Above: Al-Shabaab fighters surrender their weapons to AMISOM forces in Garsale, Somalia. The militant group has seen a resurgence in recent months.
The notorious terrorist group Al-Shabaab, located in Somalia, was founded in 2006 as a splinter movement following the overthrow of the Islamic Courts Union by a coalition of foreign military powers during the Somali Civil War. Consistently boasting a strength of around 7,000 to 9,000 active members, it has been able to conduct both terror and conventional military attacks all around the Greater Horn of Africa, including the deadly 2013 Westgate Mall shooting in Kenya, and the coordinated 2015 siege of an African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) military base in Somalia. Currently, Al-Shabaab continues to clash with AMISOM troops within Somali borders, claiming to have killed dozens of coalition troops as recently as January 27 of this year.
In response to this threat, the United States has historically pursued an indirect means of intervention known as “off-shore balancing”. This strategy discourages the direct engagement of U.S. ground forces with Al-Shabaab, and instead sends advisory and material aid to guide AMISOM forces to victory, as well as uses both aerial and naval superiority to counteract any military advantage Al-Shabaab may possess. It has resulted in multiple successes, including the 2014 targeted drone strike killing of leader Ahmed Abdi Godane as and the 2010-2011 major AMISOM victory in the Battle of Mogadishu. Looking onward, the United States seeks to eliminate the threat of Al-Shabaab altogether in order to support the reconstruction of the nation of Somalia as well as to secure the conditions possible for increased diplomatic presence throughout the Greater Horn of Africa.
Despite the intentions of these operations, however, United States President Donald Trump, upon taking office on January 20, 2017, released a four-page long memo questioning the past results of U.S. foreign policy in Africa. In particular, one of the first items of business was: “We’ve been fighting Al-Shabaab for a decade, why haven’t we won?” The implications of this question are clear: if the present strategy toward Al-Shabaab is either ineffective or actively making matters worse, then it should be drastically revised.
Although a knee-jerk reaction, popular especially as of late, is to dismiss President Trump’s opinions as impulsive and disconnected from reality, two critical trends in foreign policy contextualized to the Al-Shabaab situation may actually support his position here: 1.) The empirical ineffectiveness of military aid, and 2.) The perennial problem of a local blowback.
On the point of military aid, the United States has spent over half a billion dollars since 2007 to train and equip AMISOM soldiers, as well as committed another half billion dollars to the United Nations Support Office for AMISOM. Furthermore, it has ordered multiple drone strikes and an undisclosed number of special forces operations on critical targets in Somalia under the Obama Administration alone. Beyond the quantifiable costs, one can also point to the immeasurable amount of guidance that U.S. advisors and diplomats have poured into the African Union organization, which includes help with periodic co-operative military exercises, pre-deployment training, and the funding of on the ground advisors for AMISOM operations. Given the immense scale of the American effort in Somalia, it should be reasonable to expect significant results in diminishing the threat of Al-Shabaab.
However, several key indicators show a systematic failure in undermining Al-Shabaab. First, the terrorist group is expanding geographically. Despite continued efforts undertaken by the United States and AMISOM since 2007, the reach of Al-Shabaab has only grown since then, expanding beyond Somalia and into the neighboring states of Kenya and Uganda. What was once a national insurgency has now expanded to an international threat with the capacity to carry out complex conventional military actions. Second, Al Shabaab’s recruitment has not been undermined. A paper from the Institute for Security Studies shows that despite coalition efforts to press upon the physical training camps and recruitment centers, the member base of Al-Shabaab has either grown or remained constant, primarily due to the appeals of the group’s radical ideologies and opportunities for socioeconomic advancement. This concept of radicalization as a recruitment tool can be best comprehended through the release of Al-Shabaab’s latest video, which uses President Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric as a means of spurring action against the United States, the West, and established governmental structure.
Even though proponents of the current U.S. policy may point to individual instances of success, as mentioned in the introduction of this article, these instances only demonstrate Al-Shabaab’s resilience and capacity to sustain through defeats. It is more than readily apparent that Al-Shabaab is an organization that is still moving towards the direction of growth and increasing its threat capacity.
It is also important to examine a phenomenon known as blowback, and how it has historically undermined efforts toward resolving the Al-Shabaab threat. As presented in a previous article, blowback can best be defined as the effect of bolstering, rather than diminishing, of support for Al-Shabaab inadvertently caused by traditional counterterror operations. In extension of the previous article’s analysis, not only has the U.S. entanglement made AMISOM missions increasingly unpopular with local governments and populations in the Greater Horn of Africa region, but it has also actively fostered sympathy for Al-Shabaab as an anti-imperial, anti-Western cause. This then translates into consequential benefits for the group in increased Al-Shabaab recruitment, fewer sources of AMISOM intelligence, and reduced credibility for the U.S. goal of diplomatic expansion.
Even if proponents of current U.S. policy are skeptical about the effects of blowback from indirect military aid, there is also evidence that more tangible efforts (i.e. drone strikes, air strikes, and special forces operations) currently being undertaken against Al-Shabaab lead to an even stronger form of blowback. A case of two drone strikes in one day killing 45 innocent Somali civilians exemplifies this. As predicted by President Johnson’s “Hearts and Minds” paradigm during Vietnam, civilian deaths directly at the hands of the U.S. military are losses and only substantiate local hatred and resentment toward the United States. As a result, to many people, Al-Shabaab has become less of an enemy to fight against, and more of an ally to fight for.
Ultimately, the two big trends of military aid ineffectiveness and blowback both show that President Trump may hold an accurate evaluation of the current strategy toward Al-Shabaab. With over a billion dollars and many African and American lives at stake, a drastic revision of the current policy failure, whether it be the sole discontinuance of drone strikes or the cancelling of operations altogether, is an absolute necessity.
Tony Zhou is a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences at Cornell University, majoring in Economics and Philosophy and minoring in International Relations. He is a member of the Cornell Policy Debate Team and a Policy Analyst for the Roosevelt Institute Center for Economic Policy.
Image Attribution: “Al Shabaab fighters disengage“by AMISOM Public Information, licensed under Public Domain.