On October 14, 2017, a truck laden with upwards of 700 pounds of explosives detonated in downtown Mogadishu, killing over 587 individuals and injuring hundreds of others. This horrific terrorist attack went largely unnoticed by Western news sources, but the group responsible for this terrifying display of destruction, Al-Shabab, has gained increasing notoriety since becoming recognized as one of the deadliest terrorist groups in the world.
Al-Shabab is a formal al-Qaeda affiliate in the region of east Africa that conducts insurgency operations against the Federal Republic of Somalia. In addition to holding a prominent presence in southern Somalia, Mogadishu, Puntland, Somaliland, and the Juba Valley, Al-Shabab conducts frequent terrorist acts against Kenya and Ethiopia due to their role in upholding the Federal Republic of Somalia. Al-Shabab’s stated goal is to establish an Islamic caliphate over a “Greater Somalia”, including the regions belonging to the states of Kenya and Ethiopia, and to unite all ethnic Somali under strict sharia law. Currently, Al-Shabab has undertaken a large-scale campaign to exploit the withdrawal of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) troops with raids and suicide bombing attacks. These operations are designed to undermine foreign support for the Somalian government. Although the terrorist organization has been ousted from power in its former urban strongholds, Al-Shabab continues to be a pervasive threat in southern Somalia where it is less threatened by the Somalian government and African Union troops.
If the United States wants to reduce the influence of Al-Shabab in Somalia, then it must continue to conduct precise airstrikes on the organization’s leaders and training camps. These solutions will assist the U.S. in crippling the operational capacity of Al-Shabab and allow the Federal Republic of Somalia to consolidate its control over Mogadishu and other government strongholds.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Somali dictator Mohammed Siad Barre lacked the financial capacity to continue his suppressive policies and was forced out of office by rival warlords in the Mogadishu region. In tandem with the lack of political stability within Somalia, al-Ittihad al-Islami (AIAI) and other radical Islamic groups attempted to consolidate power within their respective regions. Although Somalia was able to develop a loose political framework of governance with the the Interim Government of Somalia from 1991 to 1997 under Ali Mahdi Muhammad and the Transitional National Government (TNG) from 2000 to 2004 under Abdiqasim Salad, internal divisions and the exilement of the government gave the AIAI the ability to exploit gaps in government oversight. In addition, the declaration of autonomy by Somaliland and Puntland in the late 1990s caused a strain on the resources that were being used by the Somalian government to combat the AIAI. Somalia’s history of lacking a strong and unilateral source of political authority has severely undermined counterinsurgency operations within the country. Consequently, this unrecognized division of Somalia into three separate autonomous regions and the strengthening of Al-Shabab in southern Somalia have produced the image of Somalia as more of a geographic expression rather than a nation.
A Return From Exile and the Limited Control of the Somalian Government
During the early 2000s, hard-line members of the AIAI broke away from the organization to form Al-Shabab and to pursue the development of a caliphate over a “Greater Somalia” in alliance with the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). In June of 2006, the ICU was able to capture the capital of Mogadishu before members of the Transitional Federal Government in exile, which was founded in 2004 under President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, returned. However, after the ICU and Al-Shabab threatened to initiate a “holy war” against a predominantly Christian Ethiopia, Ethiopia invaded Somalia and forced members of the ICU to flee the capital. Consequently, the Ethiopian state helped install President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed and his Transitional Federal Government (TFG) into power. After Ethiopia’s decision to withdraw troops in 2009, Al-Shabab was able to capture Somali government strongholds such as Baidoa and Kismayo and formally declared an alliance with al-Qaeda in 2010. Although the increase of AMISOM forces and Kenya’s invasion of Somalia in 2011 gave the Somalian government the ability to remove Al-Shabab’s control over the critical port cities of Kismayo and Barawe and other insurgent economic strongholds, the current withdrawal of AMISOM troops has produced the possibility that Al-Shabab can regain strength as it did during the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops in 2009. Attesting to the terrorist group’s strength and access to resources, Al-Shabab’s recent high-scale attacks against Kenya prove that the organization has the capability to exercise its influence domestically and abroad.
The United States recognition of Hassan Sheikh’s administration as the legitimate authority in Somalia in January of 2013 and the successful establishment of the Federal Republic of Somalia in 2012 are promising signs of stability. However, without the continuous targeting of high Al-Shabab leadership through U.S. drone strikes and the presence of AMISOM forces in Mogadishu, Somalia risks collapsing if it is challenged by Al-Shabab.
Buying Time for Somalian Consolidation of Power
If the United States wants to ensure that the Somalian government is able to consolidate enough power to fend of Al-Shabab’s aggression, then it must use drone strikes to eliminate Al-Shabab’s leadership and cause a disruption in the logistical capabilities of the terrorist organization before the complete withdrawal of AMISOM forces.
Al-Shabab is a highly organized terrorist group that is controlled by an emir who appoints a shura to oversee the general operations of the militant organization. After the emir Ahmed Abdi Godane initiated a series of purges of Al-Shabab in 2011, it became apparent that the terrorist organization was becoming more homogenous than it was in the past. By eliminating leaders who did not instate takfiri policies, Godane was able to narrow the focus of Al-Shabab and reduce internal divisions within the group. After Godane’s assassination by a U.S. drone strike in 2014, his successor, Ahmed Umar Abu Ubaida, proceeded to follow the suppressive policies of Godane. As a member of the Amniyat, which is the most conservative sect within Al-Shabab, Ahmed Umar and Godane serve as prime examples of who the United States should target in future operations. By eliminating members of the Amniyat with drone strikes, the U.S. military can facilitate the addition of heterogeneous elements to the group’s ideologies and convolute the logistical and ideological unilateralism of the organization.
In addition to being well-structured, Al-Shabab is well-financed and has access to the training and financial resources of al-Qaeda since its formal declaration of aligning with the organization in 2010. With these resources and the exchange of training by senior al-Qaeda officials, Al-Shabab has been able to develop training camps and prepare its insurgents with the skills necessary to carry out specialized terrorist operations abroad. Consequently, it is essential that the United States increase its drone strike operations against these training camps and disrupt the mobility of the terrorist organization. If the United States wants to ensure that Al-Shabab isn’t able to gain a larger pool of extremist recruits, strikes must be coordinated national government and reduce the likelihood that innocents are harmed. Recent drone strikes against Al-Shabab have targeted individual members of the group and its has been reported that civilians have often become frequent casualties in the U.S. operations against the group.