Strategic Progress Remains Elusive in America’s Expanded Air Campaign Against Al-Shabaab
In 2017, the United States conducted twice as many airstrikes against al-Shabaab as it did in 2016 — 31 strikes compared to 15. Last week, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) launched an airstrike that killed two al-Shabaab members near Jilib, a longstanding stronghold of the Somali jihadist organization allied with al-Qaeda.
Since the Trump administration increased the military’s authorities to go after al-Shabaab, airstrikes have increased significantly. Along with the 500 U.S. troops deployed to the country, last March the campaign expanded beyond self-defense to include offensive strikes with greater flexibility to target the group and support the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali forces. The campaign is having a disruptive effect on the group, but has, at best, reached a stalemate. Al-Shabaab’s setbacks have been largely tactical and will remain so unless the Somali government addresses its endemic weaknesses in the realm of security and justice.
I have taken several field research trips to Kenya and Somalia to assess the state of al-Shabaab over the period of increased strikes. I have found that, as has occurred against other terrorist groups, the U.S. strikes are succeeding in forcing al-Shabaab commanders to focus more on personal security at the expense of other activities. With the threat of air strikes looming, al-Shabaab commanders and operatives have to take greater precautions in their daily activities. They have to be more cautious about their movements and communications, which hampers coordination. Their leaders, particularly high-value targets, are less accessible to their members. When members have to dedicate resources to their own security, it reduces their ability to effectively engage in operational planning.
The air strikes also stoke fears of spies and infiltrators, which can lead to witch hunts that damage group cohesion. Al-Shabaab is known for being particularly ruthless in its efforts to root out informers. The group’s recent efforts to identify spies in the communities it controls have alienated locals who fear being falsely accused and resent the group’s heavy-handedness. They also fuel internal dissent as commanders eye one another with suspicion and the accused are often executed based on little evidence or coerced confessions. There are also reports of an increase in defections from al-Shabaab, which exacerbates tensions within the group.
The pressure has come at a time when the group has experienced some resistance from clans and locals in the areas it controls. In some places, al-Shabaab has sought to extract too much from local communities, particularly through its taxation and demands that children leave their families to attend al-Shabaab schools.
Finally, the airstrikes have disrupted some planned attacks. In 2017 and so far in 2018, AFRICOM reported on at least three occasions that strikes destroyed vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices intended for use in Mogadishu. A strike in July also killed an al-Shabaab commander who had been responsible for attacks in Mogadishu.
However, there is a limit to what the current efforts can achieve. Al-Shabaab is a mature and resilient organization with a proven track record of adapting to challenges. After more than a decade and enduring numerous losses, including of its founding leader, the group has developed a deep bench — which means it can replace commanders, and even leaders, with limited long-term disruption. Moreover, unlike al-Qaeda in Pakistan, against which air strikes were particularly effective, al-Shabaab is embedded in Somali society and its populace.
Though the strikes have thwarted some attacks and damaged the group’s planning, al-Shabaab retains robust operational capacity. The group conducted a devastating attack in Mogadishu in October that killed over 500. More recently, its attack on Feb. 23 using both car bombs and armed assailants against the presidential palace in Mogadishu killed more than 38 and demonstrated its continued ability to strike even in heart of the capital. The group even gained temporary control of a town north of Mogadishu earlier this month.
Additionally, some observers are concerned the airstrikes are inflicting civilian casualties. Because the strikes often occur in areas controlled by al-Shabaab, it is difficult for third parties to independently verify and report on the consequences of specific strikes. AFRICOM’s standard language in press releases that “We assess no civilians were killed in this strike” does little to persuade skeptics, as locals may have a different understanding of who constitutes a civilian. Consequently, al-Shabaab has succeeded in persuading at least a segment of Somali society and even some international observers that the airstrikes disproportionately harm Somali civilians. As a result, strikes could increase support for the group in some corners and make an eventual handoff to Somali forces more difficult in the long term.
Even some of the gains against al-Shabaab may be exaggerated. There are questions about the reported surge in defections, with well-connected sources privately telling me that the Somali security services are hyping this trend to stoke dissension within al-Shabaab. Defection is very risky; al-Shabaab has an intelligence apparatus, the Amniyat, renowned for its ability to target defectors and other adversaries. Because the group still controls significant territory and has networks throughout the country, it can punish the families and clans of defectors, which is a significant deterrent. Moreover, defectors hailing from areas of al-Shabaab control have nowhere to go, as they cannot return to their homelands. Overall, al-Shabaab remains remarkably unified for an organization operating in Somalia, where fractures within organizations are common.
The Intractable Realities
Neither AMISOM nor the increased U.S. military involvement can shift a key strategic advantage from al-Shabaab: the government’s weakness. The group has penetrated significant swathes of Somali society, and, by some accounts, has infiltrated the state’s intelligence service, police, and military. Many families, clans, businessmen, and even some in the government are still hedging and providing support to al-Shabaab, even as they also back the government.
While the group’s terrorist capability, particularly its attacks in Mogadishu, receive the most attention, it draws strength from exploiting the government’s weakness — including the divisions between the Somali Federal Government and federal member states, especially in the rural areas of Southern Somalia. Al-Shabaab’s courts remain the preferred venue for dispute resolution, even among residents of Mogadishu who may not support the group’s aims or harsh forms of punishment. The roads it controls remain the best route to travel within Somalia to avoid predation, and its checkpoints are a stable source of funds. Even in places where the group does not enjoy public support, it has sufficient coercive power that people abide by the rulings of its courts and pay the taxes it demands.
Equally important, al-Shabaab enjoys the allegiance of some marginalized clans that have suffered in the decades of clan fighting and lack power in the current government structure. In some places, al-Shabaab gains the clans’ adherence by offering power and bolstering them against their rivals. In other places, the group exploits their vulnerability to coerce their allegiance. Either way, al-Shabaab has exploited the government’s failure to provide rural security, especially for disadvantaged clans.
Over more than a decade, al-Shabaab has effectively evolved in response to its environment and adversaries. It has been everything from a small clandestine terrorist network to a quasi-state controlling major swathes of territory. It has grappled with internal tensions and weathered leadership losses. But it has survived and found ways to recover from setbacks and thrive. While the airstrikes and military operations inflict losses, the fundamental weakness of the Somali state provides a vacuum that the group has and will continue to fill.
Despite all this, there may be an increased reliance on airstrikes as AMISOM begins a conditions-based withdrawal in the hopes of eventually handing over responsibility to Somali forces. In the interim, AMISOM has diminished offensive capability, and Somali forces cannot compensate for the loss. The experience in Somalia offers a cautionary tale at a time when air strikes have become a staple of U.S. counterterrorism efforts in conflict zones ranging from Afghanistan to Yemen. In places where the insurgency is embedded in local populaces and where the state is fundamentally weak, air strikes can keep the insurgents off-balance. Combined with pressure from local forces, they can even help roll back insurgents’ territorial holdings. But these military victories have limitations, as has become apparent not only in Somalia, but also Afghanistan. Though the task of developing a state with legitimacy among its people is difficult, there is no military substitute for it to truly defeat an indigenous insurgency.
Tricia Bacon is an Assistant Professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Why Terrorist Groups Form International Alliances. Prior to joining the faculty at American, she worked on counterterrorism at the Department of State for over ten years.