They often go unnamed. Across Somalia, they are called “those boys”, “small, small kids”, “AS”, or even “Arsenal”. Somalis are aware that the group has informers everywhere, partially explaining civilians’ use of the code names to speak about them.
Their real name is Al Shabaab, an Islamist militant group aligned with Al Qaeda. Since 2006, they have been fighting to expel foreign forces and turn the Horn of Africa country into an Islamist caliphate, run under Sharia law.
They were pushed out of capital city Mogadishu in 2011, but attacks continue. The Armed Conflict, Location and Event Data Project, an organisation which gathers data, said more than 4,000 civilians were killed by Al Shabaab in the decade from 2010. These deaths included more than 580 people who died during a 2017 explosion in Mogadishu. Last October, a twin bombing near the same site killed at least 121.
In the past, militants have also carried out attacks in neighbouring Kenya, including the 2013 Westgate shopping mall, in which nearly 70 civilians were killed; and the 2015 attack on Garissa University, in which nearly 150 were massacred.
In the middle of last year, Al Shabaab were controlling as much as 80 per cent of Somalia’s territory, with between 5,000 and 10,000 fighters.
A new government, and new president, came to power in Somalia in 2022, following a prolonged political crisis. President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who took up his position last May, vowed to eradicate Al Shabaab, and an offensive began, with government forces backed by clan militias, African Union forces, and the US. In May, US president Joe Biden reversed an order made by his predecessor, Donald Trump, approving the deployment of hundreds of US special operations troops to Somalia. The EU has spent close to €2.3 billion on the African Union mission in Somalia since it began in 2007.
In the three months to December, the Somali government said it had killed more than 600 Al Shabaab members, while capturing 68 settlements. President Mohamud said last month that the group now controls just 20 per cent of Somalia’s territory.
“We are succeeding,”he told Al Jazeera on December 16th. “Al Shabaab is going to end.”
Hassan said that the group had flourished because of a period “where the state is not existing or is weak … Somalia went through a time when there was no state at all. It was a breeding ground for these people.” He added that some militants joined for ideological reason, some for economic reasons, and some have other grievances.
[ Sally Hayden: Hunger returns to Baidoa, Somalia's city of death ]
[ Sally Hayden: Counting the graves of Somalia's drought victims ]
[ Sally Hayden: Drought will affect Somali children 'for the rest of their lives' ]
They may have been pushed back, but Al Shabaab still controls large swathes of territory. Despite restrictive rules and public executions, some Somalis prefer the order they impose, compared to a central government that can be perceived as ineffective or even corrupt. Somalia ranked joint second last in the world on Transparency International’s 2021 corruption perceptions index; only South Sudan scored worse. One Somali told me that he knows many people who go to Al Shabaab militants for a ruling on land disputes, for example - they believe that any decision will be clear and final, and everyone will be forced to adhere to it.
Vehicles that travel through Al Shabaab areas are heavily taxed, paying between $200 and $1,500, according to news reports, and farmers and other businesspeople pay tax too. In 2020, a report by the Hiraal Institute said that Al Shabaab was collecting as much as 15 million dollars in taxes every month.
Somalia’s ongoing drought has left millions in need of food aid and hundreds of thousands in famine-like conditions. It has added to the risks civilians in Al Shabaab areas are facing, along with the risk of death by conflict or drone strike. Newly displaced people said Al Shabaab are controlling water points, blocking aid, increasing taxes and stepping up recruitment.
“When we talk about the natural hazards there are also man-made risks. Shabaab is one of the man-made risks in Somalia,” said Dr Ahmed Abdi Aden, deputy commissioner of Somalia’s disaster management agency, during an interview in a Mogadishu hotel.
“Actually the most severe, the most impacted areas, they’re under the control of AS. They don’t allow access and they don’t give people assistance … We are trying to reach those areas … Accessibility is the main problem.”
He said hungry people are being prevented from leaving Al Shabaab territory, where close to one million civilians are thought to be living. “They don’t allow them to go out. They keep them there, let them die. They keep them skeletal and then they blame the government, they release them for propaganda.”
During Somalia’s 2011 famine, where the death toll reached about 250,000, Al Shabaab blocked the delivery of international aid to their areas. Government officials say that is happening again.
Al Shabaab has previously accused international humanitarian organisations of disrupting the business of Somali farmers by handing out free food. “They have been operating in this country for a long time but they haven’t left anything tangible except destruction, division, Christianity, and other problems,” Al Shabaab’s Sheikh Mohamed Abu Abdallah told a Channel 4 News journalist last year.
“The situation has changed a bit more since the offensives against Al Shabaab began,” said one humanitarian source, who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions. “Since that started to happen, Al Shabaab is a bit more hardline. They’re more in conflict with the communities themselves.”
However, the source said humanitarian organisations are still having some success providing access to water and sending cash directly to “the most vulnerable people” living in Al Shabaab-controlled areas, “with strict protocols in place”. This is desired by international donors, the source said, who are keen to prevent further displacement, as otherwise Somalis are forced to relocate in order to access aid distributions. “There are very stringent requirements in terms of verification and accountability,” the source said.
Since January 2022, more than 116,000 displaced people have made their way to Baidoa, a city which, according to some politicians, is surrounded on all sides by Al Shabaab militants. This means that aid is often flown in rather than driven in trucks.
In the Edaan Qaboobe site for internally displaced people, in Baidoa, local leader Isaaq Hassan Mohamed said the majority of new arrivals are coming from “AS-controlled areas”. Due to the ongoing offensive with the government, he said, Al Shabaab militants ordered civilians to leave so they could create a “no-man zone”. He also said at least four in five families with older sons ran away “to avoid recruitment”. Another woman said all boys over the age of 10 were at risk of being recruited.
Mohamed has been displaced for eight months.”It’s most unlikely we’ll go home soon. There is nothing left for this community there, we’d need security and rain,” he said. “We had drone attacks that killed humans and animals. When the drone attacks killed people Al Shabaab became very aggressive, saying civilians were spies.”
According to Mohamed, four civilians were killed by drones in his village in 2022 alone. Like many other Somalis who have escaped Al Shabaab areas but might go back some day, Mohamed does not want his photo taken: he says this could be used as evidence to accuse him of being a spy and working with foreigners - the punishment for which can be execution.
In December, President Mohamud said no civilians had been killed by drone strikes within the last six months, while calling for a loosening of restrictions which he claimed would not affect civilians. “How many drone strikes were successful without having civilian casualties? You know the kind of war we are in,” Mohamud said. “But we are doing all the necessary precautions to avoid.”
In November, the International Committee of the Red Cross said violence is “flaring” in Somalia, with the number of mass casualty incidents related to armed conflict increasing by 30 per cent across four major hospitals they support. Between January and October, 57 conflict-related mass casualty incidents were recorded, compared to 43 during the same period in 2021.
At Bay Regional Hospital, in central Baidoa, medical co-ordinator Dr Abdullahi Yusif explained that staff are trained annually to deal with mass casualty events and to conduct emergency triage. Two days before I visited, they received a patient who was shot by Al Shabaab militants and lost his right eye. Another patient, aged just 13, had been injured by explosives; his brother killed. Last July, the local justice minister, Hassan Ibrahim Lugbur, was killed during a nearby explosion in Baidoa, while others injured in the blast were taken to the hospital.
The threat from Al Shabaab has created something of a disconnect between the government and the experiences of Somalis displaced by drought and desperate for aid. Government officials are clear targets for attacks, so they have little freedom of movement and are limited in how much they can engage with the needy. The same is true for foreign aid agency staff and journalists. In Mogadishu, the bulletproof vehicles that foreigners are advised to travel in, along with an armed escort, can cost upwards of $1,300 a day. There, as in Baidoa, foreigners are advised to only stay between 20 and 45 minutes at each location they visit, so they are not present long enough to attract a lot of attention or for their co-ordinates to be shared with Al Shabaab.
Even if Al Shabaab are eradicated, the trauma from the conflict will last a long time, say locals and government officials.”We talk about resilience. If there is an explosion today, tomorrow [Somalis] will rebuild,” said Aden, deputy commissioner of Somalia’s disaster management agency. But “surely they are traumatised. The whole population is traumatised.”