishu. The fact that the attack occurred not far from the international airport and left seven dead shows that al-Shabaab has certainly not been defeated.
The last al-Shabaab stronghold and financial hub for its operations is the port city of Kismayo, in the south of the country. Last week, Kenyan troops, together with soldiers from AMISOM and the Somali National Army, started an offensive to regain control over the city.
But according to E.J. Hogendoorn, Horn of Africa Project Director at the International Crisis Group (ICG), al-Shabaab has already made plans to start a guerrilla campaign and reorganize its forces. “To some degree this is a replay of 2006 when Ethiopian forces invaded Somalia in an effort to help the then TFG [Transitional Government], and al-Shabaab was actually able to launch a very effective and bloody guerrilla campaign that sapped the will of Ethiopia to stay there,” he says.
The Kenyan government, together with the international community and the different clans who live in the area of Kismayo have attempted to come up with an agreement. But the question is whether this agreement will hold and what it means for the stability of Kismayo once al-Shabaab has been kicked out.
Another issue is that local clan politics may also be a hindrance to a return to normality. “The different clans who live there will fight over who controls the port and particularly who controls the revenue that is being generated by shipping going through Kismayo,” Hogendoorn says.
Meanwhile in Mogadishu, relative peace has returned to the streets. Mohamed Elmi, secretary of the Federation of Somali Associations in the Netherlands (FSAN), recently travelled to Somalia for a fact-finding mission. “We were there to see what viable opportunities there are for the private sector now with the political transition,” he says. “It is strange to see that it is safe in Mogadishu, but that there is also al lot of danger. You sense the presence of al-Shabaab.”
All the same, Elmi relays how he saw with his own eyes how al-Shabaab is losing its grip on the people in Mogadishu. “I got the impression that people do not want al-Shabaab and those who work together with them did that out of pure necessity. The fact is that al-Shabaab was willing to give them money with which they could feed their children and family. There are not many people [in Mogadishu] who support the ideology of al-Shabaab,” he says.
While people in Mogadishu are starting to have more courage to defy the Islamist militants, people in neighbouring Kenya are getting more worried.
In the capital Nairobi, young people express fear that al-Shabaab will target them once they are pushed out of their last stronghold. “As a Kenyan I am worried. I’d prefer that the government focus on the security here at home rather than in Somalia,” says Sidney, a business student.
According to Sidney, al-Shabaab’s possible move to the other East African countries may cripple the economy as investors will shy away from the region. It is said that some members of the Muslim community in Nairobi have planned attacks in Somalia and they could now turn their focus to the major cities in Kenya. “That is why I urge the government to ensure that the internal security in Kenya is looked after,” says Richard, a student in natural science.
One thing is clear. Although Somalia has a formal new leader, which had not been the case for more than 20 years and which has brought a sense of optimistimism to the Somali people, the problem of al-Shabaab in the region remains whole and will not be eliminated with the fall of the port city of Kismayo.