Over the last decades, experts and practitioners have frequently described Somalia as the quintessential collapsed state: because of state fragility, Somalia is seen as a reign of anarchy nurturing terrorism. According to this narrative, externally assisted forms of counter-terrorism, peace- and state-building are the most preferable and feasible solution to address state fragility. Though the validity of the failed state argument — and its prescriptions in terms of intervention — have been widely questioned, this narrative still informs debates around the necessity of militarized solutions to tackle political violence, failing to grasp the complexity of governance and conflicts as well the dynamic nature of global and regional security imperatives at play. In December 2020, this narrative re-emerged when, former US President Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from Somali soil. Security experts and analysts have interpreted this decision as a risk for Somalia’s precarious political situation and military balance, hoping the Bide administration will reconsider the decision. Two problems arise with this assumption: first the US is not disengaging; second, e US presence has never been an element of stability for Somalia.
Albeit widely reported as a ‘withdrawal’, the US Department of Defence clearly defined Trump’s decision as a repositioning of US personnel in Somalia: a ‘change in force posture’ rather than a change in foreign policy. In January, U.S. Africa Command spokesman Colonel Chris Karns announced that US military personnel have been redeployed to neighbouring countries, including Kenya, and Djibouti. On April 1, Biden renewed the state of national emergency – originally declared in 2010 – in responses to the ‘unusual and extraordinary threats’ to the USA represented by the situation in Somalia. The US presence was justified as essential in assisting Somali forces to counter al-Shabaab —one of the most combative military group of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) — that opposed the interim government; in 2008 it was included in the US list of terrorist organizations, and in 2012 it pledged alliance to al-Qaeda. As such, US presence has not only failed to produce the desired stability, but it has also contributed to the conflict.
Since the state collapsed in 1991, Somalia has been a testing ground for a variety of interventions, from liberal humanitarianism to regional proxy war and counter-terrorism. The US policy on Somalia has generally been consistent across different administrations while continuously changing and adapting to specific strategic aims. Following the 9/11 attacks, Somalia became a forefront in the US Global War on Terror due to the association between al-Qaeda and al-Itihaad al Islamiya, a militant group operating in the Somali region of Ethiopia since the 1990s. Between 2001 and 2006, counter-terrorism was based on pre-emptive measures, mostly state-based stabilization and destabilization operations: low-scale military campaigns accompanied by intense political and diplomatic initiatives designed to counter the Transitional National Government, which according to Ethiopians’ intelligence reports was infiltrated by al-Itihaad. Ethiopia’s vested security and regional hegemonic interests in intervening in Somalia allowed the US to maintain a low military profile. US military troops had been deployed in Somalia as part of covert actions under the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command.
Destabilizing operations culminated in 2004 with the formation of the Transitional Federal Government— a more friendly regime for Addis Ababa and Washington— which ultimately failed to defeat the insurgents. Islamist groups and organizations had reorganized themselves under an umbrella organization, the Union of Islamic Courts, that had proved its ability to restore partial governance and security functions, gaining significant popularity among the population. When the Courts started to antagonize the interim government, the US. and Ethiopia sustained another counter-insurgency group and campaign. Not only did this attempt fail, but it also paved the way for more open military confrontation: in December 2006, Ethiopian military forces invaded Somalia to fight the Courts and help the interim government relocate from Baidoa to Mogadishu.
In 2007, counter-terrorism in Somalia changed again, assuming the characteristics of an open irregular war wherein Ethiopian forces deployed heavy weaponry in support of the federal government, while the insurgents continued to rely on light weapons and changed guerrilla tactics. In this phase, both regional and global actors engaged in dismantling the material and political bases of the Courts through a major involvement of Ethiopian troops on the ground and US technology in aerial surveillance and warfare. With the establishment of the US African Command (AFRICOM) in Camp Lemonier (Djibouti), the US presence in Somalia was consolidated under the role of assisting local partners with the training of police, army, and intelligent forces. The Ethiopian invasion disbanded the Courts, but it also fomented new insurgencies both within and outside Somalia. Al-Shabaab emerged as one of the most combative forces, mobilizing insurgency against the Ethiopian occupation, waging an insurgency that spiraled further changes in counterinsurgency. The first decade of US counterterrorism produced an isolationist strategy encouraging political polarization and military radicalization, instead of ‘Building the Infrastructure of Democracy’ as originally envisaged in the 2002’s US National Security Strategy.
During the second decade of counterterrorism, the US and regional allies won some battles against al-Shabaab, but not the entire war. In 2011, the Obama administration established a framework around the use of drones in counter-terrorism operations, with the double aim of minimizing casualties and increasing accountability. A kinetic approach to ‘targeted killings’ was thus consolidated under the justification that drone warfare was conducted in a ‘surgical’ way. Compared with the Bush’s administration, drone warfare increased during the Obama administration but did not succeed in defeating al-Shabaab, neither in limiting the killings of civilians, nor in weakening the insurgency. The evident limits of such a perpetual war made the US counterinsurgency posture in Somalia evolve once again towards less state-centric initiatives, where combat operations became more systematically integrated with peace and state building initiatives. The establishment in 2011 of the African Union peacekeeping mission (AMISOM) – a peace support operation regionally coordinating a variety of governance, peace, and military operations – epitomizes this change. In 2011, the Obama administration had established a dual-track policy towards Somalia, envisaging not only support for the central government but also a decentralized engagement with any partner or ‘pocket of stability’. Such decentralized approach coexisted with kinetic actions and ‘population-centric’ forms of counterinsurgency as it involved more flexible and human-centred initiatives oriented at defeating al Shabaab politically and socially, by empowering local communities and militia.
It is within this longstanding US military presence that counterinsurgency and counterterrorism in Somalia have assumed the nature of a never-ending yet malleable politico-military strategy.