Biden is Sending Hundreds of American Troops to Somalia and Expanding US Drone Strikes
President Biden has authorized the deployment of hundreds of American Special Operations forces to Somalia to assist the Somali government in its fight against al-Shabaab. According to the New York Times President Biden has also authorized a Pentagon plan to step up airstrikes against al-Shabaab leadership.
This increased US military engagement in Somalia comes at a time of transition in Somalia. After years of political wrangling, Somalia’s Parliament has elected a new President, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who took office on May 15th. Meanwhile, the African Union’s about 20,000 strong peacekeeping force in Somalia is beginning a process of winding down.
My guest today, Harun Maruf, is a veteran journalist and editor at VOA Somali Service. I kick off by asking him how news of increased US military involvement in Somalia is being received in Mogadishu and beyond. We then have an extended conversation about the security situation in Somalia today.
What is the role of American soldiers in Somalia?
Harun Maruf [00:02:51] First of all, the new president of Somalia, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, has welcomed it officially — he wants the United States to resume airstrikes against al-Shabaab. The airstrikes never stopped officially, but they have subsided since President Biden came to power. During the time of President Trump, there were high number of airstrikes against al-Shabaab, but those airstrikes were targeting more of the foot soldiers on a low level of al-Shabaab operatives who are bringing explosives to the urban areas. This new president said that he wants to see more targeting of al-Shabaab leaders and presumably where he’s coming from is that since they are the decision makers, they are going to feel the pressure and he wants them to feel that they are targeted in the same way that government officials, key civil society activists, and ordinary Somalis have been targeted by al-Shabaab for a long time. Generally, the population has welcomed that the United States is going to send its forces back, primarily because Somalia is in the process of rebuilding its national army and the United States has been training an elite Somali unit called Danab, which means lightning, and they wanted that unit to become the brand for the rebuilding of the Somali army. They think this unit has been very effective in fighting al-Shabaab; most of the time they have not been involved in the political wrangling and the disputes between the clans and the politicians and many Somalis believe this force can be the basis for the rebuilding of the future of Somalia. And if Somalis want to restore security in their country, then they have to invest in security branches in particular.
WHAT IS THE UNITED STATES’ ROLE WITH THE DANAB UNIT IN THE SOMALI MILITARY?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:05:14] That’s interesting. So, the primary role of the U.S. forces that are being deployed to Somalia will be to build up and train or I should say perhaps increase the pace of training for this Danab force, which as you say, is seen as not a deeply political actor in Somalia politics as perhaps other armed forces in Somalia are. This is a special unit, a special forces unit that’s seen as being perhaps either more legitimate or otherwise more widely respected.
Harun Maruf [00:05:52] That is correct. The term the United States uses to describe its presence in Somalia for its troops is to advise and assist Somali forces so that’s the terminology they have been using. They have been training Somali special forces since 2015. That’s when the first unit of Danab started training with the U.S. Special Forces and since then, they have increased that number to seven units. So, the number is estimated to be closer to 2000 special elite units within the Somali force and they wanted to increase that and presumably to about 4000, which will be the most elite, well-trained, well-equipped force within the Somali national army. In general, according to the national security structure, which was set up by the Somali government and with the help of the international community, Somalia wants to have at least 22,000 forces, including 4000 special forces. So, these Special Forces are being recruited from throughout the regions across lines so that’s why it’s important for the government and international partners who are helping Somalia to see them as the most legitimate and most capable force and that’s where the government really wants to go. It wants to integrate security forces and it wants to bring forces from the regions so that the national army can reflect the nation and the different regions and the different communities in the country.
WHY DOES THE NEW SOMALI PRESIDENT WANT MORE DRONE STRIKES FROM THE UNITED STATES?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:08:04] And I was also struck by how you described how the new government, the new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, coming into office is also welcoming an increased pace of U.S. airstrikes against al-Shabaab leaders. And the way you described how they are seeing these airstrikes was just fascinating to me. As you said it, al-Shabaab has been targeting civil society leaders, political leaders for a very long time and it almost sounds as if they want to give al-Shabaab a taste of their own medicine like this is retributive in a way.
