Since the beginning of 2017, the frequency and lethalness of al-Shabaab’s attacks inside Somalia have reached new levels. This reality was demonstrated for everyone last month, on October 14, when a huge truck filled with explosives detonated at a busy intersection in the capital Mogadishu claiming almost 400 lives. This relentless wave of bombings and assassinations by al-Shabaab comes despite an escalation of the United States’ military activities against the group. The escalation began in the last year of US President Barack Obama’s administration and expanded under his successor, Donald Trump, who has declared Somalia “an area of active hostilities” giving US forces more flexibility to launch deadly attacks.
Predictably, the knee-jerk reaction to the October 14 bombing has been to call for an all-out war against al-Shabaab. The President of Somalia, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (Farmaajo), went on a tour of regional countries to solicit military support. It appears that a military intensification of the conflict is in the offing.
A more sober and informed analysis, however, underlines what should be an obvious point; there is a limit to what military force can accomplish against al-Shabaab.
In fact, an overreliance on military force is very much part of the logic that formed the conditions of possibility for the emergence of al-Shabaab and its continued sustenance. An awareness of this informs a recent article by American journalist and professor Helen Epstein in The Atlantic which reasons that a negotiated settlement with al-Shabaab is the only road to peace to spare the suffering of the Somali people. I contend that the argument, which posits that since al-Shabaab cannot be defeated militarily they should be negotiated with, notwithstanding its many insightful points, is the obverse of the argument which proposes that an all-out war is the way to go. These arguments are two sides of the same coin: they share the erroneous assumption that al-Shabaab is the primary cause that is driving the conflict in Somalia. Both arguments assume that if al-Shabaab is taken out of the equation, either through complete military annihilation or reconciliation, all that ails Somalia, including insecurity, political instability, and economic deprivation will disappear or at least be that much easier to resolve. I suggest that one should see al-Shabaab as a symptom of Somalia’s many problems, problems that have been exasperated by the Global War on Terror (GWOT).
Al-Shabaab (the youth) emerged in Somalia in 2007 primarily as a response to a US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Mogadishu in mid-2006. Ethiopia was in Somalia to dislodge the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a group of Shari‘a courts that unified and evicted an alliance of warlords out of Mogadishu earlier that same year. The Shari‘a courts initially began life as communal centers, established by lineage group elders and religious authorities in specific neighborhoods in Mogadishu, to deal with the social problems created by the disintegration of the Somali Republic in 1991. The Ethiopian government claimed that the ICU posed an existential threat to Ethiopia because of the ICU’s potential support for Somali irredentist claims on the Ogaden, the Somali region in Eastern Ethiopia.
The resistance to the Ethiopian invasion coalesced around what was then a small group of young men that called themselves al-Shabaab. By 2009 the Ethiopian forces were bogged down in urban warfare in Mogadishu and al-Shabaab controlled most of southern Somalia. The Ethiopian forces withdrew in early 2009 and were eventually replaced by and incorporated into the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). The latter is a UN-authorized force from five African countries: Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. Numbering about 22,000, these forces are trained, equipped, and funded by the US and the European Union. AMISOM forces have managed to protect the weak federal government in Mogadishu and evict al-Shabaab from most urban centers in southern Somalia. In addition to AMISOM, the US – through drone attacks and covert military operations – continuously takes out al-Shabaab’s leadership. Despite all this, however, Al-Shabaab, still controls most rural areas in the south of the country and continues to stage deadly attacks on isolated military bases and in urban centers. What explains al-Shabaab staying power?
Al-Shabaab is just a symptom of larger and more complex dynamics. An interplay of local, regional, and international factors have combined to create a volatile mix under the GWOT. The GWOT has become the most efficient and unquestioned way to pursue one’s interests. Al-Shabaab is just one among the many actors whose constantly shifting motivations and interests are pursued under the cover of the GWOT. To begin with, it would be naïve to assume that troop-contributing countries to AMISOM are there to fight “terrorism.” They are there to advance politically, economically, and militarily defined geopolitical interests. Interests that are best advanced under the cover of the “war on terror,” rather than its absence. Each of these countries – take Ethiopia and Uganda as examples – are dealing with serious internal political and economic upheavals. Sending troops to Somalia to fight “terrorism” is a perfect move to strategically position themselves as US allies in the GWOT. This allows them to receive US aid and ignore any critique of their domestic abuses.
As in other conflict zones, there has been a proliferation of private security firms in Somalia as part of the “war on terror.” These international mercenaries are there to ostensibly protect diplomats, the staff of international NGOs and multinational corporations, and increasingly to train local forces and paramilitaries. Why would one assume that these unaccountable mercenaries have any interest in seeing the end of the conflict? Isn’t it more likely that they are actively perpetuating the conflict for private gain? Lastly, predatory capitalism spearheaded by state-owned enterprises are competing for Somali natural resources and influence. These enterprises sign deals with the federal government or regional states who then tout these deals as foreign investment – a euphemism for unregulated foreign exploitation. These foreign-owned companies are economically disenfranchising the local population thereby adding to the anger and poverty which the conflict feeds on. As representatives of state interests, these companies are often in direct competition and sign competing deals with different authorities exasperating the problem. The countries whose enterprises are doing this are often the same countries that are also in Somalia to fight “terrorism.”
It is both historically and logically inaccurate to try to comprehend al-Shabaab in isolation from the complex dynamics that perpetuate the conflict in Somalia. Al-Shabaab is one among many outcomes of the GWOT. It can only be understood and attended to by honestly looking at the multiple processes that this war has set off and the way these manifest themselves in Somalia.