This is a guest post by Alex Dick-Godfrey, program coordinator, Studies administration for the Council on Foreign Relations Studies Program.
Last month, in the wake of the kidnapping of the schoolgirls from Chibok in Nigeria by the Islamist organization Boko Haram, President Francois Hollande of France convened a security summit in Paris. Heads of state from Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger attended. The main result was the creation of a “central intelligence platform,” which will serve as a place for West African nations to coordinate their responses to Boko Haram. The United States and its partners in the Horn of Africa should endeavor to copy a form of this strategy to counter al Shabaab in the Horn.
Despite some insinuations to the contrary, al Shabaab remains a serious threat to stability in the Horn, and it has started to undertake a more international campaign, employing shocking attacks. These attacks began with the 2010 bombings in Uganda, continued with attempted bombings in Ethiopia, peaked with the audacious Westgate Mall attack in Kenya, and recently included a well-planned attack on the Somali Parliament building. Sensationalist attacks are likely to continue and will extend beyond Somalia, as they did to Djibouti last week. As previous al Shabaab strongholds in Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region are continually lost to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces’ advance, the group will likely become even more desperate.
The fight against al Shabaab is already an international effort, which includes AMISOM, the United Nations (UN), and U.S. assistance to the Somali Federal Government. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which is the Eastern Africa trading bloc, sent troops into Somalia in 2006 before a UN Security Council resolution replaced the IGAD force. The United Kingdom has also held several conferences focused on discussing stability in Somalia.
But in its present form this international response to al Shabaab has been ineffective. The conflict continues to leak out of the operational jurisdiction of AMISOM, and into countries that will rightfully protect themselves. After a series of attacks by al Shabaab, Kenya started a draconian counterterrorism campaign called “Operation Usalama.” It includes forced internment, mass deportations, and other human rights abuses against Somali refugees and Kenyans that are ethnically Somali. At best this is counterproductive, and at worst it creates new recruits for al Shabaab within Kenya and Somalia. Similarly, Ethiopia has repeatedly intervened in Somalia to eradicate al Shabaab, which has exacerbated resentment among Somalis.
The problem is that these countries’ domestic counterterrorism strategies are reactionary, nearsighted, and counterproductive to what is needed regionally to defeat what has become an international terror group. These countries do not operate in a vacuum, and should recognize that their domestic actions have consequences across the region. A new platform is needed to better coordinate responses and share intelligence.
This is not a novel concept. Kenya and Somalia agreed to start sharing intelligence more effectively after the attack on Westgate, but the agreement didn’t include any of the other international partners involved in Somalia. Also, for whatever reason, it currently isn’t working.
To assist, the United States might lead an international cooperation effort in East Africa to create a platform for intelligence sharing and the dissemination of best practices in tactics, similar to what was proposed to counter Boko Haram. Moreover, there should be greater emphasis on ensuring that domestic counterterrorism strategies are not driving greater support to al Shabaab. U.S. involvement would give the platform legitimacy and would allow the United States to share its own intelligence. It would also allow for increased cooperation across all actors currently operating in Somalia.
This is, indeed, a tall order, and one that none of the countries are likely to enjoy as each have their own interests in Somalia. But the United States and Somalia’s neighbors should keep this in mind: large amounts of troops and material are not currently designated to counter al Shabaab, and the threat isn’t going away. To effectively counter al Shabaab, there needs to be better coordination and use of the resources currently available.