Mogadishu (Caasimada Online) – Somalia fight against Al-Shabab and Islamist terrorism has become the most active front in the United States’ global war on terror, which has been waged since the September 11, 2001, attacks.
In recent years, the US military has worked with Somalia’s army to counter Al-Shabab, an Al Qaeda affiliate considered the deadliest terrorist group in the region.
While the campaign has had some success, the struggle remains arduous and has been marked by tragedy and setbacks.
On a recent trip to a remote training base in central Somalia, it was clear that the counterterrorism campaign has exacted a toll on the country’s military forces.
On graduation day for 346 recruits trained by the State Department and advised by US Special Operations forces, many new commandos were set to fill in the ranks of two battalions that a recent Al-Shabab attack had decimated.
The attack resulted in more than 100 Somali soldiers dying or being injured, underscoring the daily dangers that the country’s military personnel face.
Somalia’s struggle against terrorism
The fight against terrorism in Somalia is not new. Over thirty years ago, US military personnel were deployed to Somalia to ensure that the capital, Mogadishu, and outlying areas in the famine belt were safe enough to deliver aid.
At that time, fighting among factions in the country had interrupted aid deliveries. The US withdrew from Somalia after the “Black Hawk Down” incident of 1993 when Somali militia fighters killed 18 American service members in a fierce battle later depicted in books and Hollywood movies.
Nearly two decades later, the US was forced to return to Somalia to combat the rise of Al-Shabab, a terrorist group that had emerged in the region.
In 2014, the US began its fight against the group with a handful of military advisors. Over time, the number of US troops involved in the campaign grew to 700.
However, former President Donald J. Trump withdrew most of the soldiers just before leaving office in 2021. President Joe Biden later redeployed 450 troops last year to advise Somali soldiers fighting the Al-Shabab insurgency.
In addition to its military involvement, the US has conducted a drone war against Al-Shabab. Although drone strikes have decreased in other hotspots, such as Yemen, Libya, and Pakistan’s tribal areas, Somalia remains a center for US counterterrorism drone activity.
In the past year, the US carried out around 20 airstrikes in Somalia, nearly all of which were in collective self-defense of Somali forces.
A visit to Somalia
I recently had the opportunity to embed with US Special Operations forces in Somalia, gaining a firsthand look at the counterterrorism efforts underway in the country.
The visit provided a glimpse into a counterterrorism world where a few Americans, typically far from the front lines, advise and assist Somali troops engaged in a daily battle against an imposing foe.
On the ground, a wide range of American, Somali, and other African military, diplomatic, and aid officials expressed cautious optimism about the Somali government’s dedication to the fight against terrorism.
However, they expressed lingering doubts over the government’s ability to hold the ground it had retaken.
The recent attack in Galmudug state, which left over 100 Somali soldiers dead or injured, has prompted Somali officials to ask for more American firepower.
They have also renewed their appeal to Washington for more drone strikes and looser rules on when such strikes can be carried out. However, the Biden administration has been reluctant to deepen its military commitment to the country.
Somalia’s counterterrorism strategy
The Somali military has been fighting Al-Shabab for several months, with several powerful local clan militias joining the fight against the terrorist group that has wreaked havoc across the Horn of Africa.
The government has been resupplying these militias with ammunition and other aid. Somalia elected a new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, in May 2021, who previously held office between 2012 and 2017.
Since resuming the presidency, Mohamud has embarked on an all-out offensive against Al-Shabab to constrain their territorial expansion and dry up their financial resources.
According to intelligence officials, the militant group boasts a sizable force of between 7,000 to 12,000 fighters and generates an annual income of approximately $120 million, garnered partly through the imposition of taxes and extortion of civilians.
The full-scale offensive against Al-Shabab began after President Biden redeployed American trainers to Somalia.
The forces only advise and assist Somali soldiers and do not conduct unilateral counterterrorism operations like the one carried out last month by members of the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, which killed a senior Islamic State financier in northern Somalia.
Despite the military’s success in recapturing multiple towns and villages, officials exercise prudence in charting a course for the future.
Al-Shabab’s brutal retaliatory assaults, which have resulted in the retaking of certain regions, have created a back-and-forth struggle for dominance.
The group orchestrated a catastrophic attack in October, unleashing twin car bombings that killed 121 individuals and left approximately 300 more injured in Mogadishu, a city inhabited by about two million people. It was the deadliest terrorist attack in Somalia in five years.