MOGADISHU—On August 29, U.S. forces carried out their 21st confirmed airstrike in Somalia this year. The short U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) press release announcing the strike on al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda linked insurgency that has sought to implement a hardline Islamic state in Somalia, resembled those that had come before it: It specified neither the kind of aircraft used, the exact location of the strike, nor the identities of those killed. As with past press statements, this one also claimed that no civilians were killed or injured in the strike.
Though America’s drone war in Somalia has been shrouded in secrecy, in the last year and a half the number of American airstrikes in Somalia have notably increased. According to multiple foreign analysts, Somali officials, and several al-Shabaab defectors, these strikes have become one of the most effective tools in confronting the group. The air campaign has hindered al-Shabaab’s ability to communicate, sown widespread mistrust among its members, and restricted its leaders’ mobility.
The noticeable uptick in strikes in Somalia came after President Trump approved policy changes ending the limitation on drone strikes imposed by the Obama administration. In March 2017, Trump designated parts of Somalia an “area of active hostilities,” temporarily bringing them under less-restrictive targeting rules. By September of last year, his administration had reportedly approved new targeting rules for drone strikes called “Principles, Standards and Procedures,” which dismantled several Obama-era restrictions. As the Pentagon’s freedom to carry out drone strikes in Somalia has expanded, so too has the CIA’s authorities to conduct drone warfare in North Africa. According to a report from The New York Times published over the weekend, the CIA is set to conduct secret drone strikes in North Africa from a newly expanded base in the Sahara and with authorities once scaled back under the Obama administration.
This latest strike in Somalia, which occurred in the southwestern part of the country, killed three unnamed members of al-Shabaab, according to AFRICOM. That American airpower is necessary to fight a 5,000-man insurgency, operating mostly with old AK-47s, may seem surprising. But local forces advised by American special operators have proven unable to break a tired pattern born from ground operations: First, African Union Peacekeepers and Somali National Security Forces repel al-Shabaab from a rural town; several days later, they withdraw from the town to a nearby forward operating base; and then, predictably, al-Shabaab returns.
Why do security and a strong government in Mogadishu matter for U.S. interests? Though America’s fight against the Islamic State in north Africa has made headlines over the last year, chaos in Somalia has long been a focal point for the U.S. global war on terror. Al-Shabaab pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2012 and in recent years a small contingent of the Islamic State has set up camp in Somalia’s north, raising fears in Washington that it could become a staging ground for international terrorists. Indeed, despite the Pentagon’s current discussions about dramatically reducing the number of U.S. commandos and drawing down outposts across the continent, Somalia is one of only two African countries in which the United States will maintain a robust military presence.
The problem is that while airstrikes and ground offensives can disrupt al-Shabaab’s ability to conduct attacks, Somalia cannot establish lasting security without help to build sustainable governing institutions. Ostensibly, such state-building efforts would be led by the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which have sought to bolster local government institutions and Somalia’s civil society, and provide basic services like education and healthcare. But as the State Department’s already weak authority is further diminished under the Trump administration, the Pentagon has effectively taken the lead in Somalia.
“Drone strikes may have a purpose, but they are no substitute for a political strategy,” Ken Menkhaus, a Somalia expert at Davidson College, told me. Al-Shabaab, he said, survives by exploiting the grievances of clans and other groups marginalized by an empowered elite. This “is fundamentally a political problem, not a military problem, and that requires a political solution and not a military solution,” he said.
In the decade after the Black Hawk Down disaster in 1993, in which 18 American soldiers were killed and 73 injured in a bloody battle in Mogadishu, U.S. policymakers sought to avoid direct intervention in Somalia. But as fears of the spread of Islamic extremism gripped Washington after 9/11, the CIA partnered with Somali warlords to target al-Qaeda operatives in the country. When a coalition of moderate Islamic courts pushed those warlords out of the city, the Bush administration backed an Ethiopian invasion into Somalia to overthrow that government. As it fell, its more extremist leaders splintered off into their own independent militant organization—al-Shabaab. U.S. involvement in the fight against al-Shabaab was sporadic in the years that followed, until an attack in 2013 by the group on Westgate Mall in Nairobi, which killed 67 people, including 19 foreigners. President Obama subsequently increased the number of U.S. boots on the ground and the number airstrikes carried out in defense of American and African troops.
