An Optimistic Examination of East African Terrorism
Late last September, the world's collective attention was drawn to the East African nation of Kenya, where a group of Islamist terrorists—members of Al-Qaeda's Somalian affiliate, Al-Shabaab—had launched a deadly campaign of violence in Nairobi's Westgate shopping mall. Despite having killed over 70 innocent civilians, the attack was not an unprecedented one considering Al-Shabaab's case history(the group carried out a suicide-bombing campaign in Uganda three years ago that claimed 76 lives). However, while these attacks are certainly indicative of the group's shift in strategic outlook and change in tactics, they are also, I would argue, a sign of the group's weakening and decline.
Firstly, the significance of the aforementioned attacks is made much clearer when closely examining the history of the group that propagated them. Al-Shabaab was founded in 2002 by four Somali militants returning from Afghanistan, and existed largely as a loose militia(directed, at least in some part, by the popular Islamic Courts Union (ICU) movement). However, by 2006, Somalia had essentially devolved into anarchy; consequently, ad-hoc Sharia courts stepped in and replaced the government, providing justice to the people and challenging the various warlord factions that terrorized the country. In so doing, the group became incredibly popular among the Somali people, and in February of 2006, the declining, secular warlords formed a pact called the Alliance for Peace Restoration and Counter Terrorism (APRCT).
At this time, U.S. officials, fearing the growing power of the Sharia courts, began to funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars through the CIA to fight the ICU. However, by June 2006, the ICU had routed the warlords and secured near-total control of Somalia's capital city, Mogadishu, largely due to the increased influence of Al-Shabaab within the organization.
In a radical change of fate for the courts, the Ethiopian military invaded Somalia in December 2006, scattering most of the ICU forces within the first week of fighting. Al-Shabaab in particular suffered heavy losses. Yet, despite the group's weakened state, they decided to formally break relations with the ICU, arguing that the alliance(which had fled to Eritrea and allied with secular opposition groups), was not Islamic enough.
The split from the ICU, it turns out, helped Al-Shabaab to leverage the Ethiopian invasion in its own favor by allowing the group to focus on what are known as asymmetrical attacks. While other insurgent groups continued to engage the Ethiopian military in costly open field gun battles, Al-Shabaab employed roadside bombs, hit-and-run attacks, and suicide bombersto target 'soft' spots in the Ethiopian-backed Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG). And these attacks proved highly effective: the TFG was unable to establish itself as a functioning entity, and Ethiopia was eventually forced to withdraw its troops in January of 2009.
When the Ethiopian military withdrew, the TFG’s poorly trained military was unable to stop the rapid expansion of Al-Shabaab territory. Government forces simply were not strong enough to secure all of Somalia. Indeed, the terrorist group was even able to conquer the TFG’s interim capital of Baidoa. But while Al-Shabaab's tactics were successful in driving out the Ethiopians, some predicted this success would eventually help bring about the group's downfall, as Ethiopia's presence was widely seen to be the main source of the group's popularity. In reality, the withdrawal created a security vacuum that allowed Al-Shabaab to make the largest territorial gains in its history.
However, as the group gained more territory, it was forced to shift its focus to nationalist concerns—such as good governance and administration—and to embroil itself in Somali clan politics. This shift from a focus on global jihad created tensions in the group at precisely the time the UN approved the deployment of a regional peacekeeping force, known formally as the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).
While struggling initially, AMISOM helped bring the battlefront in Mogadishu to a stalemate. In Somalia's capital, the concentrated forces of the TFG and AMISOM were able to hold off the Islamist forces who had made the mistake of engaging a qualitatively better force in costly direct combat, sapping the group of precious men and resources. Compounding this mistake was Al-Shabaab's conflict with other rival non-state actors, which required the group to divide its forces.
By the end of 2010, the momentum had turned in favor of AMISOM, as evidenced by the group's ultimately successful counteroffensive that forced Al-Shabaab to withdraw from Mogadishu in August 2011. And following Al-Shabaab's defeat, the Kenyan military launched its own offensive into southern Somalia in October 2011, targeting Al-Shabaab territory and key border towns. Soon after, Ethiopia intervened against the group’s holdings in central Somalia.
The combined Ethiopian, Kenyan, AMISOM, and TFG forces—in addition to rival non-state actors—successfully forced Al-Shabaab to retreat from its key territorial strongholds over the course of what proved to be an eventful 2012 for the beleaguered terrorist group. As a strategy to garner international support, the group announced a merger with Al-Qaeda in mid-February of that year, only to see, in the following 18 months, an internal division between its leader, Muktar Abdirahman Godane, and a group of his senior lieutenants. The split was ideological one, as Godane had a more internationalist vision for the organization(as part of Al-Qaeda’s global jihad), whereas the group of officers had a more nationalist vision. His senior leadership gradually became united and violent clashes occurred in June 2013 between Godane loyalists and forces loyal to one of his lieutenants, with Godane as the victor.
The Westgate Mall massacre, I would argue, could even be viewed as an attempt by him to either consolidate leadership or reassert his group’s importance to Al-Qaeda after its major losses of territory. However, these setbacks will not spell the end of Al-Shabaab. As was the case in 2006, it will return to asymmetric operations when faced with a stronger enemy. The shift from overt operations(conventional attacks, holding and administering territory) to covert attacks(suicide bombings, hit-and-run attacks) is a telling sign, one that is suggestive of the group's decline.
This presumed decline cannot, however, be taken for granted. We have already seen Al-Shabaab pull itself from the ashes once before, and it will continue to launch mass casualty events like the Westgate operation, especially after its recent ideological “return”, so to speak, to internationalist jihad. While boosting the group's jihadist credentials, mass casualty events like Westgate also help to discourage AMISOM participant nations from continued intervention in Somalia. And without AMISOM, the current Somali government will very likely collapse, paving the way for Al-Shabaab’s resurgence.
AMISOM’s continued expansion, despite reported shortages of specialized equipment, gives the international community at least some hope that partner nations will not pull out of the country anytime soon. Since 2010, two new countries have joined, and both Ethiopia and Kenya have recently agreed to move their forces under AMISOM’s command. In addition, US military operations in Somalia are ongoing: an attempt by the US’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) to capture an Al-Shabaab leader, as well as intermittent air strikes and cover operations since at least 2007, suggest the terror network has been on JSOC’s target deck for some time.
Nevertheless, neither the US military nor AMISOM can be expected to destroy Al-Shabaab through kinetic operations alone. A RAND study has found that, historically, most terrorist groups are destroyed when they join the political process, or when local police and intelligence agencies arrest or kill key members. In fact, according to the authors, military force itself has rarely succeeded in ending terrorist networks.1 However, both the US and AMISOM operations are still valuable, in my opinion, as they have put Al-Shabaab on the defensive by disrupting the group’s organization and forcing it underground.
Furthermore, counter-terror operations will give the Somali transitional government, now the Federal Government of Somalia, breathing space to begin the process of reunifying the country. The governmental institutions themselves will need time to develop, and the Somali security forces will need to grow and develop to eventually take over their own security. As our experience in Afghanistan and Iraq show, this is necessarily a long-term and complex operation that will require multilateral support. Here, Washington can and should assist by providing military assistance to the AMISOM troops and the Somali government forces, both of whom could use equipment, funds, and training. Taking out high-value targets, as JSOC has been doing to good effect, can be helpful in the short-term but it is not a long-term strategy. The US cannot make the mistake, as it did in Afghanistan pre-9/11, to let an insurgent group committed to international jihad occupy large amounts of territory.