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Africa in Transition

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Is the U.S. Strategy in Somalia Working?

by Guest Blogger for John Campbell
February 11, 2014

A U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle assigned to the California Air National Guard's 163rd Reconnaissance Wing flies near the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, California in this January 7, 2012 USAF handout photo obtained by Reuters, February 6, 2013. (U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Effrain Lopez/Courtesy Reuters) A U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle assigned to the California Air National Guard's 163rd Reconnaissance Wing flies near the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, California in this January 7, 2012 USAF handout photo obtained by Reuters, February 6, 2013. (U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Effrain Lopez/Courtesy Reuters)

This is a guest post by Allen Grane, intern for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Studies program. Allen is currently an officer in the Army National Guard. His interests are in Africa, conflict, and conflict resolution.

In the last week of January news outlets reported that an American drone had conducted an unsuccessful strike against a high level al-Shabaab leader in the Lower Shabelle region of Somalia. Later reports stated that the target of the strike was Ahmed Abdi Godane, the presumed current head of al-Shabaab. While the strike failed in its main mission to eliminate Godane, it and other such strikes may represent greater success for American and Somali strategies against the terrorist organization than this single unsuccessful strike.

While Godane is still alive, sources have confirmed that he was in close proximity to the attack. The U.S. military was acting on accurate intelligence, and in fact killed one of Godane’s top aides, Ahmed Abdulkadir Abdullahi, in the attack. In an apparent response to this intelligence leak al-Shabaab recently began abducting the residents of villages in the Lower Shabelle. Of even more importance they are abducting people within their own organization. Four al-Shabaab members have reportedly been arrested.

This response reflects a deterioration in the stability of al-Shabaab as an organization. The breach in their security has forced al-Shabaab to react. Their reaction has been to attack their own members and base of power, as well as residents of al-Shabaab held territories. This kind of reaction may cause a backlash against al-Shabaab by residents within their sphere of activity, and possibly even their own members.

Another successful part of the U.S. mission was just how well the American and Somali governments cooperated. According to Somali officials they were notified of the intelligence and operation prior to its execution. According to Somali government spokesman, Ridwaan Haji Abdiwali, “such operations will help Somalia to be safe from the terrorists hiding in the country.” The cooperation between the Somali government and U.S. forces is key in combating al-Shabaab.

While the future of this conflict is uncertain and it is a difficult task to combat any insurgency, it seems that U.S. forces are moving in the right direction. By creating distrust within al-Shabaab and its power base along with building stronger ties with the Somali government, the U.S. forces are conducting successful counter-insurgency operations. It will be interesting to see if the U.S. continues this strategy and if it will be able to assist in dismantling al-Shabaab in Somalia for good.

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  • Posted by Ahmed M.I. Egal

    Firstly, let me state unequivocally that everyone with the interests of the people of Somalia close to their hearts will concur with the general thrust of this piece, namely that the defeat and destruction of Al-Shabaab as an effective military and socio-political force is essential in order to create the conditions for rebuilding the state in Somalia and rescuing its people from the anarchy, brutality, devastation and misgovernment that they have endured for far too long.

    However, the article suffers from several fundamental mistakes that arise from either over simplification of complex issues, or superficial analysis that overlooks the deeper, and more intractable, consequences of US policy in Somalia. Firstly, the piece refers to Ahmed Godane as the “presumed” head of Al-Shabaab. In fact, the ructions within this organisation over the last two years or so have comprised, at their core, the assumption by Godane of absolute and undisputed control over the group in response to being driven out of Mogadishu and Kisimayo by AMISOM forces. Godane has achieved this coup d’etat within Al-Shabaab by the complete and systematic eradication of prospective and potential rivals and challenges to his rule. In this context, it is important to bear in mind that Godane has proven to be as emphatically ruthless with perceived Somali adversaries as with foreign ones; indeed Dahir Aweys chose to run for his life from Godane and turn himself over to the donor group-imposed regime of Hassan Sheikh Mohamed, and therefore to western intelligence agencies, rather than face the his rival’s wrath.

    Aweys is the erstwhile Hizb-ul-Islam leader that several years earlier had threatened to “discipline this young, northern loudmouth (referring to Godane) with an iron hand” if he continued to claim sole leadership of the ‘jihadist forces’. With respect to the non-Somalis in Al-Shabaab, those that did not accept Godane’s undisputed leadership have been summarily executed, or have chosen to decamp and leave the country, usually travelling to Yemen through Puntland. The saddest example of these erstwhile foreign cadre was the sad debacle of Al-Shabaab’s former chief propagandist, Al-Ameriki, who was reduced to plaintively appealing on the internet for Al-Qaeda’s leadership to save him from Godane whom he repeatedly vowed was going to kill him. In the event, Al-Qaeda’s leadership was unable to save him and Godane did indeed murder him.

