Somali security forces keep vigil during the funeral of assassinated MP Abdullahi Qayad Barre in Mogadishu in February 2015. Photo: Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images
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What has happened to the fight against Somalia’s al-Shabab?

The situation is murky, but it is certain that al-Shabab remains undefeated and is still a real threat, not just to Somalia, but to the region as a whole.

News on Somalia has gone strangely quiet in recent weeks. Somali piracy is in retreat. Since 2009 the High Risk Area off the Somali coast suffered over 700 attacks from pirates, but last year there were only 11 pirate incidents and not a single ship hijacking.

Attacks have driven the al-Qaeda affiliated Somali rebel movement (al-Shabab) out of Somali cities and ports.

The operation, under the auspices of the African Union, has been a remarkable success. A detailed report in the Military Balance – just published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) – indicates how this was done. Operation Indian Ocean, from August to November last year, saw troops from Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Burundi undertaking co-ordinated operations against al-Shabab.  Linked by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) it succeeded in displacing the rebels from key strongholds.

But, as the Military Balance points out, “the group still has the potential both to slow AMISOM’s progress through its use of asymmetrical tactics and to conduct attacks on Somali and foreign targets”. To show just how much the African forces still have to do to defeat al-Shabab, a helpful map is included showing large areas of the country in a dark grey – regions in the north, centre and south of Somalia are still firmly under rebel control.

The real problem is that AMISOM is – as the report makes plain – “about 15,000 troops short of the strength believed required for concurrent operations to clear Somalia of al-Shabab.”  At least as worrying is the fact that international donors are beginning to tire of the burden.  Running the operation is costing $50m a month, and given the demands of Ukraine, Syria, Nigeria and the other international crises, this is a budget drain western militaries would love to be rid of.

But the International Institute for Strategic Studies report is as opaque as it is helpful.

For some reason there is not a word about the other major player in Somalia – the United States. The US military maintain a vast base in neighbouring Djibouti – Camp Lemonnier. From this 500 acre site the US operates missions across the region – many of them inside Somalia.

US drone strikes (also operated from an American base in Ethiopia) have been remarkably successful. Since September last year drones have killed senior Al Shabab figures including its leader Ahmed Abdi Godane and most recently its intelligence chief Yussuf Deq. The Somali government would like to see these stepped up.

Also omitted from the Military Balance is any indication of where al-Shabab obtains its funding. Asked whether the IISS has any evidence of Qatari financing of the movement (or of Boko Haram in Nigeria) Dr John Chipman, the centre’s director-general, said they had none.

If this is really the case it is a strange lapse.

In 2013 the US Treasury placed an adviser to the Qatar government – Abd al-Rahman bin Umayr al-Nuaymi – on a sanctions list. In October last year Britain (rather belatedly) followed suit.  

The Americans accused Umayr al-Nuaymi of being a vital financier for al-Qaeda affiliates in a number of countries, including Somalia. “Nuaymi is a Qatar-based terrorist financier and facilitator who has provided money and material support and conveyed communications to al-Qaeda and its affiliates in Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen for more than a decade”. This is not the sort of activity to have escaped the notice of Qatari security officials.

The Qatari government is also accused by the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia of using its vast wealth to buy influence inside the country. In their 2013 report the Monitors found that Qatar both funded the election campaign of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and bought votes for the president by bribing MPs. Qatar is also reported by the UN to have “facilitated” negotiations between the Somali government and Hassan Dahir Aweys, then part of the al-Shabab’s military infrastructure.

But this is a murky world and since 2013 there appears to have been some falling out between al-Shabab and Qatar. In May 2013, a suicide attack was carried out inside Mogadishu, aimed at a government convoy transporting high-level officials from the Qatari security service. In June 2013, Aweys was taken into custody by Somali security forces, in circumstances that are still unclear.

What is certain is that al-Shabab remains undefeated and is still a real threat, not just to Somalia, but to the region as a whole. The decline in Somali piracy and the setbacks the rebels have suffered has reduced the international focus on the country. It would be a costly mistake if the west walked away from Somalia at this critical juncture.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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