But according to Trump’s Principles, Standards and Procedures, the administration has afforded special operations forces even greater latitude to conduct drone strikes in Somalia, no longer restricting them to strikes carried out in self-defense as they had been under the Obama administration. In the last year and a half, the United States has drastically escalated its drone war in Somalia, conducting at least 33 strikes in 2017 and 21 thus far this year, compared to 13 in 2016 and five in 2015, according to New America, a Washington-based think tank. According to AFRICOM, airstrikes have targeted mid- and high-level al-Shabaab figures, the most notable of which was Ahmed Abdi Godane, al-Shabaab’s then-emir, who was killed in a U.S. air strike in 2014. (AFRICOM press statements have not indicated which leaders have been killed in the last year.) As a result, the group’s key players have been forced “to allocate more time and energy on their personal security, which takes away resources from planning attacks and doing other activities,” Tricia Bacon, a former State Department counter-terrorism expert currently researching Somalia, told me. “It’s a tactical-level disruptive effect,” she said.
Recent defectors from al-Shabaab, who requested anonymity to protect their security, told me that those personal-security measures reflected a growing sense of paranoia among the group’s leaders. Weary of being tracked by their cell phones, many now prefer handwritten notes sent by motorcycle-riding couriers, which slows communication. Fears of drone strikes have limited their ability to meet in person. When al-Shabaab leaders do travel, it is often only from villages in open areas to ones nearby with more tree cover to shield themselves from the American eyes in the sky, one recent defector told me. After several militants riding in cars were killed by drone strikes, top-level figures began traveling mostly by motorcycle, he said. While AFRICOM hasn’t commented on this shift, advisors working with Americans in Somalia have confirmed this. “The conventional wisdom is that the increase in airstrikes has forced al-Shabaab to scatter its leadership and decentralize its decision-making,” Menkhaus said. As al-Shabaab leaders have beefed up their personal-security measures, they’ve also grown suspicions of Somali civilians living in their territory. “When an attack happens in town they put more pressure on the locals,” one resident of Mubarak town, long an al-Shabaab stronghold in southwest Somalia, told me. “They are imprisoning more people, enforcing stricter rules for going to mosque, beating people who don’t arrive on time, and finding excuses to arrest people and then question them.” Al-Shabaab members are also increasingly turning on each other. Everyone from foot soldiers to ranking officials have been imprisoned and even killed on suspicions of sharing information with the Americans, according to Maj. Gen. Abdiweli Jama Hussein, former chief of Somali defense forces. “It shows how mistrust and conflict has spread even to the leadership level,” he said.Fearing a shortage of soldiers due to defections or casualties at the start of the year, al-Shabaab sent hundreds of foot soldiers out of southern Somalia, where the majority of U.S. strikes have been concentrated. In Basra, a small farming village in central Somalia near Mogadishu, the number of al-Shabaab militants jumped from an estimated 50 or so in the fall of 2016 to 600 by February this year, according to local residents. “We haven’t seen this many al-Shabaab in Basra since they still controlled Mogadishu in 2008,” a woman from Basra told me in February. Like roughly 1,000 other families from Basra, she and her children fled the town for an internally displaced persons camp on the outskirts of Mogadishu after al-Shabaab tried to recruit her son.
