Somalia has been a tough policy challenge for President Joe Biden, testing the administration’s efforts to end U.S. involvement in perpetual wars while balancing national security concerns. With rising terrorist violence from al-Shabaab, a massive humanitarian crisis, and willing but severely limited partners on the ground, it has been hard to justify walking away from Somalia from a strategic and moral perspective. Yet Somalia has seemed overwhelming and hopeless for so long, and it’s been unclear for some time whether military action and civilian aid will fundamentally change the trajectory of the country or the threat. The Biden administration appeared to be stuck in this dilemma, unable to make a decision on the way ahead until yesterday’s news that the administration would deploy nearly 500 troops to Somalia to support local forces and that the U.S. military would conduct limited strikes against al-Shabaab targets.
There are reasons to be cautious about this move. On the one hand, support to African Union and Somali security forces could help them beat back an organization that has terrorized Somalia and the region for far too long, while the collaboration also gives us critical insights on Shabaab’s plotting against us. But as Oona Hathaway and I recently wrote, the history of U.S. involvement in Somalia over the past 15 years and the current complex dynamics in Somalia suggest a much bigger and balanced civilian-military effort is needed to degrade al-Shabaab and improve conditions in Somalia.
We currently have only piecemeal knowledge of the deployment. Initially it was anonymous administration officials who fed information to leading newspapers, and there was no significant public rollout that would answer hard questions. In particular, the U.S. government should answer three big questions, which were either not or only partially addressed in yesterday’s news, if we are to evaluate the efficacy, legality, and morality of the policy decision.
1. How severe is the al-Shabaab threat?
For months now, some administration officials have been raising alarms about al-Shabaab’s growing strength. The group has become more aggressive on the battlefield, developed a revenue source in the areas it controls, targeted neighboring countries, and become a critical node in the al-Qaeda global network. As noted in the Washington Post, the Africa Center for Strategic Studies projects that al-Shabaab attacks will rise by 71% this year, reaching levels not seen since 2017, the year that al-Shabaab killed more than 500 people in a truck bomb attack in Mogadishu.
Yet there is still much the public doesn’t know about al-Shabaab plotting, including the extent to which it poses a direct threat to the United States. As Oona and I noted, for many years there have been deep divisions within al-Shabaab about how much the group should focus on external plotting beyond the region. Although some terrorists still travel to Somalia, foreign fighter flows have decreased dramatically since Iraq and Syria became the bigger draw and following the death of American al-Shabaab member Omar al-Hammami. And al-Shabaab has yet to pull off a major attack beyond the region, although there is a growing debate about whether it has the capability and intent to do so.
U.S. officials point to the 2019 arrest of an al-Shabaab-affiliated militant who was taking flying lessons in the Philippines as a sign of Somalia’s worrisome external plotting trendlines. And they mention al-Shabaab’s ability to generate revenue through taxing the territories it controls as an indication that the group could finance a more ambitious external plot. Yet the administration has not shared specific information of al-Shabaab’s ability to attack the United States.
I assume that the administration has not shared more about the threat due to the classified nature of this information. But the U.S. government most likely also has significant intelligence collection gaps in Somalia, a country that typically has fallen below other global threats in terms of strategic priority. Although the primary mission of the U.S. forces probably is not collection, their presence and the security infrastructure they bring could enable the intelligence community to ramp up collection on early indicators and warnings of al-Shabaab external plotting. If this was part of the rationale for the deployment, that would make strategic sense, though such a justification that must be clearly stated and properly bounded so that the risk of the unknown does not remain a perpetual justification for sending U.S. military forces to Somalia.
2. What’s the civilian plan for Somalia?
In the news stories on the deployment, U.S. officials took pains to note that it is part of a larger integrated civil-military strategy designed to help the Somali government, support Somalia’s economic development, and undermine the root causes of counterterrorism. Indeed, recent U.S. actions in Somalia suggest it’s serious about a civilian strategy. The Wall Street Journal reports that in the run-up to last weekend’s presidential elections, in which President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed was clinging to power, the State Department took the unusual step of “restrict[ing] visas for Somali officials it deemed responsible for ‘undermining the democratic process’ in the country.” International donors threatened to cut off a $400 million International Monetary Fund loan and other aid if the former president continued to delay the vote. These efforts seemed to work, leading to the removal of President Mohamed and his replacement with Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who previously served as president from 2012-2017. The United States now has a better partner for its civilian strategy.
Yet little information has been made available on what the civilian strategy entails precisely. What is the plan for addressing corruption in Somalia, building governance and the rule of law, or providing humanitarian assistance to a country where six million people face acute food insecurity and 1.4 million children under the age of five are severely malnourished? How many civilian personnel will deploy to Somalia and with what frequency to complement the nearly 500 military forces? What new budgetary resources will be available to implement the civilian strategy? The persistent U.S. military presence could well enable such efforts, but without more information about what they entail, it’s hard not to see this as a militarized approach to a complex conflict.
Of course, U.S. officials may well have decided that civilian efforts are likely to fail and so the emphasis is on a limited military presence to contain the terrorist threat. But if that’s the case, it raises the question of how the United States can ensure that the most recent deployments in Somalia do not merely perpetuate the kind of open-ended military interventions that the Biden administration has pledged to end.
3. What’s the larger strategic and legal context?
Finally, it’s not clear how this deployment fits into the U.S. government’s larger counterterrorism strategy. This is partly because we don’t know what that strategy is. President Biden campaigned on ending the Forever War – a position I strongly support for various strategic reasons – but after the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Somalia deployment feels like the administration is walking back that pledge and hedging its bets. That’s true even if the National Security Council Spokeswoman Adrienne Watson describes it as “a repositioning of forces already in theater who have traveled in and out of Somalia on an episodic basis.”
In terms of the larger strategic framework, the administration has yet to release its National Strategy for Counterterrorism, and aside from an informative speech last year from the president’s counterterrorism advisor, Liz Sherwood-Randall, top administration officials have been pretty quiet about counterterrorism policies. The White House has not released the new policies on direct action–capture or kill operations outside of clearly defined war zones–that it reportedly has been working on for more than a year. Without any of this context, it’s hard to know how the Somalia deployment contributes to larger efforts against al-Qaeda and ISIS, what level of risk the United States is prepared to accept from foreign terrorist groups, and whether the administration is open to alternative strategic approaches, like a greater reliance on U.S. defenses.
Similarly, Oona Hathaway and I noted a range of legal issues with U.S. involvement in Somalia that should be addressed if operations are to continue there. These include the increasingly tenuous application of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) to al-Shabaab and the use of “collective self-defense” to justify a range of strikes in Somalia. These are important questions to address since, according to the New York Times, the deployment of advisors accompanies a decision to lethally target about a dozen al-Shabaab leaders. The administration has not addressed what rules will cover these strikes other than to note that standards are higher than they were under President Trump. Without more specific information on how these questions are viewed in the context of Somalia, or indeed, how the administration intends to address critical, larger questions like the future viability of the AUMF, it seems likely that this deployment will, at a minimum, further strain an already stretched legal framework.
Setting the legal and strategic frameworks for counterterrorism missions is fundamental for ensuring the efficacy, legality, and morality of such operations. The administration may well have done this, but if so, they haven’t shared much of this critical information with a public that has grown weary of endless military deployments.
Deploying additional forces to have a “persistent presence,” as NSC spokeswoman Whatson described it in a statement, could well be a sound strategic approach that makes Somalia, as well as the United States, safer. But based on what we know right now, we can only speculate.