Somalia: As the US troops prepare to leave

The decision of out-going US President Donald Trump to withdraw American troops from Somalia is considered ill-timed as it paves the way for al-Shabab to plan for expanding its control over the East African country.

Trump’s announcement last week was heralded by a series of attacks by the groupn even as the patchy Somalian government urged the United States to reconsider its decision. There is fear that the group would take advantage also of the impending presidential elections in the country to regain control of large tracts of Somalia.

Between 2011 and the present, the presence of American troops saw the group’s control diminish, and weakened their operational sharpness. The group continued to be a thorn in the Somalian flesh despite the toll it was taking from counter operations from the US troops. 

Top Somalian officials took to Twitter to say they feared the Shabab will now be able to “strike without fear” in the capital and “now, their leaders can move easily from place to place with little threat”.

The Pentagon is unmoved and is going ahead with its plan to “reposition” some of the estimated 700 American troops in Somalia to other parts of East Africa — likely Kenya and Djibouti — and continue to carry out raids against the Shabab and a smaller cluster of Islamic State fighters in northern Somalia from bases in neighboring countries. Drone strikes, which have killed numerous senior and midlevel Shabab commanders – as well as civilians — will continue.

With the US troops gone, the burden to fight  the Shabab will wholly shift to Danab, an elite Somali force organised, trained and operationalised by the Americans since 2013. Till now, Danab was the junior partner to the US troops in raids and attacks against al-Shabab. Now, it will be on its own and without resources and funds.

Al-Shabab controls “swaths of southern Somalia, where its fighters ambush and bomb Somalia soldiers and African Union peacekeepers…(and) recent US government report noted that the Shabab was involved in 440 violent events in Somalia between July and September — the highest number in two years”.

The group, allied to al-Qaeda, has been forced to leave most of the main towns it once controlled, but it remains a potent threat. It emerged as the radical youth wing of Somalia’s now-defunct Union of Islamic Courts, which controlled Mogadishu in 2006, before being forced out by Ethiopian forces. Foreign jihadists reportedly went to Somalia from neighbouring countries and Europe to help al-Shabab. It is banned as a terrorist group by both the US and the UK and is believed to have between 7,000 and 9,000 fighters and advocates the Saudi-inspired Wahhabi version of Islam, while most Somalis are Sufis.

The Americans have carried out a wave of air strikes in the past, killing group leader Aden Hashi Aero in 2008 and then his successor, Ahmed Abdi Godane. Ahmad Umar aka Abu Ubaidah now leads the group and carries a UN reward of $6 million for information leading to his capture.

Since 2017, the US has stepped up anti-Shabab operations in Somalia even as its USAFRICOM (US Africa Command) initiated a plan for gradual withdrawal of its troops by the end of 2020 or early 2021.

A confidential quarterly report updated till September 3, 2020 by the Lead Inspector General (Lead IG) for the US Congress on the East Africa Counterterrorism Operation shockingly admitted: “Despite many years of sustained Somali, US, and international counterterrorism pressure, the terrorist threat in East Africa is not degraded: al-Shabaab retains freedom of movement in many parts of southern Somalia and has demonstrated an ability and intent to attack outside of the country, including targeting US interests.”

The report has another shocking revelation that questions the American rationale to leave the country at this stage: “Somalia’s security forces are unable to contain the threat from al-Shabaab and ISIS-Somalia…without significant international support. The coming year will bring significant challenges to Somalia, as its government seeks to hold national elections and combat the coronavirus disease–2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, and the international community reviews how and whether it will continue to support the ongoing development of the Somali security forces.”

In defence of its proposed exit, the report says the Americans cannot remain the country for all time while the Somalian authorities refuse to improve governance and people’s socio-economic opportunities, reverse persistently low growth, address the high poverty and unemployment. This “could contribute to increased violent extremist activity in East Africa in the next five years”.

It quotes the Defence Intelligence Agency as reporting “that ongoing and upcoming political transitions or elections in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, and Tanzania, and ethnic tensions or violence in Ethiopia and Kenya also represent potential instability triggers that VEOs (Violent, Extremist Organisations) could exploit”.

Over the past year, USAFRICOM has characterized al-Shabaab as the most “dangerous,” “capable,” and “imminent” threat on the African continent. According to the report, “this quarter, USAFRICOM assessed that al-Shabaab “remains adaptive, resilient, and capable of attacking Western and partner interests in Somalia and East Africa”. It quotes an USAFRICOM communique saying that “al-Shabaab has the intent to attack the US homeland, though it currently lacks the ability to do so”.

As if realising that US troop withdrawal was imminent, al-Shabab, “in recent months, the African command has observed ‘a definitive shift’ in al-Shabaab’s attacks to focus on US targets in the region”. Referring to their areas of influence, the Americans said “the group continues to operate with relative impunity, particularly in areas that lack adequate government administration or security presence” and “retains influence in large areas of rural Somalia through coercion, control over local economies and commercial transit points, and, in some cases, the provision of village-level governance, security, and administration”

The Americans, the UN and the African Union came up with a Somalia Transition Plan at a London Conference in 2017. The report says of the outcome: “This conference resulted in a non-binding Security Pact…the Somali government drafted a Somalia Transition Plan to enable Somalia to gradually transfer security responsibilities from AMISOM (African Union Mission in Somalia) to the Somali security forces in 2021. The Somali government and its international supporters are approaching a critical year for the transition of security responsibilities.”

Three years later, on the eve of the US troop withdrawal, the report says the situation is quite bad for Somalia: “Both the Security Pact and the Somalia Transition Plan identified 2021 as the year during which Somalia should be able to assume responsibility for a significant portion of its security, including the fight against al-Shabaab and ISIS-Somalia…(but) Somalia is far from reaching the goals of these two agreements”.

What are the reasons? “As Somalia approaches its 2021 transition year, its security forces have not yet met established milestones for the development of their operational and institutional capabilities. Both the Security Pact and the Somalia Transition Plan envisioned that, by now, Somalia’s forces would have developed specific capabilities and would be able to provide security as the population voted in national elections (now postponed until 2021) and AMISOM forces prepared to withdraw.”

In a separate report, USAFRICOM reported that both the federal and state security ministries, have “a modest ability” to oversee their forces, “but they are dependent on the generosity of international donors to develop any capabilities”.

It clearly shows the Americans are fully aware of the situation in Somalia as they ready to withdraw from the country and the resultant opportunity that gives the al-Shabab to prepare itself for a decisive thrust across Somalia.

Manoj Gupta is CNN-IBN’s Investigative Journalist