On Aug. 14, the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) conducted an airstrike in Somalia targeting al-Shabaab militants in a remote location near Teedaan, in the Hiran region. The command reported that the strike killed 13 al-Shabaab members and that no civilians were injured or killed. The strike was just one example of an uptick of U.S. airstrikes in Somalia that, together with a redeployment of U.S. Special Forces to Somalia, comes despite new Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s calls for reconciliation and a Somalia at “peace with itself, and peace with the rest of the world.”
The U.S. government and the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) argue that these strikes are necessary to erode al-Shabaab’s capability to conduct operations in Mogadishu, as well as to create space for the FGS and partner forces to access parts of the country at risk of severe famine. It is also a clear attempt at degrading the militant group and forcing them – in a significantly weakened position – to some sort of settlement. Notably, President Mohamud himself on Sept. 16 said his government’s ‘doors are always open’ should al-Shabaab show willingness to negotiate but that he believes that time is not now. Such a statement lends credibility to the idea that the FGS, with U.S. support, is escalating its operations against al-Shabaab to achieve a better negotiating position. We have heard this argument before in Afghanistan and, indeed, in Somalia itself – with mixed results.
Will this Approach Lead to Peace?
Recent Saferworld research (here and here) reviewed two decades of responses to armed conflicts involving proscribed, violent groups. Strategies in conflict contexts like Somalia, still heavily predicated on counterterrorism, appear to offer “shortcuts to security” – but have three important flaws:
(1) Violence leads to retaliation, overreaction and escalatory cycles of violence, not openings for negotiations or peace settlements.
Five days after the airstrike near Teedaan, al-Shabaab launched one of their most daring attacks in recent memory – a 30-hour siege of the Hayat hotel in central Mogadishu – which left over 20 dead and 117 injured. The timing of this operation was no coincidence. There is a history of violent retaliation after military operations in Somalia. Notably, the October 2017 attack that killed over 500 people at the Zoobe junction was reportedly carried out by a former soldier in Somalia’s army whose hometown was raided by Somali troops and U.S. special forces two months earlier in an operation in which ten civilians were reportedly killed. Escalation from the Somali and U.S. military often leads to escalation from al-Shabaab.
Attacks such as the Hayat hotel siege leave politicians and policymakers with few apparent choices. The fear of looking weak in the face of an act of terror often leads to emotive calls for retribution and the defeat of the perpetrators. As detailed in No Shortcuts to Security, overreaction is highly likely. We see time and time again violent armed groups knowingly provoke such overreaction from state authorities, which leads to the exacerbation of violence, the escalation of local grievances, and the reduction in conditions conducive to a political settlement or conflict resolution. As Tom Parker eloquently writes, this is ‘the terrorist trap’’— the expectation of new cycles of violence increases the risk of terror attacks.
(2) Civilians are frequently caught in the crossfire.
Significant military escalation against groups such as al-Shabaab, which remains deeply embedded in “all walks and stations of Somali life,”poses a huge risk for civilians. As Saferworld and other research has documented, the approach to degrade and defeat al-Shabaab can often catch civilians and civilian infrastructure in the crossfire, feeding anger and tensions. Indeed, the U.S. military has a poor track record of avoiding civilian harm. Al-Shabaab is – like most violent, proscribed groups – not a traditional battlefield enemy, which makes the protection of civilians even harder in militarized counterterrorism efforts.
Further, when operations – like the one preceding the Zoobe Junction bombing – cause civilian casualties, it only reinforces al-Shabaab’s grievance-based propaganda. This can have the knock-on effect of accelerating recruitment patterns and undermining state legitimacy. While there are signs that U.S.policy on civilian harm reduction may turn a positive corner, it remains to be seen how this translates in practice. Either way, it is unclear how airstrikes – and broader military operations – can meaningfully impact al-Shabaab’s capacity and standing, barring a significant escalation in hostilities that would likely lead to extensive civilian harm.
(3) A militarized counterterrorism approach results in diminishing returns.
There is a wealth of evidence that the militarized response of the Somali government and its international partners has had diminishing returns. Al-Shabaab made its most significant advances during the Trump administration’s massive expansion of airstrikes in the country. This period – one of significant political dysfunction in Somalia – lends credibility to the argument that the conflict with al-Shabaab is political, not military, at its core. Despite 15 years of enormous investment to degrade and destroy the group, al-Shabaab remains a resilient armed force capable of “reinventing” itself to maintain relevance. Consistent drone attacks have killed several senior leaders, the group easily replaces them and has evolved and spread into an extensive movement throughout large swathes of the country.
