Countering Al-Shabaab’s Terrorist Operations in Somalia and Eastern Africa: The International Cooperation Imperative
Harakat Al–Shabaab Al–Mujahideen, also known as Al Shabaab, a Somalian-based extremist organization, continues to exploit Somalia’s weak state structure and attack civilians and military personnel by deploying new guerilla tactics. Two current policies aiming to counter Al Shabaab’s activities in Somalia involve US drone strikes and offensive operations conducted by the African Union peace support mission in Somalia (AMISOM). While these policies have eliminated some of Al Shabaab’s strongholds, they have not affected this organization’s short-term and long-term capabilities, including its financial revenues. This paper outlines three counter-terrorism policy recommendations capable of degrading Al Shabaab’s presence in Somalia, and explains why only one of them constitutes a truly effective strategic solution capable of eliminating the group’s presence in the East African region.
Keywords: Somalia, Al Shabaab, Counter-Terrorism, AMISOM, United States of America, Illicit Financing
The fundamental strategic objective of Al Shabaab (‘the Youth’), a Somalian-based extremist insurgent organization that pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda in 2012, is to establish a fundamentalist Islamic State in the Horn of Africa (Marchal and Sheikh, 2015). Al-Shabab’s forerunner and trainer of many of its leaders was al-Ittihad al-Islami (AIAI, or “Unity of Islam”), a militant group active in the 1990s, after the fall of Said Barre’s 1969–1991 regime and the outbreak of civil war (Felter, Masters and Sergie, 2020). Al Shabaab’s primary domestic goals are to topple the Somalian government, to eliminate foreign interventions, and to impose Sharia law in Somalia. Its operations span both the northern and the southern parts of Somalia and employ guerilla-style tactics. Al Shabaab has controlled at one point or another more than 25% of Somalia’s territory, and continues to engage in illicit activities such as kidnapping, extortion of local businesses and farmers, as well as piracy to fund its terrorist activities (Felter, Masters and Sergie, 2020).
Al Shabaab has been particularly adept at exploiting the turbulent conditions created in Somalia by the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to the low-intensity attacks carried out by the group in Southern Somalia, there is a fear amongst local government officials that the militant group is exploiting the current weakness of state structures, exacerbated by the ongoing health crisis, to recruit more fighters and to gain more support, especially through the use of social media (West, 2020). Furthermore, the Somalian government’s inability to counter the humanitarian situation caused by the current pandemic is accentuating its delegitimization in the eyes of its constituents. It is vital to the government’s survival to disrupt Al Shabaab’s routine attacks on Somalian citizens, military personnel, as well as external partners involved in combating the threat posed by this terrorist group. Although the Somalian National Army, backed by AMISOM, the US, the EU, Turkey and the UAE, has successfully conducted a number of operations against the militant group, it has not managed to destroy its capacity to mount military operations and to continue perpetrating deadly attacks on high value targets (Szuba, 2020).
The Inefficiency of Ongoing Anti-terrorist Policies in Somalia
The United States and AMISOM are currently conducting offensive operations to counter Al Shabaab’s insurgency. US strategy against Al Shabaab in Somalia involves military operations targeting territories held by the militant group (Cannon, 2020). The US Counter-Terrorism Missions in Somalia involves the use of drone and air strikes to degrade and destroy the organization’s assets. These strikes have been instrumental in enabling the Somalian National Army to eliminate the militant group’s presence in major population centers (Cannon, 2020: 778).
Despite these setbacks, Al Shabaab continues to hold on to remaining strongholds in the southern and central regions of Somalia, specifically in the capital city of Mogadishu. According to the former National Security Advisor to the Somali President, Hussein Sheikh – Ali, the current airstrike policy is ineffective because military strategies alone cannot eliminate Al Shabaab’s short term or long-term capabilities (Bearak, 2020). Depriving this terrorist group of its territories does not stop it from engaging in criminal activities, thus allowing it to fund its ongoing armed operations. As a result, it is imperative to target the militant group’s sources of revenue as well. A UN Security Council panel recently stated that US military operations against Al Shabaab do not degrade the group’s operational capacities and its ideological propaganda network (Lederer, 2020). Most importantly, these methods do not appear to target or manage to disrupt any of the illicit financing schemes undertaken by Al Shabaab. According to UN experts, Al Shabaab reportedly raised 21 million dollars to spend on fighters, weapons, and intelligence (Lederer, 2020). Thus, it appears vital to disrupt the organization’s cash flow in order to weaken its activities. The fate of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (‘Daesh’) regime in the Middle East is an example worth emulating of a recent counter-terrorist mission that targeted such a group’s financial resources. According to Clarke Collin and Williams Phil, a multinational counter Daesh coalition known as the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF – OIR) conducted operations that targeted the militant group’s oil production. This operation reduced Daesh’s oil production operations from 45,000 barrels to 34,000 barrels per day (Colin and Williams, 2018: 32). However, similar airstrikes in Somalia tragically cause civilian deaths. According to the Airwars database, US airstrikes alone have resulted in at least 15 Somalian civilian casualties (Turse, 2020). This database, which incorporates local and international news reports, notes that since 2007 72 to 145 civilians have been killed by US air and ground attacks (Turse, 2020).