Harun Maruf [00:08:47] That is correct. If you remember, go back a few years back before Trump came to power and there was President Obama and Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, the current president, was also the president of Somalia at the time. And he came to Washington and the United States increased targeted attacks of al-Shabaab leaders. For instance, in one strike on September 1st, 2014, the United States targeted and killing the leader of al-Shabaab, the most important leader probably al-Shabaab ever had, Ahmed Abdi Godane, is a co-founder of the organization and he set up all the structure for the al-Shabaab we know today. He was formidable so he was taken out. The U.S. airstrikes also took out a number of key individuals, including the head of the external unit of al-Shabaab that was in charge of attacks outside Somalia by al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab carried out attacks in Kenya, twice in Kampala in Djibouti and they have tried, very nearly succeeded to carry out an attack in Ethiopia. Al-Shabaab has also expressed interest to attack other areas outside Somalia, including the United States. So that individual was taken out, a number of other key individuals were eliminated as a result of these strikes and perhaps I cannot speak for the new president, perhaps he wants a repeat of what was taking place when he was the president of Somalia. And what we have seen is that al-Shabaab has been carrying out carefully planned complex attacks against military bases of the Somali national army and the African Union forces and some of these attacks were deadly. For instance, January 2015 attack on a Kenyan military base in a town in southern Somalia. It’s believed that in that attack alone, about 140 Kenyan troops were killed. Kenya never confirmed it officially, but they’ve never disputed it either. In another attack in 2015, al-Shabaab also killed Burundian forces in a town called Lego in the southwestern state of the country. And most recently, earlier this month, on May 3rd, al-Shabaab also carried out another major attack on a Burundian military base in the Middle Shabelle region, killing 30 Burundian peacekeepers. So, when al-Shabaab is carrying out these attacks, they mobilize maximum number of militias in order to overwhelm African Union forces and Somali government forces, when they’re carrying out these attacks and this mobilization takes days and weeks. If US drones are over the air in Somalia, analysts believe it would have been difficult for al-Shabaab to mobilize this kind of large-scale attacks and that’s why also partially, I believe the Somali government wants drones to be in the skies.
WHAT OTHER SOLUTIONS COULD ADDRESS THE THREAT OF AL-SHABAAB TERRORISM THAT AREN’T THE UNITED STATES MILITARY AND MORE DRONE STRIKES?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:12:27] As you say, it’s been through three U.S. presidents now that the United States has adopted a sort of military first approach to the al-Shabaab challenge in Somalia. But as you describe, it doesn’t sound like there is a lot to show for it. I mean, despite policies across several U.S. presidents on airstrikes and U.S. troops on the ground in Somalia, there does not seem to have been a meaningful impact. Al-Shabaab still remains a deeply urgent threat in the country. Are there segments of analysts or people you talk to, you’ve interviewed, who fear that continuing to rely on a military first strategy perhaps undermines other potential strategies that might be more successful for dealing with this insurgency. Are there debates like that ongoing in the Somali policy community?
Harun Maruf [00:13:32] Yes. There are very strong debates around that. There is an increasing number of Somalis who are suggesting that it’s time for negotiation, who believe that air strikes and military approach to this conflict is not going to succeed. Al-Shabaab has been fighting against Somali government forces and A.U. forces for 15 years now; al-Shabaab outlasted four presidents, including the current president, when he was in his first term. And that feeling on the ground for an alternative approach to the situation is there and U.S. officials, I believe I don’t speak for them, but I believe they would admit that airstrikes alone are not going to be the solution. But al-Shabaab has never expressed an interest to internal discussions with the Somali government and despite the government offering amnesty to al-Shabaab members if they surrender or collaborate with the government, offering them to take advantage of this amnesty. A number of al-Shabaab figures did take advantage of it, but the leadership has not so far and as you rightly said, a number of individuals were killed by the strikes, but al-Shabaab leadership remains intact. Their influence and power are present, they are still a very potent threat to the government’s existence and to the return of civil order in Somalia. That argument is there, but I think eventually to remove or degrade al-Shabaab is going to need a multifaceted approach and military approach is just going to be one component of it. Somalia is going to need that ideology also to weaken al-Shabaab; Somalia also is going to need to address the issue of finance, because al-Shabaab easily collects a large amount of money, millions of dollars from businesses and well-off Somalis every year. Al-Shabaab is also part of the society. There are a number of foreigners within al-Shabaab but majority of them are Somalis. Certainly, you can’t wipe them off. That’s never going to happen. So there has to be alternative solution and primarily before we get to negotiation certainly, al-Shabaab is a very ideologically driven organization. You are going to have to see al-Shabaab members discussing the possibility of negotiation who have good tolerance for negotiation, who are entertaining the idea. There is no such debate within al-Shabaab. You don’t see that kind of engagement or patience for that kind of a different opinion within al-Shabaab. It is very much against any kind of negotiation with the government. There was only one time in 2018 when al-Shabaab leaders publicly spoke about how they see negotiation and at that time, their spokesmen described negotiation as a tool aimed at fragmenting the Mujahedeen, quote unquote. That’s how they put it so they’re very suspicious of being in negotiations. They believe it’s going to be the end of the organization if they start the negotiations.
