On Monday, al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda affiliate group in Somalia, launched two attacks. This happens regularly, but these attacks, which were probably coordinated, generated considerably more international attention because they targeted U.S. and European Union forces.
What just happened?
And why are U.S. troops in Somalia? Here’s what you need to know.
The first target Monday was Baledogle, a military facility about 60 miles outside Mogadishu that U.S. and Somali forces use as a base. A few hours later, the second attack targeted a convoy of E.U. military advisers in the capital. In the Baledogle attack, al-Shabab adopted its usual tactic of deploying multiple Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices followed by a coordinated infantry assault. The E.U. convoy attack also involved a VBIED.
U.S. and E.U. authorities quickly stated that neither attack killed any U.S., E.U. or Somali troops. There were no clear reports of Somali civilian casualties. The United States also reported that it destroyed one VBIED at Baledogle in a defensive strike, while Somali and U.S. forces quickly defeated al-Shabab’s subsequent infantry assault. Al-Shabab propaganda disputed this but provided no evidence.
Why are U.S. and European Union troops in Somalia?
U.S. and E.U. troops are in Somalia to support African Union peacekeepers and Somali security forces in the war against al-Shabab. As well as running a counterpiracy operation, the European Union has a 200-strong training mission for Somalia. Since 2010, this has supported the Ministry of Defense and trained Somali National Army infantry and local military trainers.
The United States has been conducting military activities in Somalia for well over a decade, several of them operating out of Baledogle. Since 2006, the United States has provided security force assistance, including field mentoring, to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) contributing countries and the SNA (since 2009).
U.S. forces also conduct offensive operations, usually in partnership with Somali commando units and other special forces. These operations resulted in the deaths of two U.S. soldiers in May 2017 and June 2018, with several others injured.
Since January 2007, the United States has used airstrikes to attack targets in Somalia, including al-Shabab and the Islamic State in Somalia. U.S. forces, since June 2011, have included the use of armed drones. Most U.S. airstrikes have been for collective defense of U.S., African Union or Somali personnel — although some are aimed at al-Shabab leaders designated as “high-value targets.” And, since 2005, the United States has also been part of international efforts to counter piracy off the Somali coast.
What is the context for the al-Shabab attacks?
The war that Somalia and its international partners are waging against al-Shabab has been a stalemate for about four years. The Somali authorities and AMISOM control most large urban settlements across south-central Somalia, but until mid-2019 AMISOM and the SNA had not undertaken major offensive operations since 2015. Al-Shabab retains control of much of the countryside.
Instead of fighting conventionally, al-Shabab wages a war of destabilization and harassment, using improvised explosive devices, VBIEDs, commando raids and assassinations to target Somali officials and security forces as well as African Union peacekeepers. This has been a huge campaign, with approximately 300 IED attacks in Somalia in 2016, 400 in 2017 and 500 in 2018.
Al-Shabab has killed many civilians, at home and abroad. In January, for example, the group attacked the Dusit luxury hotel complex in Nairobi, the latest in a series of major external operations since mid-2010.
Al-Shabab has also launched about a dozen large conventional assaults on AMISOM and SNA forward-operating bases using similar tactics as the Sept. 30 Baledogle assault.
After the Trump administration increased the number of airstrikes in Somalia, al-Shabab stepped up its attacks in Mogadishu. Some experts believe the two upticks are connected because the airstrikes restricted al-Shabab’s freedom of movement across the country. Much of its equipment and fighters that enter Mogadishu travel via a corridor to the southwest of the city along the Shabelle River.
In mid-2019, this realization prompted the Somali government and AMISOM forces to launch offensive operations to dislodge al-Shabab from several towns in the corridor and disrupt the group’s ability to attack Mogadishu. In recent months, there have been several battles to control the settlements recovered by the SNA and AMISOM — notably Sabiid, Barire, Ceel Saliin and Awdheegle. Meanwhile, al-Shabab’s attacks in Mogadishu persist because of existing operatives in the city and alternative routes.
What’s next for the U.S. and the war against al-Shabab?
Analysts see various options in Somalia. The U.S. military could continue business as usual by supporting AMISOM and the SNA, maintaining its relatively high level of airstrikes and conducting periodic joint operations against al-Shabab. But this seems unlikely to break the stalemate and produce a military victory against al-Shabab.
Another option would be to disengage from Somalia. Under this scenario, the Trump administration might argue that al-Shabab doesn’t pose a core threat to U.S. national security interests. Instead of receiving more U.S. assistance, airstrikes and Special Forces operations, Somalia would fend for itself with support from the African Union and its other international partners.
A third way would entail the United States exercising more diplomatic muscle to facilitate two deals. The first would push Somalia’s federal and regional authorities to reconcile and agree to implement and operationalize the country’s new national security architecture. To date, political infighting between these leaders has undermined the war against al-Shabab.
Healing this federal-regional division would be a first step to pursuing a second deal: a negotiated settlement between the Somali authorities and al-Shabab. In this scenario, the purpose of U.S. military force would be to help facilitate a peace deal. If the Somali authorities and al-Shabab embarked on peace talks, Washington could signal its support by agreeing to use airstrikes only for collective self-defense against insurgent attacks.