AMISOM’s policy against Al Shabaab in Somalia involves conducting a variety of sustained offensive operations. Under the UN Security Council Resolution 2372, AMISOM is entrusted with key security responsibilities in Somalia. In view of this, AMISOM provides critical support to the Somalian government by upgrading the country’s security institutions, including the Somalian National Army, and its capacity to fight against Al Shabaab (Dessu, 2021). AMISOM, US troops and the Somalian National Army, are conducting joint offensive operations against the militant group to liberate territories it occupies. As an example, at the beginning of 2020, the Somalian National Army backed by the African Union and US forces conducted a joint operation named Operation Badbaado to secure rural areas in Mogadishu. This managed to disrupt Al Shabaab’s operational capabilities specifically in the town of Janaale, which was one of the highest revenue generation centers of the militant group (African Union forces highlight, 2020).
Despite its successful offensive operations, AMISOM is in the process of transferring security responsibilities to the Somalian security forces so that it can significantly reduce its presence in Somalia (Hartwig, 2019). As a result of this new policy, AMISOM withdrew 1000 troops from the African country at the beginning of 2020 (Szuba, 2020). Even though the Somalian National Army managed, with AMISOM’s assistance, to capture Al Shabaab-held territories, the militant group nevertheless recaptured these very same areas because the Somalian National Army was incapable of holding on to them after AMISOM’s departure. This reveals the Somalian National Army’s ineffectiveness in establishing and maintaining control of its own country due to its lack of fighting capacities and its reliance on international assistance (Felbab-Brown, 2020).
The United States has also withdrawn an estimated 700 troops from Somalia in January 2021. This comes at the worst possible time for Somalia, as Al Shabaab currently again engages in targeting civilian and military targets in Mogadishu (Anna, 2021). This further diminished the Somalian National Army’s effectiveness, as the US had been assisting AMISOM and the Somalian National Army to engage in critically necessary aerial surveillance of Al Shabaab activities (Plan to withdraw US soldiers, 2020). A similar withdrawal of AMISOM troops from Somalia would leave Somalia entirely unprotected. Thus, it is vital that foreign troops remain in Somalia and not leave the country until the Somalian government is fully capable of using its resources to fight Al Shabaab effectively. However, in the face of reduced international assistance in the future and in the eventuality that AMISOM decides to transfer security responsibilities to the Somalian government, it is vital for the Somalian National Army to immediately train its personnel to develop its offensive and defensive operational capabilities.
Three Policy Options
One policy option available to the Somalian government is to use drone strikes on territories that Al Shabaab occupies, whilst the US continues to conduct light military operations in the country. This would include the deployment of precision airstrikes from drones, of fixed-wing aircraft, and of helicopters (Jones, Liepman and Chandler, 2016: 39). The Somalian government should work to capture terrorists, free hostages, and seize supplies for the purpose of intelligence collection (Jones, Liepman and Chandler, 2016: 39). Drone strikes have accounted for the death of a significant number of Al Shabaab militants. As an example, in 2018, the US conducted drone strikes which killed 62 militants in Somalia (MMP: Al Shabaab, 2019). In the aftermath of the airstrikes conducted by the United States at the beginning of 2020, Air Force Major Karl Wiest, a spokesman for AMISOM, said that airstrikes have disrupted Al Shabaab’s ability to plot and carry out attacks and have impacted the group’s command and control functions (Snow, 2020). Because Al Shabaab has shifted its focus from rural areas to urban centers so as to mitigate the airstrikes conducted by US forces and to exploit cities for financial purposes such as the extortion of businesses, this policy should now consider the careful targeting of urban centers as well (Snow, 2020).
