Since taking office, the Trump Administration has dramatically increased lethal strikes in Somalia. U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) has carried out more than 30 strikes in each of 2017 and 2018, more than twice the previous highest total during the Obama presidency. As part of a recent series of strikes in Somalia, on Nov. 20, the U.S. military conducted a “planned and deliberate” airstrike that the U.S. military claimed killed as many as 27 members of al-Shabaab.

AFRICOM said, as it has in numerous cases, that the operation did not kill or injure any civilians. Such claims require greater scrutiny in the wake of repeated allegations of civilian casualties in Somalia by U.S. and U.S.-backed Somali forces in the past two years. The impact on the ground in Somalia also raises serious questions about the effectiveness of this approach and whether the United States would be better served by exploring alternatives.

Take, for example, two well-documented attacks in August 2017 and May 2018. Local farmers accused Somali Special Forces, who were accompanied by U.S. forces, of killing innocent civilians. In the past year alone, reports of alleged civilian harm were accompanied by claims of damage to homes, agricultural infrastructure, and livestock. In other cases, reporters have suggested that intelligence failures in operations have not only led to civilian harm (see here and here) but also indicate that U.S.-led forces may not be doing all they can to avoid killing and wounding civilians.

A further concern is whether U.S. airstrikes and lethal operations in Somalia are an effective or even a wise strategy, given al-Shabaab’s resilience to counterterrorism activities. The U.S. has been carrying out covert operations in Somalia since at least 2001. In spite of the continued presence of U.S. and foreign forces, including Ethiopian, Kenyan, and African Union peacekeeping troops, al-Shabaab still has the capacity to plan deadly attacks. The group continues to pose a very real threat to Somalis and, in some cases, to our regional neighbors. In September alone, al-Shabaab carried out two deadly attacks against government offices and state institutions in the capital, Mogadishu.

With no signs that U.S. involvement in Somalia will end soon, it is time that U.S. policymakers and the American public question whether violent responses to acts of terrorism have been effective and whether alternative strategies could yield better results. Here, I lay out an alternative approach, including recommendations aimed at addressing the structural causes of extremism in Somalia.

Al-Shabaab’s Persistence and Youth Radicalization

The question asked by many Somalis and other security analysts is the extent to which airstrikes are effective in weakening al-Shabaab or its leadership. Somalis are skeptical. Instead, al-Shabaab appears to have become even stronger, capturing more towns and executing more lethal attacks in Somalia, and replacing both leadership and insurgents. A study published in the Long War Journal found that al-Shabaab launched 418 attacks between October 2017 and April 2018, a six-month period that happens to coincide with an intensified air campaign by the United States.

How has al-Shabaab proven to be so resilient? After each alleged civilian casualty, the group has been able to capitalize on community outrage to recruit more fighters by spreading messages critiquing the Somali government and foreign forces. Al-Shabaab, which means “The Youth,” has been able to target disaffected young Somalis, who feel restless and lacking in purpose as a result of high levels of unemployment and an absence of educational opportunities. Others have been alienated from their communities over suspicions that most young men must be affiliated with al-Shabaab.

From my experience of living in and documenting human rights violations in Somalia, I don’t believe that airstrikes will bring down one of the most powerful active terror groups in Africa.  Instead, what may result is the further radicalization of people living in areas controlled by al-Shabaab, as other commentators have also noted. Other studies support this conclusion, asserting that bombing campaigns by other actors—in particular the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeeping forces—have prompted individuals to join al-Shabaab. What the Somali government and foreign actors need to do is tackle some of the structural and environmental factors that have drawn fighters to the group.

Recommendations to the U.S. Government

Rather than focus on a militaristic solution that will never come, the U.S. government should instead take the following steps:

  1. Minimize the number of airstrikes and lethal operations, both in terms of solo U.S. operations and those involving partners, particularly in populated areas. If strikes are used, they must be conducted with a view towards minimizing civilian casualties and in accordance with international human rights law, as well as international humanitarian law, when applicable. Increasing the number of drone and other lethal attacks will only amplify anti-Western sentiment.
  2. Somalia’s security sector, including its army, intelligence services, and police, are underfunded, poorly trained, disorganized, and unaccountable. Local and government institutions need to be perceived as legitimate in order to counter al-Shabaab’s narrative of foreign occupation. If the U.S. is serious about ensuring the stability of a future Somali state, it should minimize its own military footprint and dedicate its resources to strengthening accountable and legitimate security sectors by:
    1. Strengthening the Somali National Army with both technical and financial assistance. Such support should also include training on human rights and humanitarian law. Currently our soldiers are underpaid and lack the requisite training in reducing civilian harm.
    2. Supporting the federal government in forming special regional units under the control of the Somali National Army, with the specific task of liberating all regions under the control of al-Shabaab and in the southern regions of the country where the group has active training camps.
  3. Perhaps most importantly, the U.S. needs to shift from its current approach of trying to defeat al-Shabaab militarily to a focus on empowering local communities, particularly youth. Unemployment is one of the biggest problems in Somalia, causing youth to commit crimes or get involved in gang and terrorist groups. In a study based on interviews with 88 former members of al-Shabaab, 25 percent of respondents identified both economic and religious regions for why they were drawn to join the organization after being offered $100-150 a month. Although unemployment was not the only or main reason cited, it was indeed a contributing factor. My organization has documented cases where an al-Shabaab intelligence unit known as “Amniyat” killed high-profile government officials, businessmen, activists, and other valuable individuals for money. Investing more in programs that address poverty, inequality, education, and employment can provide alternative realities for youth who are idle or otherwise vulnerable to al-Shabaab’s recruitment. Unfortunately, the U.S. government has drastically cut funding for similar international assistance efforts since the Trump administration took office. Such alternatives to military operations and their costs do, however, need to be pursued to truly defeat al-Shabaab and should be in collaboration with local civil society and various Somali government bodies.

A deep-rooted ideology cannot be defeated with bombs dropped from the sky. Al-Shabaab members have committed to die fighting for their cause. Whether they die or not, it is a win for them.

What is needed is a real shift in strategy. Most of Somalia’s population, particularly its youth, has known only war. For that to change, the United States and the international community need to work more closely with Somalia’s government and civil society to carve a different – and more constructive and productive — path to peace and an end to terror attacks at home and abroad.

IMAGE: A Somali soldier patrols next to the burnt-out wreckage of a car that was used by suspected al-Shabaab fighters on April 16, 2017.
Somali security forces shot dead two suspected militants who were said to be involved in firing rockets. (PHOTO: MOHAMED ABDIWAHAB/AFP/Getty Images)