The Somali militant group al-Shabaab has never claimed responsibility for the truck bomb that obliterated Mogadishu's K5 junction on October 14, 2017, killing 587 people and wounding more than 300. The group's silence is likely self-protective; the government immediately blamed al-Shabaab for the attack, (1) and many ordinary Somalis did, too, sparking rare open protests against the militants that were attended by thousands of people.
The mood of the crowds was angry, and Somalia's President Mohamed Abdullahi "Farmajo" attempted to channel that anger. "We are telling [Al-Shabaab] that from now on, we are all soldiers and will come to you," he declared to one rally. "We will no longer tolerate a Somali boy being killed and a Somali girl being killed." (2) During visits to neighboring countries, the president reiterated his threats to attack al-Shabaab, vowing to defeat the group within two years if their leaders rejected peace. (3) But a year later, al-Shabaab appears to be paying no heed to the protests or Farmajo's vow. The group quickly claimed responsibility on November 9, 2018, when three bombs exploded outside a Mogadishu hotel, killing more than 50 people. (4) The previous month, the group said it was behind an attack on an European Union convoy in the capital that left two civilians dead, (5) an explosion in Kenya's Mandera County that killed two teachers, (6) and a suicide bombing at a Baidoa restaurant that claimed at least 20 lives. The group also publicly executed five men it accused of spying for the Somali government, Kenya, the United States, or the United Kingdom. (7)
The bombings and killings underscore how al-Shabaab and the forces arrayed against it--the Somali government, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), and various international forces trying to train and/or support Somali army troops--remain locked in a stalemate. (8) Al-Shabaab lacks the strength to defeat AMISOM on the ground or compel the countries involved to withdraw their troops. But the forces backing the government are unable to destroy al-Shabaab or stop it from carrying out lethal attacks that damage efforts to stabilize Somalia and let its people finally live in peace, free from terrorism.
The latest report of the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, released in November 2018, acknowledges the group's continued potency. Despite an escalation in U.S. airstrikes targeting al-Shabaab leaders and groups of fighters, it stated "there has been no significant degradation of the group's capability to carry out asymmetric attacks in Somalia." (9) The most recent U.S. State Department's annual country reports on terrorism stated that "[in 2017] al-Shabaab... retained safe haven, access to recruits and resources, and de facto control over large parts of Somalia through which it moves freely." (10) For years, analysts have predicted al-Shabaab was about to vanish or go into steep decline. But as 2018 draws to a close, the long-awaited turning point in the struggle against the militants is still nowhere in sight.
New Faces in Senior Leadership
In addition to mounting devastating terrorist attacks, al-Shabaab has experienced significant military successes in the past few years. The men credited for those successes were promoted in the early months of 2018, placing the group in position to achieve more battlefield victories. Abukar Ali Adan was appointed to a position near the apex of al-Shabaab's power structure, either as a senior advisor or deputy leader to emir Abu Ubaidah, while Moallim Osman was put in charge of the Jabhat, the group's army. (11)
Abukar Ali Adan has spent several years as al-Shabaab's military chief (a position he retains) and was also the previous leader of the Jabhat. He first came to prominence outside Somalia in January 2018, when the U.S. State Department designated him as a terrorist. But he has been involved with Somalia's Islamist militants since the early 2000s, when he was a businessman who helped to finance the Islamic Courts Union, the body that briefly seized control of Mogadishu in 2006 with help from al-Shabaab's future leaders. Originally from Somalia's Hiran region, Ali Adan served as the al-Shabaab governor in Somalia's Lower Juba region in 2009 before getting involved with the Jabhat the following year. (12)
Moallim Osman's involvement in al-Shabaab goes back to the 1990s and the group's predecessor organization--al-Itihad. He gained new prominence after one of al-Shabaab's biggest victories, the assault on a Kenyan military base near the town of El Adde in January 2016. Osman was the architect and commander of the attack, (13) in which al-Shabaab forces stormed and overran the base, killing more than 140 Kenyan soldiers and seizing weapons and other materiel that the fleeing soldiers left behind.
How the promotions will affect al-Shabaab's internal power dynamics remains to be seen. Al-Shabaab already had one deputy leader, Mahad Warsame Qaley (better known as Mahad...