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Key military defeats could end al-Shabab control in Somalia

Published Jun. 2, 2012

NAIROBI, Kenya — With the loss of two transit points, al-Qaida's Somali affiliate is facing what military analysts say is the likely end of the group's once-powerful rule over much of Somalia.

The future of al-Shabab, as the affiliate is known, is still difficult to predict, but military analysts say its hold on Kismayo, the port city through which its supplies move and from which it derives much of its financing, is threatened. The fall of the two transit points has already cut off key al-Shabab supply routes to its western and northern fronts.

The most recent blow came Thursday, when Kenyan and allied Somali forces captured the strategic crossroads of Afmadow, about 60 miles north of Kismayo. That followed the Shabab defeat last week at Afgooye, which fell to African Union troops from Uganda and Burundi pushing west from Somalia's battered capital, Mogadishu.

Al-Shabab once controlled nearly all of southern and central Somalia, but that territory has dwindled steadily in the past year. African Union forces pushed al-Shabab out of Mogadishu last August. Then Kenya launched a surprise invasion from the west in October. Ethiopian troops soon followed, pushing south across their own border with Somalia.

Kenya has long indicated that its end objective is to push al-Shabab out of Kismayo, the southern port city that is al-Shabab's most lucrative and important possession. Military strategists say there's no way to take the city without first capturing Afmadow, a town of 50,000.

"It's a commercial hub for almost the entire region," said Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamed, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi and a Somali analyst. With it under Kenyan control, al-Shabab's hold is crumbling, he said.

"Basically, the entire al-Shabab-controlled area is under siege," Abdisamed said. "If you combine all those forces, the days of al-Shabab are numbered."

When the end might arrive, however, is unclear. Multiple sources said al-Shabab had abandoned Afmadow without a fight and had set up a new defensive position on the road halfway between Afmadow and Kismayo at a place called Birta Dheer.

What happens if al-Shabab loses Kismayo is also unclear. Analysts foresee competing interests that include Somalia's many clans and subclans, the politics of the neighboring countries whose troops are now inside Somalia, and the often self-serving interests of the country's political elite, now operating out of Mogadishu.