WHAT IS ATMIS, THE AFRICAN UNION TRANSITION MISSION IN SOMALIA, AND HOW IS IT AFFECTING SECURITY IN SOMALIA NOW?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:17:36] The new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohammed, was elected and this decision by the Biden administration to redeploy troops to Somalia. These events coincide with a transition that’s happening within the African Union mission in Somalia. It was AMISOM (African Union Mission to Somalia) and now I believe it’s called ATMIS, the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia. How is the transition in the African Union mission impacting security in Somalia today?
Harun Maruf [00:18:16] The transition started just last month in April so it’s still in its early stages and the transition will see the withdrawal of EU forces gradually by the end of 2024. And the Somali government, that is the government that just left power, has committed to Somali security forces taking responsibility of the security by the end of 2023. I don’t know if Somali authorities can meet that deadline, but that is the plan. The background to this is that AMISOM, now ATMIS has been in Somalia for more than 15 years and during this time, they have partially succeeded in one of their mandates, which is to protect the Somali government and give the Somali authorities a space to operate and allow for the building of national institutions. They have done that. What they have not achieved was to help build the Somali national army and expand governmental authority to throughout the country and remove or take over the entire country and put it under the control of the government. That has not happened. The criticism from the Somali authorities and ordinary Somalis was that the AMISOM forces have been in their barracks, and they have not been carrying out attacks or fighting alongside Somali forces in order to expand the authority of the government and to fight al-Shabaab. That has partially been true, but AMISOM only has about 22,000 troops. Now that number has fallen to under 20,000 and Somalia is a big country for 22,000 troops to take throughout the country and fight al-Shabaab and recover all areas and deploy troops and hold all areas to cover it. Of course, al-Shabaab was going to take a large number of troops, maybe three times that number. So, it was an unrealistic expectation on them to achieve that. Nonetheless, it was also the responsibility of the Somalis to immediately train a viable army that can take these areas from al-Shabaab with the help of AMISOM and Somalis have not done that partially because of political disputes and elections and there was so much time and energy spent on political disputes and disputes between the federal government and regions. This has distracted, disrupted all the process needed to build a viable army to take over the entire country. And if this president can avoid that political dispute and focus on one or two areas, in particular security, building national army and expanding the authority’s area the government controls maybe Somalia in four years’ time when this mandate expires, can organize free elections in the country and maybe al-Shabaab will be in a weaker position. But that is the challenge on him, and he has to prove he can do that.
WHAT CAN SOMALIA’S NEW PRESIDENT, HASSAN SHEIKH MOHAMUD, DO TO MINIMIZE AL-SHABAAB’S THREAT OF SOMALIA’S SECURITY?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:22:01] So that leads me to my last question. In the coming months, are there any indicators that you’ll be looking towards that will suggest to you whether or not the new president is indeed making progress on the security front in Somalia?
Harun Maruf [00:22:20] The President is in the process of taking over office. There has been no official transfer of power yet, so this is his first week. But Somalis believe that he has been preparing himself for this position. Again, he has been campaigning for a long time. He has already been there. He knows the tasks that are ahead of him. This position is not new to him, and the expectation is that he will have learned from his mistakes four years ago, as many people accuse him for not focusing on al-Shabaab or not giving them the level of concentration or the focus that this security issue required. He was credited for establishing four out of the five regional states that are functioning today so in terms of building institutions, he was given a lot of credit but in terms of fighting al-Shabaab, that’s where the blame lies by most observers. Is he going to learn from that and face head on this issue aggressively? He indicated that. We interviewed him on Wednesday, and he told us that he really wants to focus on security, economic recovery, and political stability in the first 100 days of his administration. That doesn’t mean he’s going to restore stability and political stability and get rid of al-Shabaab within 100 days, but he said he’s going to lay the foundation in achieving these objectives. So, it’s a positive thing that he’s already identified security as the number one priority. That’s the first issue he mentioned. He also mentioned that in order to secure, he needs to secure the regions that are surrounding the capital. And these are two regions, the Middle Shabelle and the Lower Shabelle. Lower Shabelle is the breadbasket of Somalia. It’s an area where al-Shabaab has been operating all along. Al-Shabaab fought tooth and nail in order to hold onto some parts of that region. It’s going to take a lot of effort, a lot of mobilization to remove al-Shabaab from these two regions that neighbor the capitol. But if he succeeds, it will go very far. And these regions are also key to the transport of business goods from Mogadishu to the regions and al-Shabaab uses this resource. So, he will have killed many birds with one stone if he removes al-Shabaab from these two regions.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:25:36] Well, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate this.
Harun Maruf [00:25:41] My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:25:43] All right. Thank you all for listening. Thank you to Harun Maruf. That was great. This is a very timely episode, obviously, with Somalia in this moment of political transition so I was glad to have him spend some time with me to help me, and you understand the implications of this decision by the Biden administration to increase U.S. military involvement in Somalia. And just a disclaimer that the views and opinions expressed in this episode belong solely to those of us who expressed these views and opinion. I will see next time, bye!