Political stability presents itself as a question of privilege for a country like Somalia, which has been incessantly plagued by internal conflicts and terrorist activities of the notorious Al-Shabaab. On 5 March, 2016, the United States launched a series of drone airstrikes on an Al-Shabaab training camp in Raso, a town north of Mogadishu. The camp came under attack as it was purportedly recruiting and training fighters against the military forces of both the United States and the African Union (AU). The assault led to 150 casualties, none of them civilians. There have been twelve drone strikes in Somalia since 2003, but the recent strike stands out to be the most effective counterterrorist engagement yet. These drone strikes are used to eliminate al-Shabaab as a threat in order to assist Somalia in hopefully being one step closer to political stability. However, these actions can also be viewed as an opportunity for the United States in redeeming itself in demonstrating to the world that it has the strength and capability to restore order within a failed state.
The drone strikes conducted by the United States continues to generate controversy and harsh public scrutiny. Last month, the Stimson Task Force finished investigating the U.S. Drone Policy, which received an “F” grade for failing to meet and improve the following criteria: releasing information on drone strikes; establishing a proper legal basis under both domestic and international law for using the drone program; and better oversight and accountability for targeted strikes that do not occur within battlefields. The Stimson Task Force criticized the Obama administration for not being transparent in giving more details about drone attacks (i.e. location, death tolls, agency conducting the drone strikes, number and identities of civilians who were killed by drone strikes), and for the lack of official government documents that could provide the details of court orders that sanction the use of the U.S. lethal drone program and its activities. Although the usage of drone strikes has always been up to debate, the views of Somalis themselves do not seem to be heard in expressing their views on how counterterrorist strategies against Al-Shabaab are really effective.
Establishing transparent alliances and maintaining good relations with strong allies remains an essential ingredient to creating the perfect recipe for counterterrorist strategy. Last summer, U.S. President Obama paid a visit to Kenya and discussed the collaboration between the United States and Kenya in organizing counterterrorism efforts in Somalia through training and funding of security forces. Since there is no U.S. embassy in Somalia, the position of U.S. Special Representative for Somalia has been created to operate from the U.S. embassy in Kenya. We never truly recovered from the disastrous outcome of Operation Gothic Serpent, so this diplomatic maneuver is necessary to have some legitimate space for being involved in Somali affairs. Kenyan President Kenyatta agrees with U.S. President Obama and acknowledges the need to reduce the risk of Al-Shabaab’s activities.
In April 2013, Al-Shabaab attacked the campus of Garissa University College in Kenya, resulting in 148 casualties, and in September 2013, sieged the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi for several days, resulting in sixty-seven casualties. Kenya currently has approximately 4,000 troops in Somalia to support AU forces fighting in the region. Combatting terrorism rooted in militant Islamic ideology has proven to be a top priority for both Kenya and the United States. The terror attacks of the Islamic State (ISIS) and the prominent threat that is poses has caused the other African nations to be under the microscope of U.S. counterterrorist policies. Al-Shabaab is indifferent towards ISIS and only focuses on the domestic objective of establishing an Islamic state in Somalia. Although no partnership between ISIS and Al-Shabaab has been recognized, such an alliance would definitely prove to be very worrisome in terms of international security.
Al-Shabaab, which means “the youth” in Arabic, is Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia and operates primarily out of the country’s southern and central regions. It has remained susceptible to clan politics, internal divisions, and shifting alliances. It has been argued that Al-Shabaab is the product of the lack of a stable, central Somali government when former President Barre was exiled in 1991, supporting the notion that strong institutions and a central government is essential to combat the space of extremism and anarchy caused by constant battles amongst several warring clan factions. In addition, the high unemployment rates and the region’s susceptibility to droughts and famines provide some form of steady income and access to food and other forms of aid (sometimes stolen from humanitarian organizations) to Al-Shabaab’s supporters.
Al-Shabaab does not recognize the Somali Federal Government, and maintains a hostile position towards the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeepers and other Western forces for supporting this government. AMISOM has also been affiliated with Ethiopian troops against whom Al-Shabaab still harbors strong resentment due to their constant territorial disputes and interventions. In June 2013, it succeeded in attacking a United Nations compound in Mogadishu, killing twenty-two people. This demonstrates that Al-Shabaab doesn’t formally recognize international organizations, even if their intents are solely for humanitarian assistance. In February 2014, it claimed responsibility for an attack on Somalia’s presidential palace with a car bomb and armed assailants that killed twelve people. This terrorist group has proven to be a relentless non-state actor in undermining Somalian President Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud and has no qualms in attacking international organizations.
Since 2007, AU troops (from Uganda, Burundi, Kenya, Djibouti and other African nations) have been in the country to assist various UN-backed governments to fight Al-Shabaab. This force falls under the AMISOM mandate, which was set up by the United Nations to provide security for the Somali government and reduce Al-Shabaab’s terrorist activities. The funds to support AMISOM’s activities have been paid for mostly by Western governments. Although the role of AMISOM and its intentions are solely for the benefit of Somalia, one cannot help but wonder if these funds provided to them come with strings attached.
Furthermore, there seems to be a constant shift in control of Somali regions between Al-Shabaab and AMISOM. AMISOM has been successful in winning territory originally under Al-Shabaab control and providing support for the Somali government. Yet there have been some instances where Al-Shabaab regained control of certain towns once AU forces pulled out. This seems to reveal that AMISOM lacks the necessary resources to provide proper law enforcement to protect Somali citizens. Nevertheless, AMISOM has been able to put pressure and reduce the threat of Al-Shabaab as a terrorist group, which also succumbs to internal fractures due to grievances over clan politics. The demise of al-Shabaab due to the combination of clan rivalries and external actors is an optimistic proposition that remains to be seen.
On 24 March, 2016, the Security Council voted in favor of extending the mandate of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) until March 2017. Some of the objectives of UNSOM are to be more connected with Somali civil society, establish secure and fair electoral procedures, and review UN presence in Somalia for a smoother transition into the next phase of state-building by the end of January 2017. This proposal sounds lovely and enthusiastic as it sets to create a strong sovereignty within Somalia, but the future will determine whether this mandate will be successful or another failed agenda. This mandate also outlines a comprehensive approach to reduce Al-Shabaab’s threat in accordance with international human rights law, international refugee law and international humanitarian law. But given the recent drone strikes and the lack of transparency as to whether the strikes were legal, it remains to be seen to what extent the mandate holds the United States accountable. Other non-state domestic actors to consider in their relationship towards Al-Shabaab are Somaliland and Puntland. Due to the collapse of former President Barre’s regime, certain clans united themselves and declared an independent Republic of Somaliland (located in northern Somalia) in May 1991. Although not recognized by any government, Somaliland has maintained stability and has established a constitutional democracy. To the east is the neighboring state of Puntland, which declared itself an autonomous state in 1998. It has also made strides in reconstructing a legitimate, representative government. While Somaliland seeks international recognition as an independent sovereignty and Puntland doesn’t, they both seek international support in their secessionist aspirations and resolving border disputes.
In response to the growing threat of Al-Shabaab’s presence within its territory, Puntland launched the Galgala campaign in 2014, which sought to regain some territory that was under Al-Shabaab control and was eventually successful. Although Somaliland denied supporting Al-Shabaab, it was reported that Puntland security officials found Somaliland banknotes in the pockets of Al-Shabaab members. Whether this is true or not, it is vital for the Somali Federal Government to collaborate with both states in order to gain more support in eradicating Al-Shabaab and to prevent further civil disputes in the future.
One solution to resolving this crisis of terror in Somalia may be through a proper reconciliation process. By meeting with both the leaders and members of Al-Shabaab, the Somali government and international actors could gain a deeper insight into the mindset of what makes Al-Shabaab so appealing. The actions of Al-Shabaab and the self-declared states of Somaliland and Puntland demonstrate the strong disconnect between the Somali Federal Government and Somali citizens. Kenneth Menkhaus, a political science professor at Davidson College, provides a great synopsis the situation in Somalia: “the Horn of Africa presents extraordinarily complex political and security dilemmas, for which there’s no obvious answer. The question really is which is the least bad choice, and how can you kick open doors which, down the road, could present opportunities for conflict resolution.” Fighting terror with terror seems to provoke aggressive military reactions and further failures in establishing peace in Somalia. Given the history of its past military interventions and further uncertainty as to how to create Somalia a peaceful nation, stability seems like an idea of a perfect utopia that will never be accomplished.