Foreign troops in Somalia struggle to keep al-Shabaab at bay
Ahmed*, a Somali journalist, fled to Uganda in 2009 after he was threatened by al-Shabaab militants. He later moved to Kenya, and only returned to Somalia in 2012 after al-Shabaab had withdrawn most of its forces from the capital, Mogadishu. But danger is ever present.
“Al-Shabaab tracks you and then out of the blue they message you, ‘We know you are at your office right now,’” he says. “You can try to protect yourself, but in the end you just pray that nothing will happen.” Since 1992, 59 journalists have been killed in Somalia.
The Islamist extremist militia still casts a shadow over Mogadishu, despite the presence of thousands of African peacekeepers, European troops and soldiers from the ill-equipped and underfunded Somali army.
Ahmed, who was a friend of a 25-year-old businessman killed in a suicide attack on Mogadishu’s Naasa Hablood hotel last month, says: “It was a very painful death as he was deported back from Jeddah [in Saudi Arabia] in 2014 and newly married. He was running his own business and expecting his first child soon.”
But the security situation remains perilous, even though most of al-Shabaab’s fighters withdrew from the capital in 2011. The militants have resorted to hit-and-run shootings, assassinations and bombings that sow fear in this city on the Indian Ocean.
Last month, there were two assaults on prominent hotels, plus mortar attacks, shootings and assassinations. European soldiers are here to help the army defend the capital: the EU Training Mission (EUTM) has 160 men and women from across Europe deployed in Somalia.
For security reasons, they live in the heavily protected international camp on the outskirts of the city, next to the airport, which sits at the heart of a fortified zone.
Max*, a German army captain, shares Ahmed’s sense of insecurity. “When you drive out of the camp, you have that very strange feeling,” he says. “There is always the threat that something could happen, even though there has not been an attack on us so far.”
Every morning, before the Europeans leave the camp, they are briefed on the agenda and security. Then they put on body armour, take their weapons and travel in armoured vehicles with an escort to the General Dhagabadan training centre.
Getting to work safely is a concern for most people living in Mogadishu. Some Somalis rely on changing their routes regularly while others pay for armed guards.
However, a senior EU official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says the security situation has improved over the past couple of years, especially since the EUTM’s arrival in the region – to train soldiers in Uganda in 2010 and Mogadishu in 2014.
It is hard to measure what effect the EUTM has had on the Somali soldiers – who will one day have to keep the peace alone. The trainees do not have the knowledge the EU military trainers had expected.
They are poorly equipped – some wear uniforms from Uganda, others have American uniforms, and some show up in civilian clothes and flip-flops. Sometimes, soldiers will be absent for days because they have to be on duty in their regular units or because they haven’t been paid.
For now, the government depends on the African Union (AU) peacekeeping force, Amisom, which has been deployed here since 2007.
Although there are 22,000 troops on the ground, they struggle to seize territory from the militants, and often face devastating losses. In January, al-Shabaab attacked Kenyan soldiers at their Amisom base in El Adde. Somalia’s president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud, said more than 200 soldiers were killed, although Kenya has not disclosed casualty numbers.
Lt Col Joe Kibet, Amisom’s spokesman, said the Somali army is, “in terms of training, tactics and weaponry, now as good as any national army” and would take over “more and more responsibilities”.
Despite the security situation, Max says the European trainers are making progress. “I can understand that it is difficult for the single soldier to see the big picture when you only stay here for some months,” he says. “But we try to build up this country together with our Somali and international partners, and this takes time.”
*Some names have been changed to protect identities