A close source in the Horn of Africa reports on al-Shabaab's strategy at the current juncture of the conflicts in southern and central Somalia.
According to the source, Harakat al-Shabaab Mujahideen (H.S.M.) is preparing to launch an offensive in the central regions to gain the kind of dominance over them that it has achieved in the Jubba regions in the south over the past month by displacing its former ally Hizbul Islam (H.I.). The source reports that local observers and politicians had expected H.S.M. to carry its fight against H.I. to Mogadishu next. The move to an encirclement strategy, according to the source, would repeat what H.S.M. did in the Jubba Valley by "creating safe areas on its flanks." H.S.M. would then turn to Mogadishu.
Regarding the prospects for the success of H.S.M.'s strategy, the source notes that the group will face strong opponents in the central regions [presumably Ahlu Sunna wal-Jama'a in Galgadud and H.I. in Hiraan] and that Ethiopia will likely intervene; but the source adds that, at the very least, H.S.M. is likely to be able "to capture Hizbul Islam territories up to Beledweyne.
The source's intelligence will be analyzed in terms of how it enlightens H.S.M.'s overall strategy.
If the intelligence is accurate, then it reflects a set of judgments and decisions by H.S.M. on how it can most effectively gain political dominance in southern and central Somalia. The strategy of encircling Mogadishu, rather than going for an immediate confrontation with H.I. there, indicates patience and prudence on H.S.M.'s part, which in turn indicates that H.S.M. is confident that it need not bring along the baggage of rivalrous allies as it prepares for a stepped-up campaign against the African Union peacekeeping mission (AMISOM) and forces of the Transitional Federal Government (T.F.G.) in Mogadishu. Phase One of H.S.M.'s overall campaign is to consolidate armed opposition to AMISOM and the T.F.G. under its command. If it is successful, H.S.M. will have placed itself as the only alternative to the T.F.G. in the southern and central regions.
The intelligence casts doubt on frequent current claims by analysts and officials supporting the T.F.G. that H.S.M. has lost popular legitimacy and is weakening, and that its fight with H.I. indicates a collapse of the armed opposition and, therefore, presents an opportunity for the T.F.G. to expand its power in the regions, where it has no present control.
Conflict within an alliance can cut two ways. It can reflect disunity and disaggregation in some cases, yet in others it indicates the achievement of dominance by one faction over the others, leading to consolidation and, consequently, to a stronger opposition than existed prior to internecine strife.
As for loss of popular legitimacy, one must ask, as many Somali intellectuals do: Why, if H.S.M. is so unpopular and is weakening, are there not insurrections in the territories that it controls? Southern and central Somalia is a country awash in arms. Sub-clans have not disappeared. H.S.M. appears to be able to hold and administer territory, and could not do so without some support and acquiescence among local populations.
Whether or not H.S.M. will be able to carry through successfully its encirclement strategy remains unclear, with uncertainty residing in the source's observation that H.S.M. faces "worthy opponents," yet itself is formidable. What is apparent is that H.S.M. does not perceive itself as weakening, but, rather, as strengthening to the point at which it is willing to bid for monopoly over armed opposition. Is theirs a sober judgment? H.S.M. has overreached before and has over-valued its power; yet it has also had periods of success, starting in late 2007 when it adopted its first strategy of encirclement that led to its current control over much of southern and central Somalia. The encirclement strategy is more in line with its sober than its intoxicated side. H.S.M. is taking a risk, but it appears to be a well-calculated risk. The strategy does not appear to be a product of desperation or a last-stand mentality, any more than it appears to be the work of irrational exuberance.
The source's intelligence should be taken seriously, because, if it is accurate, it indicates that H.S.M. is thinking strategically and is neither over-valuing nor under-valuing its power. As the source puts it, "This is the most logical maneuver before dealing with Hizbul Islam in Mogadishu."