Fears of new Tora Bora in northern Somalia: Shebab bolster mountain bases
MOGADISHU - Somalia's Al-Qaeda linked Shebab insurgents are on the back foot, reeling from a string of losses as they battle a 17,000-strong African Union force as well as Ethiopian troops and Somali forces.
But while the extremist movement is badly damaged a hard core remain a potent threat, linking up with regional Islamist groups and leaving operatives to launch attacks across the south, analysts warn.
And, like Afghanistan's Taliban fighters who retreated to the rugged Tora Bora mountains to lick their wounds and later regroup in strength, the fighters are pulling back to their own mountain bases in the northern Galgala region.
The Shebab, who were long active mainly in southern and central Somalia, have increasingly switched to guerrilla tactics after abandoning fixed positions in the war-torn capital Mogadishu last year.
But as the fighters flee a series of once powerful strongholds -- including most recently the strategic and lucrative southern port of Kismayo -- Galgala in the northern Golis mountains has provided refuge.
"There are several hundreds of Al-Shebab fighters including senior leaders in the Galgala area," said Abdiweli Mohamed Suldan, a Galgala elder.
"Most of them have entered the area in the last couple of months... many join every day heavily armed with machine guns," he added.
Matt Bryden, former head of the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, now head of the Sahan Research thinktank, calls the Shebab a "broken movement", but warns fighters are shifting north to Galgala with cells left behind in the south and in towns.
While those in rural areas are tired of the grim cycles of war, drought and hunger they've faced since the collapse of government in 1991, vast areas in the south also offer refuge for the fighters.
But the bolstering of bases in the northern mountains -- under longtime control of warlord, arms dealer and Shebab ally Mohamed Said Atom, on UN Security Council sanctions for "kidnapping, piracy and terrorism" -- suggests the Shebab are far from collapse.
"This is not the end of Al-Shebab... they were in this situation before when they were fighting the Ethiopians," said EJ Hogendoorn of the International Crisis Group (ICG), referring to Addis Ababa's US-backed invasion in 2006.
"Their strategy is to go back to an insurgency and asymmetrical attacks."
The Golis mountains, straddling the porous border between the autonomous state of Puntland and self-declared independent Somaliland, is honeycombed with caves and difficult to access.
"It is a good area for those wanting to hide out, and there are several training camps already established for the fighters," said Mohamed Haji Sugule, a resident in Galgala, some 50 kilometres (40 miles) south of the port of Bossaso.
"We hear that senior leaders who fled southern Somalia arrived a few weeks before Kismayo was taken," he added.
Puntland forces battled Atom's troops in 2010-2011, damaging his militia force but failing to crush the militants, and the Shebab have since bolstered the fighters in the region.
"We have taken control of key areas and besieged Galgala itself killing many of the militants last year, but now they want to regroup," said Colonel Jama Said, a senior Puntland military official.
Senior Shebab commander Sheikh Ibrahim Mohamed declined to name which commanders were in the region -- potentially several of whom the US have offered multi-million dollar bounties for -- but praised the people of Galgala.
"They have opposed the apostate proxy administration of the infidels, and God willing, they will continue defending their religion and land from the invaders," Mohamed said.
Many of the Shebab's foot soldiers -- who joined due to fear or for opportunistic reasons -- are likely to abandon the force, the ICG's Abdirashid Hashi suggested.
But that still leaves at least several hundred "who are diehard Al-Qaeda types with a transnational agenda," Hashi warned.
Bryden has previously noted links between the hard core of extremists Islamist groups in Kenya and Tanzania, as well the Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
"Galgala is still number one hideout option for Al-Qaeda in Somalia and there are also foreign fighters training the Somali militants," said Warsame Adan, a Puntland security official, while claiming the forces would be defeated.