War Weary Somalia

Photo source: New York Times

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

In the fight against extremism, the United States deployed thousands of troops in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, a move that resulted in a crushing failure. But, in places like Somalia, the United States turned to a different playbook. They favoured spies, special operation raids, and drone strikes, instead of troop deployment. The mission was to hunt al-Qaeda fugitives, which later expanded to fighting Al-Shabaab, the most dangerous of al-Qaeda affiliates. Now, with time, this playbook is also failing.

Al-Shabaab has been strongest in Somalia for years. They roam the countryside, bomb cities, run an undercover state, make extortion rackets, and demand parallel taxes, which are at least $120 million a year, by American government estimates.

Al-Shabaab also has had plans to attack the United States, after the arrest of a militant in 2019, who took flying missions in the Philippines, for conducting another 9/11 attack on the United States. It reflects how Washington’s policies are only exaggerating the extremist threats on their country.

Biden administration, however, denies that the mission in Somalia has failed. But, they are aware of myriad shortcomings, which is forcing them to initiate a new policy, which is necessarily not troop deployment. In fact, the US government has been reluctant to commit troops to Somalia since the notorious ‘Black Hawk Down' episode of 1993, a blazing battle depicted in Hollywood movies and books. After that episode, the United States withdrew its troops from Somalia after more than a decade.

Although, in the coming time, Americans eventually turned up in Somalia in very small numbers through covert operatives, intelligence officers, support admins, and diplomats, who bunkered into a windowless embassy in Mogadishu in 2018. However, fearing another bloody debacle, they rarely ventured out. 

Outside the American presence, there are African Union peacekeepers that patrol the streets. Although the streets of Mogadishu bear scars of war, many of them decades old, there are trendy cafes, gleaming apartment blocks, and fast, cheap Internet. Piracy, an international problem stemming from Somalia, has by and large vanished. As Lido beach is packed with tourists and locals, due to a recent peace wave, it had become a target of Al-Shabaab in 2020, thereby denying Somalis a chance for prosperity in the longer term, as fear reigns in their lives again and again.

On the political level, Somalia's fractious political elite is riven by disputes. After the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan, gleeful Al Shabaab militants distributed sweets, hoping that they too would seize power someday.

When it comes to the CIA, it has a checkered history in Somalia. In the mid-2000s, CIA officers, regularly flew into a remote airstrip outside Mogadishu, carrying suitcases of money for a coalition of warlords, who had promised to help hunt Al-Qaeda. This operation had badly backfired in 2006, when public hostility against these American-paid warlords increased, after public support to an Islamic group, the Islamic Courts Union which swept power briefly. Then, a year later, Al-Shabaab emerged. 

For this problem, the CIA returned to Somalia in 2009, establishing a secure airbase at Mogadishu airport, and then they teamed up with the National Intelligence Security Agency, Somalia’s spy agency. It was in 2011 when Americans killed Fazul Abdullah Mohammad, an Al-Qaeda leader behind the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya, and Tanzania. At that time, they seized a trove of valuable intelligence, including a plot to bomb the elite British school Eton and London’s Ritz hotel. After that, the Somalis handed everything to the CIA. But, the fruits of cooperation soon became controversial, as human rights groups and United Nations investigators accused Somalia’s spy agency of torturing detainees and using children as spies. Some detainees even accused the CIA of torture. It was in 2015 when the CIA station chief in Mogadishu pressed for the removal of General Abirahman Turyare, the Somali intelligence chief, accusing him of corruption, and mismanagement. At the heart of his removal was the dispute over the control of Gaashaan, a paramilitary force, officially part of the Somali spy agency, which was actually led by the CIA since 2009. For tracking down Al-Shabaab operatives, Gaashaan used cell phone technology to hunt their commanders.

Fighting Al-Shabaab has always been enduring for the United States. They were initially a faction of the defeated Islamic Courts Union. Ousted from Mogadishu, they fled to southern Somalia and launched a guerilla war, including bombings and assassinations against Ethiopian leaders.

By 2008, Al Shabaab had become the most radical and powerful armed faction in Somalia, with thousands of recruits. Their leaders condemned what they called American crimes against Muslims across the globe. The US state department designated Al Shabaab as a terrorist organisation in 2008. In 2012, the group pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda.

It now seems clear that Al Shabaab’s broad goal is to establish their vision of an Islamic state in Somalia. In areas they control, they have banned music and movies and impose harsh punishments like stoning accused adulterers and amputating the limbs of accused thieves, just like the Taliban. They went on to perpetrate a series of horrific attacks including, in 2017, a truck bombing in central Mogadishu that killed at least 587 people, which was regarded as one of the deadliest extremist acts in modern world history. As Al-Shabaab leaders were killed off and the Danab, an elite, American-trained Somali commando unit, evolved into a powerful anti-Shabab tool, the militants adapted.

Al Shabaab’s influence also extends into the heart of Mogadishu, where the group and its supporters have infiltrated parliament, the business community and the security services. Due to their popularity, Mogadishu residents have frequently travelled by bus to outlying areas, to have disputes settled with Shabaab courts, rather than government courts.

American analysts estimate that Al Shabaab commands anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 fighters. Their bombs have grown more sophisticated and powerful. The group uses its hold on Mogadishu port to smuggle in large volumes of explosive materials and Chinese-made trigger devices, according to US officials.

To prevent their growth, Americans launched air strikes against them. They surged in 2017 under the command of Donald Trump. The US military admitted to killing civilians but didn’t offer any compensation, in contrast to Iraq and Afghanistan where they paid $1.5 million for hundreds of deaths and property damage.

As per an Oped in New York Times by Declan Walsh, Eric Schmitt, and Julian Barnes: ‘the American aversion to casualties among U.S. personnel has created an unusually high dependence on private contractors. The best known, Bancroft, hires retired soldiers largely from eastern Europe, Africa and the French Foreign Legion to recruit and train Somali forces. Bancroft’s property wing built the fortress-like Mogadishu embassy and leases it to the State Department; a senior official said it is among the most expensive to operate in Africa.’

The Biden administration is currently trying to evaluate the present crises, and is deciding whether to send back some troops there, who were recalled by Trump. However, the critics of the US’s foreign policy in Somalia state that Al-Shabaab is principally focusing on east Africa, and their ability to strike the US is overblown. There are also some analysts who state that the US needs to follow a completely new strategy there, including a political settlement with Al-Shabaab, or face a prospect of a forever war with them.

The Western-backed Somali government is ineffectual in comparison, divided by the corrosive clan politics that have crippled international efforts to unify Somalia’s security services. The graft is rampant. Transparency International ranks Somalia, along with South Sudan, as the most corrupt in the world. In fact, in April 2021, Somali soldiers angry over the president’s stay in power took up key positions across Somalia’s capital, with their truck-mounted machine guns. The prime minister, at that time, had called for a ceasefire and emergency meeting. The president had faced growing opposition in Somalia and abroad after the lower house of parliament approved a two-year extension of his mandate and that of the federal government.

Then, in January 2022, there was a deepening rift between Somalia's president and prime minister, which plunged the Horn of Africa country into a political crisis, after the prime minister got suspended. The prime minister, however, had defied the order, describing the president's decision to suspend him as ‘outrageous’.


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