Accessing the Al Shabaab heartland

As a public opinion research agency specializing in complex and challenging environments ORB International often finds that the locations of greatest interest to our clients are also the most dangerous and difficult for us to access. Such was the case with the Somali seaport town of Kismayo, which until 2011 was a stronghold for al Shabaab, the militant Islamist group behind the recent Westgate mall attack in Nairobi.

Since AMISOM (African Union Mission in Somalia) troops drove al Shabaab out of Kismayo the political and security situation has remained highly volatile.  Large revenues are generated through the port, and benefit whoever controls it; Kismayo therefore remains a strategically important town and control of it is contested by local factions (Ras Kamboni), the Somali government as well as interested foreign actors such as Kenya and AMISOM.

In April of 2013 when ORB was preparing to launch a new project for an international client, it was made very clear that Kismayo was a high priority for them and they requested that we make every effort to get interview teams and qualitative research teams into the town to collect data on public opinion on a variety of topics such attitudes towards al Shabaab, general security, the Somali Federal Government and security forces, among others.

During the first wave of quantitative research, we trained up a small team in Mogadishu, comprised of a Fieldwork Manager and several supervisors, ready to deploy to Kismayo.  However, the timing was unfortunate and on several occasions as they prepared to travel to Kismayo the Kenyan Defense Forces (who were in control of Kismayo airport and were coming under regular mortar and rocket fire from al Shabaab fighters in the area) would close the airport and thwart our attempts to get our personnel on the ground.  Driving remains out of the question as security could not be guaranteed. Unfortunately we had to exclude Kismayo from that round of polling.  By May the situation had settled down somewhat and for the first time ever we were able to send a moderator from Mogadishu to Kismayo. With great trepidation Mohamud boarded his flight to Kismayo.  It had been nearly 20 years since he had last visited Kismayo and he was astonished by the extent to which the previously thriving seaport town had decayed. Even compared to Mogadishu, which is known for bearing the scars of decades of fighting and absence of governance, Kismayo was evidently a place that had 
suffered greatly from the ravages of neglect and violence, largely cut off from the rest of the world.

Working together with our local partners Mohamud managed to recruit respondents and conduct a series of focus groups. As far as we know this was the first public opinion research ever to take place in Kismayo.

The research findings confirmed what we had been hearing anecdotally from those who had visited Kismayo in the past few years; life in Kismayo is harder than ever. Some described it as an “open air prison”; there was no literal barrier obstructing the passage in and out of the town, but with rival militias controlling different areas in and around the town, safe movement was impossible and so many just remained where they were. Unemployment is high and many families lack the means to provide for their children.  Meanwhile local residents live in fear of being caught up in fighting between local militias and AMISOM, and even being attacked in their own homes.

“Last night a women was kidnapped from her home by armed men while her husband was watching helplessly.” –Kismayo, male, 25-35

While the majority of focus group participants indicated that they trust the Somali Federal Government there was a common perception that it needs to be stronger and may lack the capability to effectively tackle al Shabaab or maintain control of any ground outside of Mogadishu.  Whilst most were glad al Shabaab were no longer in control, some expressed the view that while they do not support al Shabaab’s extremist agenda, the group was at least able to effectively enforce law and order and when they were in control crime was low.

“People did not worry about their security when al Shabaab were here.” –Kismayo, female, 25-35

As of October 2013 ORB has again sent a team to Kismayo, this time to conduct a quantitative survey asking local residents about their attitudes towards the Somali Federal Government, local leaders and the role of AMISOM troops in providing security and supporting the peace process.

Non-confidential intelligence reports: