TSG IntelBrief: The Expanding U.S. Footprint in Somalia
April 11, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front:
• On March 29, President Trump signed an order declaring several parts of Somalia ‘areas of active hostilities,’ allowing the U.S. military to more directly assist Somali government forces in offensive operations against al-Shabaab.
• After a decade of various military operations to counter al-Shabaab, the conflict continues to metastasize and the group retains the intent and capability to conduct international terror attacks.
• The growing operational mandate for U.S. forces in Somalia remains broadly in line with U.S. counterterrorism strategy elsewhere in the region, which emphasizes U.S. Special Operations Forces and air support operating in close concert with local forces.
• There is no sign of plans by the Trump administration to match its military escalation in Somalia with a badly needed humanitarian surge to address the unfolding famine there.
On April 9, a suicide bomber in the Somali capital of Mogadishu killed 17 people in a failed attempt to assassinate the fledgling government’s newly appointed military chief, Ahmed Mohamed Irfid. The bombing demonstrated the enduring ability of al-Shabaab to conduct devastating attacks—even in the heart of the government-controlled Somali capital—highlighting the immense challenge facing the Trump administration as it quietly expands the U.S. military role in the decade-old effort to defeat one of East Africa’s most powerful extremist movements. On March 29, President Trump signed an order declaring several parts of Somalia to be an ‘area of active hostilities.’ The order presents a shift in the U.S. approach to the conflict in Somalia, away from more narrowly focused operations designed to counter the immediate terrorist threat to the U.S.—which previously allowed for strikes only in defense of U.S. or allied forces—to one that allows U.S. troops and airstrikes to more directly assist Somali government forces in offensive operations against al-Shabaab. The order also includes a relaxation on rules meant to reduce civilian casualties, making Somalia the latest theater to witness the apparent expansion of U.S. rules of engagement in the fight against extremist groups.
After a decade of various military operations to counter al-Shabaab—including independent interventions by Kenya and Ethiopia, an African Union peacekeeping mission, extensive American air strikes and special operations missions, and security operations conducted by the country’s fledgling government—the conflict continues to metastasize. While al-Shabaab has lost control in Somalia’s major population centers, the group continues to trade territory in the vast countryside with the myriad forces aligned against it. Furthermore, the conflict retains an international dimension, with al-Shabaab maintaining its links with al-Qaeda and the capability to threaten its neighbors with terror attacks on soft targets. The so-called Islamic State is also looking to make inroads in Somalia as it loses territory elsewhere. The threat of Somali pirates—thought to be dormant after years of international counter-piracy operations—has also made a recent comeback in the Indian Ocean.
The growing operational mandate for U.S. forces in Somalia remains broadly in line with U.S. counterterrorism strategy elsewhere in the region, which emphasizes U.S. Special Operations Forces and air support operating in close concert with local forces. The strategy has been largely successfully in Syria, Iraq, and Libya—while minimizing U.S. casualties—where the Islamic State has lost the majority of its territory to U.S.-backed local forces. The Trump administration appears to have calculated that a similar strategy could be successful in dealing a decisive defeat to al-Shabaab.
Somalia has been in a near-constant state of conflict for 25 years, and the hostilities are once again culminating in a large-scale humanitarian disaster. According to humanitarian agencies, the ongoing drought in East Africa is pushing Somalia to the brink of famine. The rate at which Somalis are fleeing their homes in search of food and water is reaching levels not seen since the 2011 famine, in which around 260,000 people died. Many of the areas hardest hit by the drought are under the control of al-Shabaab, which has banned Western aid agencies for years, effectively cutting off large portions of the country’s population to humanitarian aid. With 2.9 million Somalis in need of urgent humanitarian assistance—and other famines looming in Yemen, South Sudan, and Nigeria—aid agencies estimate that the window of opportunity for the international community to massively upscale aid and avoid an all-out famine in Somalia is only three to four months. Given al-Shabaab’s history of blocking foreign aid, it is not clear that any humanitarian effort to end the famine could be completely successful without extensive fighting to liberate famine struck territory from the terror group.
Currently, there is no sign of plans by the Trump administration to match its military escalation in Somalia with a humanitarian surge to address a possible repeat of the 2011 famine. Indeed, the administration’s proposed cuts to foreign aid and the UN suggest the opposite. Yet without addressing the dire humanitarian crisis in Somalia, it is unlikely that the drivers of radicalization on which groups like al-Shabaab thrive can be addressed. Furthermore, camps for those displaced by the humanitarian crisis remain a major source of recruits for al-Shabaab. As such, any successful U.S. strategy in Somalia must address the humanitarian and security situations in tandem.
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