    The restructuring of Al-Shabaab as a Godane owned and operated franchise is important for other reasons which the article either ignores or does not comprehend, however these are beyond the scope of this response. The piece posits that Al-Shabaab is more unstable than it was in the past because it is abducting villagers from areas it controls and it has arrested a small number of its own members for security breaches. I would posit that the organisation is more stable now than in the recent past with the leadership issue so brutally and emphatically settled in Godane’s favour. Further, making periodic examples of ‘traitors’ among the population of the areas it controls has long been an Al-Shabaab tactic, as it has been throughout history for occupation military or para-military forces that control territory against the wishes of the indigenous populations.

    It is true that successful operations have been conducted against Al-Shabaab by western intelligence agencies with the help of the Somali security services, and some of these operations have relied upon Al-Shabaab cadres that have been ‘turned’, often with monetary inducements. Indeed, it would seem that such operations present a fertile approach that is likely to yield more success, given the abject, grinding poverty in Somalia and the fact that the vast majority of Al-Shabaab’s local ‘recruits’ are often very young, uneducated, poorly paid and brainwashed with narcotics and mind-control techniques. However, to conflate these singular successes and Al-Shabaab’s standard response of cruel reprisals against the local communities it occupies and controls by force and brutality is a serious mistake. Further, to determine the effectiveness of drone strikes by the alleged result of one strike that missed its target, but may have hit a much lesser ‘target’ while conflating the Al-Shabaab response as an indication of ‘instability’ or weakness borders upon the delusional.

    In fact, the history of the failure of the vast majority of drone strikes to hit their targets, while killing many innocent civilians that are already suffering untold and unimaginable misery even as death is rained upon them from the skies by an unseen, unheard and unaccountable robot has created a deep and sustained animosity and anger towards US policy among the ordinary people of Somalia. This animosity and anger towards US policy has also seriously eroded the support for the UN-imposed Somali Federal Government (SFG) which has emphatically supported the drone strikes, since it cannot bite the hand that not only feeds it, but has indeed created it. The principal failing of the SFG has been that it has chosen to focus upon serving the interests of its donor-group patrons and masters rather than build a constituency among its own people by seeking to establish good governance and basic services. Thus, it has no choice but to serve as the puppet of foreigners, instead of championing the interests of its long-suffering and traumatised citizens; this completes the vicious cycle by granting some spurious legitimacy to the nihilists of Al-Shabaab.

    In conclusion, it seems to many observers, especially Somali observers, that US policy or strategy in Somalia is failing if the aim is to defeat Al-Shabaab and create the conditions to rebuild Somalia as stable and functioning state. However, if the aim is to maintain a perpetual war with Al-Shabaab limited to attacking Western interests at the fringes, while the West intermittently picks off the organisation’s leaders with hit-or-miss drone strikes that continue to rain death on innocent Somali civilians unaccountably, then the US strategy can be said to be working. The question then arises of accountability; i.e. when the point will be reached where the animosity and anger of the Somali innocents hardens and migrates into retaliation and vengeance. This is the calculation made by Godane and Al-Shabaab and the US and its allies would do well to consider this zero-sum arithmetic more deeply.
    Firstly, let me state unequivocally that everyone with the interests of the people of Somalia close to their hearts will concur with the general thrust of this piece, namely that the defeat and destruction of Al-Shabaab as an effective military and socio-political force is essential in order to create the conditions for rebuilding the state in Somalia and rescuing its people from the anarchy, brutality, devastation and misgovernment that they have endured for far too long.

    However, the article suffers from several fundamental mistakes that arise from either over simplification of complex issues, or superficial analysis that overlooks the deeper, and more intractable, consequences of US policy in Somalia. Firstly, the piece refers to Ahmed Godane as the “presumed” head of Al-Shabaab. In fact, the ructions within this organisation over the last two years or so have comprised, at their core, the assumption by Godane of absolute and undisputed control over the group in response to being driven out of Mogadishu and Kisimayo by AMISOM forces. Godane has achieved this coup d’etat within Al-Shabaab by the complete and systematic eradication of prospective and potential rivals and challenges to his rule. In this context, it is important to bear in mind that Godane has proven to be as emphatically ruthless with perceived Somali adversaries as with foreign ones; indeed Dahir Aweys chose to run for his life from Godane and turn himself over to the donor group-imposed regime of Hassan Sheikh Mohamed, and therefore to western intelligence agencies, rather than face the his rival’s wrath.