A second policy option is for the Somalian government to partner with the United States to target Al Shabaab’s financing methods. As Al Shabaab uses its finances for recruitment and training purposes, as well as for the purchase of weapons, it is vital that the US turns its attention towards degrading Al Shabaab’s capacity to finance its terrorist operations. Initially, Al Shabaab was in control of the major port facilities of Kismayo and Barawe, from which it derived its major source of income (Keatinge, 2014: 6). The group gained much needed revenue through the collection of taxes at these seaports (Keatinge, 2014: 9). However, ever since the Somalian government took back control of these port cities, the militant group has found new sources of revenue. Al Shabaab resorted to extorting businesses in Kismayo, collecting taxes on imports into the port of Mogadishu, and receiving remittances from abroad. Further, they also continue to collect profits from “Zakat”, a religious obligation fulfilled by Muslims, where an individual donates a certain amount of their wealth to a charitable cause (Lederer, 2020). The US could also assist the Somalian government to disrupt Al Shabaab’s financing operations in four specific ways. First, the US could work to assist the Somalian authorities to interdict taxation and extortion and to help authorities to establish legal frameworks to protect whistleblowers (Lal, 2018: 186). In this way, civilians would be able to provide vital information about terrorist fighters without the fear of being caught by the militant group. Second, law enforcement could work to reveal the criminal pursuits of Al Shabaab to the civilian population. Civilians usually support terrorist groups for their ideological beliefs or religious objectives. Exposing the criminal pursuits of Al Shabaab would persuade local populations to distance themselves from terrorist recruiters and refuse to assist them in gathering revenue. Third, law enforcement units could conduct raids to capture terrorists and to seize Al Shabaab supplies for the purpose of intelligence collection. These supplies could assist the Somalian government to better target the militant group’s financing methods (Jones, Liepman and Chandler, 2016). Lastly, law enforcement could work to counter the Somalian diaspora’s support towards Al – Shabaab’s activities (Levy and Yusuf, 2019: 8). By pursuing these four strategic pathways, Somalian law enforcement agencies could eventually manage to successfully disrupt Al Shabaab’s capacity to extort businesses and to collect taxes from civilians as well as from key port cities, such as Mogadishu (Lal, 2018).
The third policy option would be for the Somalian government to expedite the training of the Somalian National Army as well as of local tribal and clan forces, with the assistance of AMISOM and of the United States. This approach would also provide advice and assistance to local forces in how to effectively combat the militant group. According to the Daily Sabah, the Somalian National Army lacks a national security architecture (Waal, 2019). This policy would aim to train the Somalian national army, police and intelligence agencies to counter the militant group as part of a comprehensive strategic security structure. Many Somali local communities have lost any trust in the Somalian National Army because of its reputed unreliability in preserving Somalia’s national security. This results from existing rivalries between Somalia’s federal government and its federal member states. This rivalry hinders the capabilities and effectiveness of the Somalian National Army when countering Al Shabaab (Felbab-Brown, 2020). Implementing this policy is thus vital, as Somalia is unlikely to continue receiving international assistance, especially from AMISOM and the US, in the near future. In the likely eventuality of the withdrawal of foreign troops, the Somalian National Army as well as the police force and intelligence forces must be adequately trained to respond on their own to the challenges posed by the militant group.
This paper proposes that the United States and Somalia focus on increasing their efforts to counter Al Shabaab’s terrorist financing methods. According to the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee, terrorist financing not only threatens the security of the world organization’s member states in general, but also specifically undermines Somalia’s economic development and the stability of its financial markets (Terrorist Financing, n.d.). With a powerful militant group like Al Shabaab operating in different regions of the country, it is vital to obstruct the flow of funds to this terrorist organization. According to several interviews conducted with former fighters, achieving financial security is a major reason for their involvement with Al Shabaab (Keatinge, 2014: 27). Unlike the other two options outlined above, carrying out this recommended policy would, in the long-term, help to combat the recruitment of new fighters, which is a vital goal towards the weakening of the militant group (Keatinge, 2014). Compared to the first and third approach, the second pathway denotes a better overall counterterrorism strategy which would assist to combat Al Shabaab not just in Somalia, but across all of East Africa. Furthermore, targeting Al Shabaab’s terrorist financing operations would encourage and assist other regional governments to counter terrorist financing schemes in their countries as well.
US efforts to target Al Shabaab’s terrorist financing methods constitute a better counter terrorism strategy than US aistrikes operations, for the following reasons. First, US airstrikes are counter-productive because, when employed in the past, they forced Al Shabaab fighters to alter their tactics and move from rural to urban areas to conduct their activities. If the US were to continue drone strikes in urban regions, this would lead to higher civilian casualties and related collateral damage. This would only exacerbate the current problem of civilian fatalities in Somalia. Thus, this policy is not operationally effective, as urban regions provide a high degree of protection to the terrorist group’s members. Second, airstrikes alone would not help disrupt the group’s propaganda network. The militant group prefers urban regions not only to mitigate the effects of US airpower, but also because of the financial benefits they derive from functioning in such a dense socio-economic environment. Al Shabaab is better able to exploit the large number of civilians living in the urban regions than those located in more rural areas. Therefore, the first policy discussed in the previous section, which includes carrying out drone strikes, is not the optimal way to proceed. However, targeting the group’s financial methods is a highly recommended approach, as it would also combat the group’s propaganda in the long run (Snow, 2020).