Things in Mogadishu itself, meanwhile, are changing. While the capital was once considered quite dangerous, it has experienced prolonged periods free of Al Shabaab attacks for the first time in years. Between the end of last October and the end of February, the city suffered no vehicle-born IED attacks—the longest dry spell in nearly 10 years, according to Jason Warner, a researcher with the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. According to AFRICOM, in that time U.S. airstrikes reportedly hit a number of vehicle-born IEDs moving into the city. Though the city has since seen an uptick in al-Shabaab attacks, this period of relative quiet in Mogadishu illustrated what General Thomas Waldhauser, head of AFRICOM, described earlier this year as his command’s central purpose in Somalia: to create the baseline security needed for political institution-building. “One of the pillars of what we try to do, is our tactical gains to buy time and space for governance to take hold. And this is where we get into the idea of us supporting political efforts. This is why we … have devoted significant energy and resources to assist State Department,” Waldhauser told the House Armed Services Committee in March.
Yet even as this increase in activity by U.S. forces has disrupted al-Shabaab, Somalia has made few strides towards political stability. All levels of government still struggle to perform basic functions, like collecting taxes and providing public services in major cities, much less exert authority in more rural areas. Over the last year, Somalia’s state governments and federal government have been locked in a tense battle over the division of power, further fracturing the country’s weak political system.Advisors to the United States and the UN mission in Somalia often describe the country as one of the most complex environments for Western state-building efforts. Somalia is constantly embroiled in nuanced and ever-changing clan disputes. The protracted war with al-Shabaab has created an economy in which some Somali elites benefit from the influx of foreign aid, and therefore seek to maintain the status quo. “Somalia is a political economy with powerful cartels interested in perpetuating a status quo involving very expensive international efforts to pour money into security sector reform,” Menkhaus said. “People are making fortunes off of that, they have no interest in actually solving the problem.” Successful state-building in Somalia will require considerable American investment. But, as those who have worked at or with the State Department in recent years have told me, there simply aren’t enough staffers or sufficient space to house them in Somalia. They are effectively unable to move beyond Mogadishu’s green zone into the city itself and the country at large due to security concerns. Their military counterparts are afforded both more resources and mobility. “There’s no ill will or grand plan of the Pentagon to take over foreign policy. It’s happening because they out-resource, outrank, and out-number the State Department to a tremendous degree in Somalia,” a former State Department official working in the U.S. mission to Somalia told me. “We were not staffed up to be able to provide the diplomatic support and pressure on the political side to make the kinetic activity effective in achieving its end goal.”As a result, U.S. military officials, many of whom rotate in and out of Somalia every four or six months, have become the de facto face of U.S. diplomacy in the country. The country has also been without an ambassador for nearly a year, after former Ambassador Stephen Schwartz abruptly left his post in October 2017. In July, President Trump named Donald Yamamoto, a veteran American diplomat in Africa, ambassador to Somalia. That could signal a renewed attention to the importance of diplomatic leadership within the U.S. mission.“It’s a cowboy zone,” Bronwyn Bruton, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, said of the U.S. counter-terrorism and state-building efforts in Somalia. “There is no grown-up in the room on the U.S. side, no senior official, who knows how to invest political capital into doing it right,” she added. Instead, those determining policy on the ground “want to go in and try new things and solve the problems and they end up making things worse.” According to Bruton, Somalia has experienced a “toxic mix” of the worst of both Pentagon and State Department instincts. “The State Department’s worst instincts are to do cut-rate nation-building on a fraction of the budget they used in Afghanistan,” she said. “In my view the Pentagon’s worst instinct is the idea of ‘African solutions to African problems’ which is to say, the U.S. wants to kill the bad guys in Somalia but doesn’t want to risk the lives of its own soldiers to do it.”
In Somalia, the Pentagon has heavily invested in training Somali special forces. The CIA has also long provided funding to Somali National Intelligence Security Agency (NISA), which it uses for intelligence gathering. Yet such partnerships could come to haunt Washington: Over the last year alone, NISA has been used to violently arrest opposition leaders and journalists, a pattern that could derail the idealized sustainability that comes with building local forces’ capacity.
“Foreigners need to understand they can’t successfully meddle in Somalia,” Bruton told me. “You cannot go in there and manipulate Somalis into doing what you want them to do. Until the U.S. accepts that, they will prevent Somalis from find their own solutions to these local and national problems.”