One of the reasons that a military strategy of escalation has only achieved stalemate in Somalia is that it tends to mistakenly frame al-Shabaab as the cause of Somalia’s upheaval, rather than a product of a wider conflict ecosystem. Many of those with whom we interact in our research or day-to-day peacebuilding programming point out that, without tackling the wider drivers of conflict in Somalia, efforts to stabilize the country will continue to falter. For President Mohamud’s stated goal to be realized, the root causes of violence will have to be addressed – a task for which counterterrorism operations are ill-equipped.
What are the Alternatives?
There are no quick fixes in Somalia. We acknowledge that states have a right to self-defense and a duty to protect their citizens from violent armed groups, which always carries the risk of civilian harm. Nor is it clear that President Mohamud has a partner for peace in al-Shabaab. The obstacles to reconciliation are significant: ideological differences, domestic resistance, internal political divisions, weak government legitimacy, and a basic lack of trust. Withdrawing all international military support to Somalia would potentially lead to similar widespread harms as those that have befallen the people of Afghanistan. On the other hand, increasing airstrikes and kinetic attacks against an entrenched armed group like al-Shabaab without a wider political and peace strategy might improve short-term security, but will not produce a lasting peace.
While moving away from “degrade and defeat” policy toward strategic reconciliation will not bring that peace overnight either, we offer core tenets that should orient a new approach:
Reframe the overall approach to the conflict.
No matter how hard or abhorrent it might seem, in order to break the cycles of violence, the FGS and partners will need to move beyond thinking about this as a battle against a terrorist group. When the “terrorist” label is employed it removes potential conciliation and resolution options from the table, given the political and legal challenges of negotiating with “terrorists.” If the FGS and partners are serious about peace, they will need to instead treat al-Shabaab as an armed insurgent group that employs terrorist tactics, thereby opening up possibilities for dialogue that could end the cycle of violence.
Treating al-Shabaab as an insurgent group also clarifies some realities that the “terrorism” label obscures. Al-Shabaab is not an ideologically monolithic group beyond its senior leadership council, which has pledged support to al-Qaeda. Many of its cadres represent disaffected or minority clans whose reasons for joining al-Shabaab are political, economic or historical, and thus could be reconcilable with the Somali state. The Somali government has recognized this to varying degrees, as evidenced by the active “defection” programs they have supported. The point here is that a more conflict-sensitive and attuned approach to al-Shabaab is necessary – an approach that the logic of counterterrorism denies.
Prioritize protection of civilians from violence.
It is of paramount importance to overturn military-security responses to conflict that – through carelessness or by design – inflict collective and/or arbitrary harm on conflict-affected communities across Somalia. Policymakers in the United States and Somalia should limit any consideration of the use of force to efforts that carefully, discriminately, and proportionately respond to the violence of al-Shabaab – and do so with explicit offers for reconciliation, should the group move away from violence. An overall peace strategy will need to be reinforced through security approaches that protect people, guarantee the day-to-day safety of communities, and do so in a trust-building, accountable and respectful way, with communities’ own close involvement.
Test the waters on alternative approaches that do not require large escalations of the use of force.
A new approach in Somalia will need to respect demands for security, while working toward stability and reconciliation, rather than the impossible goal of military victory. In our study of how stabilization strategies in Colombia, Northern Ireland, and Iraq at times brought about building blocks of peace, we saw how efforts to develop bridges between previously opposing groups moved violent actors back towards the political space, dispelled mistrust and built confidence. Such processes can start big at the top or small at the bottom – but the reality is that the government will not be the sole actor that brings peace to Somalia. Entry points must include private sector, religious, and clan leaders. These multiple tracks will require sensitive external support, with a clear acknowledgement that a Somali problem ultimately needs a Somali-led solution.
Continual analysis at both the strategic and tactical levels within the national security architecture is necessary to the evolution of conditions for peace and political settlement, and the impact of any military strategies on these. This will mean hyper-local trust-building efforts, efforts to meaningfully address grievances, reduce corrupt and predatory practices, and sustained engagement efforts with influential segments of society.
Moreover, the government must respond creatively and courageously to opportunities for laying the foundations for future political reconciliation. One such possibility may already be present, with the impending announcement of famine conditions in parts of Somalia and the urgent need for humanitarian access and relief. The government should explore the possibility of humanitarian ceasefires with al Shabaab to get urgently needed relief to suffering communities.
President Mohamud might be right that the conditions for political and security settlements in Somalia do not currently exist. Yet if peace aspirations are serious, it will be crucial to start laying the foundations now and pursuing a more conflict-sensitive security strategy. International partners like the United States should support Somalis as they lead these efforts. Without such an approach, groups like al-Shabaab will have no incentive to reject terrorist tactics and engage in political negotiations. The path to peace in Somalia cannot rest on counterterrorism operations alone.