The third policy discussed previously is also suboptimal, for the following reasons. First, it calls for the urgent training of the Somalian National Army, intelligence agencies, and law enforcement. Even though this policy focuses on upgrading the capacities of the Somalian National Army, law enforcement agencies, and intelligence practitioners to counter the militant group, it is unlikely that this would happen in time for the pending withdrawal of key international actors, such as the US and AMISOM, that have been providing Somalia until now with constant financial, logistical, and military support. The Somalian President recently tweeted “The US military support to Somalia has enabled us to effectively combat Al Shabaab and secure the Horn of Africa. A victory through this journey and for Somali – US partnership can only be achieved through continuous security partnership and capacity building support” (Plan to withdraw US soldiers, 2020). The US has approximately 600 to 800 US troops in Somalia that work with AMISOM and the Somalian National Army to combat Al Shabaab. The US specifically assists with aerial surveillance to counter the terrorist group’s activities. Whilst it is possible to train the army and law enforcement agencies to combat the militants somewhat more effectively, in time for the transfer of security operations from AMISOM, this process will take a longer period of time to be fully implemented (Plan to withdraw US soldiers, 2020). While training is important in the long term, it is vital for Somalia to prioritize its efforts to aid the US to target Al Shabaab’s financing methods, which would ultimately severely weaken the group.
Challenges in implementing the recommended policy approach
One of the major challenges to implementing the second policy is the corruption prevalent in the Somalian state institutions and the lack of trained law enforcement personnel willing and able to detect and prosecute criminals. Corruption permeates the government of Somalia to the extent that Al Shabaab itself has succeeded in gaining access to governmental institutions. Its members have infiltrated government agencies due to the country’s feeble state structure. Somalia has a weak political representation of its citizens, poorly trained law enforcement officers and inept judicial systems, all of which constitute breeding grounds for militant groups. This is partly due to the rivalries between the country’s geographical regions. These rivalries create crises that switch the government’s focus from problems arising from extremism to combating internal political emergencies. Thus, illicit activities such as taxing residents and extorting businesses are easier to conduct as civilians are vulnerable and receive no protection from their own government (Lal, 2018). The absence of human security in the region thus makes local residents vulnerable to criminal activities. For instance, in the past, terrorist groups such as the Haqqani network in the Afghan – Pakistan region, the Daesh in Syria and Iraq and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have taken advantage of the lack of security in the regions where they operate (Lal, 2018: 187).
Another possible challenge to implementing the policy recommended by this paper is the difficulty of detecting international funds flowing to Al Shabaab. The current scope of the international financial sector enables terrorist groups to blend in and execute transactions by using sophisticated methods, thus remaining anonymous when it comes to the international transfer of money. For instance, an individual in the State of Missouri can collect money from the Somalian diaspora and use a variety of licensed money services to remit the money to support Al Shabaab in Somalia. This was actually carried out by using false identification and by avoiding any paper trails (Emerging Finance Terrorist Risks, 2015: 9). It is a challenge to combat this problem as terrorists succeed in resorting to alternative methods when policies become established on fighting current financing methods.
Al Shabaab has been responsible for numerous attacks not only in Somalia, but also in the surrounding states located in the Horn of Africa. Somalia’s weak state structure has provided a fertile breeding ground for the militant groups to flourish. Corruption and the lack of timely intelligence data and of human security have enabled Al Shabaab to infiltrate governmental institutions in Somalia. Furthermore, this militant group has taken advantage of the generalised lack of security in the country to expand their ideology to the rest of the vulnerable civilian population. One current strategy deployed by the United States to combat Al Shabaab in Somalia relies on the use of airstrikes. However, this has led to a unacceptably high number of civilian casualties and is thus deemed an ineffective and counterproductive approach. Another policy currently undertaken by AMISOM and the Somalian National Army consists in conducting offensive operations targeting Al Shabaab-held territory. Furthermore, AMISOM aims to transfer security responsibilities to the Somalian National Army by the end of 2021. The US also plans on withdrawing its troops from the region as well. Such policies would be severely damaging for the Somalian state as the Somalian National Army is incapable of holding recaptured territories previously held by the militant group. This is due to their lack of training to operate effectively without the assistance of international actors. While different policies currently work to eliminate and weaken Al Shabaab, none of them target this organization’s terrorist financing methods. Thus, the policy this paper recommends as having the potential to be the most successful is to target Al Shabaab’s financing methods. This would significantly degrade the group’s capacities to carry out propaganda indoctrinations, to purchase weapons and to recruit new fighters. Furthermore, this policy would aim to protect civilian populations which would disrupt Al Shabaab’s pool of potential supporters and new members. This policy represents one important step towards the weakening of Al Shabaab in the entire East African region.
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