    Aweys is the erstwhile Hizb-ul-Islam leader that several years earlier had threatened to “discipline this young, northern loudmouth (referring to Godane) with an iron hand” if he continued to claim sole leadership of the ‘jihadist forces’. With respect to the non-Somalis in Al-Shabaab, those that did not accept Godane’s undisputed leadership have been summarily executed, or have chosen to decamp and leave the country, usually travelling to Yemen through Puntland. The saddest example of these erstwhile foreign cadre was the sad debacle of Al-Shabaab’s former chief propagandist, Al-Ameriki, who was reduced to plaintively appealing on the internet for Al-Qaeda’s leadership to save him from Godane whom he repeatedly vowed was going to kill him. In the event, Al-Qaeda’s leadership was unable to save him and Godane did indeed murder him.

    The restructuring of Al-Shabaab as a Godane owned and operated franchise is important for other reasons which the article either ignores or does not comprehend, however these are beyond the scope of this response. The piece posits that Al-Shabaab is more unstable than it was in the past because it is abducting villagers from areas it controls and it has arrested a small number of its own members for security breaches. I would posit that the organisation is more stable now than in the recent past with the leadership issue so brutally and emphatically settled in Godane’s favour. Further, making periodic examples of ‘traitors’ among the population of the areas it controls has long been an Al-Shabaab tactic, as it has been throughout history for occupation military or para-military forces that control territory against the wishes of the indigenous populations.

    It is true that successful operations have been conducted against Al-Shabaab by western intelligence agencies with the help of the Somali security services, and some of these operations have relied upon Al-Shabaab cadres that have been ‘turned’, often with monetary inducements. Indeed, it would seem that such operations present a fertile approach that is likely to yield more success, given the abject, grinding poverty in Somalia and the fact that the vast majority of Al-Shabaab’s local ‘recruits’ are often very young, uneducated, poorly paid and brainwashed with narcotics and mind-control techniques. However, to conflate these singular successes and Al-Shabaab’s standard response of cruel reprisals against the local communities it occupies and controls by force and brutality is a serious mistake. Further, to determine the effectiveness of drone strikes by the alleged result of one strike that missed its target, but may have hit a much lesser ‘target’ while conflating the Al-Shabaab response as an indication of ‘instability’ or weakness borders upon the delusional.

    In fact, the history of the failure of the vast majority of drone strikes to hit their targets, while killing many innocent civilians that are already suffering untold and unimaginable misery even as death is rained upon them from the skies by an unseen, unheard and unaccountable robot has created a deep and sustained animosity and anger towards US policy among the ordinary people of Somalia. This animosity and anger towards US policy has also seriously eroded the support for the UN-imposed Somali Federal Government (SFG) which has emphatically supported the drone strikes, since it cannot bite the hand that not only feeds it, but has indeed created it. The principal failing of the SFG has been that it has chosen to focus upon serving the interests of its donor-group patrons and masters rather than build a constituency among its own people by seeking to establish good governance and basic services. Thus, it has no choice but to serve as the puppet of foreigners, instead of championing the interests of its long-suffering and traumatised citizens; this completes the vicious cycle by granting some spurious legitimacy to the nihilists of Al-Shabaab.

    In conclusion, it seems to many observers, especially Somali observers, that US policy or strategy in Somalia is failing if the aim is to defeat Al-Shabaab and create the conditions to rebuild Somalia as stable and functioning state. However, if the aim is to maintain a perpetual war with Al-Shabaab limited to attacking Western interests at the fringes, while the West intermittently picks off the organisation’s leaders with hit-or-miss drone strikes that continue to rain death on innocent Somali civilians unaccountably, then the US strategy can be said to be working. The question then arises of accountability; i.e. when the point will be reached where the animosity and anger of the Somali innocents hardens and migrates into retaliation and vengeance. This is the calculation made by Godane and Al-Shabaab and the US and its allies would do well to consider this zero-sum arithmetic more deeply.

  • Posted by Saxardiid Kilwe

    No dout that such strategy helps the reduction of terror influence if not eliminating it for good.
    But my concern is that the excution of so far strikes are lucking themselves of minimum effeciency level needed for similar actions. Israeli counter terror policy for eliminating active targets among plastinians is more and moe fruitful. I suggest americans could learn good lessons from Gaza, where Israeli un-cooperation with Hamaz so called government is the main factor for its sucess. Unlike americans who give somali ill-fated government notifications for their strike perior to their excution as stated here.

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