When Al-Shabaab militants attacked a village in Ba'adweyn town in Somalia’s central region of Mudug on Wednesday last week, they probably thought their gruesome reputation made it easy pickings.
They wanted the local pastoralists to pay zakawaat (Islam taxes) in money and livestock.
The herders would hear none of it. They also resented that the Jihadi group wanted to set up new bases in their area. They couldn’t accept this.
Youth from the area took up arms to defend their land and livestock and were soon joined by forces of the Somali National Army (SNA).
In the fierce three-hour battle that ensued, the Shabaab militants were trounced and pushed out of the area. 16 of the extremists were killed and 20 others injured.
It was one of the cases fed-up locals in Somalia have stood their ground. But the resistance demonstrated – if nothing else, how grassroots uprisings forge their own freedom.
The herders lost 10 people but fought on their own terms. Though it was with army support, I thought they should be celebrated. I hope the victory keeps the extremists forever at bay.
Things are however not so simple. While the Somali Army is gaining in capacity, its capability is still not where it should be to effectively counter the Jihadi group.
Also, the UN-backed African multinational force, AMISOM, is not in every area to secure the country. The 22,000 Amisom soldiers and police are just not enough.
The Jihadists will therefore likely come back to Mudug, perhaps with more force. There are several reasons this is so, one of them being that Covid-19 has affected their sources of income.
Keen observers note how lockdowns have deprived them of revenue from taxation or extortion and reduced their access to vital supplies such as food, medicine, money and weapons.
Besides, the Jihadists will not just be looking at what they might loot from the herders; they also have their demented reputation to keep. The humiliating loss to the herders is not an example they would want to be emulated.
They may want to come back and brutally subjugate the locals. This will impose a climate of fear, which the extremists use to manage compliance from the communities they terrorise and extort.
Another of their tools is the headline-grabbing attacks they can muster. Their defeat at Mudug is not what they would like to stay long in the headlines.
Add to this the attention Covid-19 responses are receiving in the news, which has diminished the Shabaab’s visibility in the media.
Experts observe that with the international and national focus sharply on Covid-19, the terrorist organisation is unable to draw media attention to its activities, thus potentially minimising its impact and relevance.
Thus the group’s attempt to remind the world they are still there with the hours-long siege last Sunday at Elite Hotel in Mogadishu in which close to 20 people died.
It is all part of the act that causing undue suffering and unnecessary taking of human life to make a point is not an issue to them.
So far more than 4,000 local civilians have been killed in al-Shabab attacks since 2010, but the figures may be more than ten thousand.
It is however not all one-sided. The Shabaab have also suffered significant losses. An estimated 1,364 to 1,662 militants, for instance, had been killed by US drone and aircraft strikes as of last month. This includes a number of their leaders.
Amisom, together with the Somali army and local allies has made other debilitating scores such as sacking the group out of the lucrative towns of Kismayo and Barawe.
Al-Shabab’s territorial control is now described as fluid, though it still maintains control mostly over parts of southern and central Somalia, where it failed to bring the herders under its ambit.
And they are cowards. When pursued, it has been observed that the group typically flees an area ahead of an Amisom offensive.
Experts however say that the UN-backed forces do not have the capacity to hold recaptured territory and note the militants usually return.
It also doesn’t help that the central government and federated states struggle to administer territory and provide basic services, weaknesses Al-Shabaab continues to exploit.