Conflict event levels and reported fatalities fell slightly in Somalia in January. While violence overall has witnessed a gradual decline since a peak in July 2013, this has been punctuated by upswings in violence, and a concomitant increase in reported fatalities, suggesting an intensification of violent conflict (see Figure 1). In January 2013, there were approximately 1.2 reported fatalities per violent event in Somalia, a ratio which remained relatively stable until May 2014 (1.7), June 2014 (2.7) and October 2014 (2.7).
Figure 1: Conflict Event Levels by Type and Reported Fatalities in Somalia, January 2013 to January 2015
Most of the volatility and the gradual increase in fatality numbers can be attributed to an escalation in high-intensity attacks by Al Shabaab. In spite of the considerable ground gained by the Federal Government and allied forces since the major offensive of August 2011 (BBC News, 20 January 2012). Al Shabaab has been responsible for a relatively stable share (approximately one-quarter) of violence in Somalia annually, ranging between a low of 21.1% in 2013, to 26.6% the following year.
The intensity and nature of that violence, and the environment in which it is carried out, however, has transformed dramatically. First, Al Shabaab has escalated its use of violence against civilians. 2013 and 2014 saw sustained growth in the absolute levels of both anti-civilian violence (including the use of remote violence), and associated fatalities. This escalation is reflected in the fact that Al Shabaab is responsible for an increasing share of all anti-civilian violence: in January 2014, Al Shabaab violence against civilians accounted for 16.2% of all civilian targeting; a year later, it more than doubled its share, accounting for over one-third (36%). While the share of violence targeted at civilians overall has remained relatively stable in the Somali context, Al Shabaab’s share has increased, suggesting the declining use of this strategy by other actors, and the increasing emphasis Al Shabaab has placed on this engagement with non-combatants.
There has also been a significant shift in the locations of anti-civilian violence attributed to Al Shabaab. Incidents of anti-civilian violence have increased both in frequency, and in their geographic spread: in the first months of 2014, anti-civilian violence was carried out in a relatively limited number of locations, with a proliferation of sites of civilian targeting over time, with a move away from the concentration of violence in select locations. There are some parallels between these patterns and Al Shabaab’s strategy more broadly: there has been an overarching increase in the sites and frequency of violence by the group (including in clashes with other armed actors), with less violence concentrated in previous strongholds, and more violence, but less repetitive cycles of violence, in new sites. Nevertheless, there are several locations in which violence against civilians and battles do not overlap: this indicates that the group are not targeting civilians exclusively in contexts of contest with other armed actors, and that deliberate targeting of civilians is an active strategy, particularly in the regions of Lower Juba, Hiiraan and Gedo, where there is the least overlap between sites of battles and anti-civilian violence.
The nature and targets of anti-civilian violence by Al Shabaab have been diverse and varied, with political figures and clan elders both within and outside of territory of their control being targeted, as well as seemingly opportunistic violence associated with predatory attacks and looting of communities and vehicles. Two prominent forms of violence centre around the transfer of territory, however, including:
Targeted attacks on civilians accused of espionage: Al Shabaab continues to detain, beat and in some cases publicly execute non-combatants accused of espionage or collaboration with the Federal Government and allied forces (BBC News, 7 January 2015). This kind of violence has long been a characteristic of the ways in which Al Shabaab has sought to control and police its population, but there is evidence to suggest that it escalates when the group is under territorial pressure.
Indiscriminate attacks on civilians in high-intensity bombings: In areas re-seized from Al Shabaab, the group has used indiscriminate violence against civilians, for instance in crowded marketplaces or tea shops, as a way of destabilising areas nominally outside their control, but in which they still retain operating capacity, and the ability to destabilise the regime.
These dynamics point to the fact that anti-civilian violence does not occur in a vacuum: beyond the direct impact battles between armed groups may have on civilians’ welfare, dynamics of wider instability can also fuel anti-civilian violence. Figure 2 highlights the correlation between battles between Al Shabaab and other forces in which territory is exchanged, and subsequent spikes in violence against civilians (excluding remote violence) in five key regions. Although battles over territory do not precede, and therefore cannot explain, all anti-civilian violence by the group in these regions, spikes in battles over territory are typically followed by subsequent spikes in violence against civilians.
Figure 2: Conflict Event Levels by Type, Al Shabaab, January 2010 – January 2015
BBC News, 20 January 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-16646311, accessed 9 February 2015.
BBC News, 7 January 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-30715842, accessed 9 February 2015.