At a time the extremist Al-Shabaab movement intensified bloody attacks and the terrorist Islamic State (IS) group strengthened its presence in Somalia, US President Donald Trump decided to withdraw from the East African country, a few months before the African peacekeepers’ expected withdrawal. The development made the country’s future uncertain.
Experts saw the withdrawal of about 700 troops helping Somali forces battle Al-Shabaab and IS militants by 15 January as a very dangerous development, not only for Somalia but also for neighbouring countries.
It comes also in spite of the warning by the US Defense Department’s inspector general that Al-Shabaab remained a potent threat in Somalia and the region. He said in a report that the group “remains adaptive, resilient and capable of attacking Western and partner interests in Somalia and East Africa”. Two years ago, the Pentagon considered Al-Shabaab “the deadliest extremist group in sub-Saharan Africa”.
The American leadership in Africa has faced a “decisive shift” this year as the “youth movement” shifted its focus “towards attacking American interests in the region”, the inspector general said. The leadership believes that the “youth” movement is the most “dangerous” threat within Africa, he added.
In a joint report released after acting US Defense Secretary Chris Miller visited Somalia late in November, inspectors general at the Department of Defense and the State Department wrote that Somali forces are unable to resist terrorist threats inside the country without the support of US forces. The report warned that Somali forces are still dependent on the international community for financial support, yet “they do not get their salaries sometimes for months.”
“Al-Shabaab is one of the biggest threats on the continent; they have aspirations to attack the [US] homeland,” General Roger Cloutier, commander of US land forces in Africa, recently declared. “The danger that they pose has to be taken very, very seriously,” he said during a recent Pentagon conference call.
Also, Somali lawmakers and officials have said any US drawdown would be disastrous and a boost for terrorists. During his visit to Somalia, Miller “reaffirmed US resolve in seeing the degradation of violent extremist organisations that threaten US interests, partners and allies in the region”. However, some experts warned that a US withdrawal could embolden militants in the Horn of Africa region, seeing it as a win for Al-Shabaab, as well as for other much smaller entities made up of hundreds of IS fighters in northern Somalia.
Despite the increase in US air strikes under President Donald Trump, which have killed more than 800 people since April 2017, observers believe that Al-Shabaab will continue to cause destruction after 2020.
More complications derive from another fact, that the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which has 19,000 troops, began its withdrawal from the country that is still considered not ready to take full responsibility for its security.
The Associated Press quoted Samira Gayed, an expert on Somali security issues, as saying that the withdrawal is “disastrous for the Somali security sector”. “The United States is helping to draw up military plans and the American army is training an elite Somali force of 1,000 soldiers and providing it with air cover and intelligence,” she added.
Vanda Philpab Brown, director of the African Security Initiative at the Brookings Institution, told a recent online event that without US forces, “Al-Shabaab will find it easier to crush the African Union forces, let alone the Somali National Army.” With increasing pressure created by the neighbouring Ethiopian conflict, the withdrawal of US forces “is in fact at the worst possible time”, he added.
Matt Bryden, director of the Sahan Centre in Nairobi, said: “The true feature of the youth movement is its ability to continue.” He added to Agence France-Presse: “Leaders of the movement have been killed in drone strikes and raids of commandos, and many bomb makers have also been killed. Nevertheless, the movement continues to wage conventional and guerrilla warfare against enemy forces, build bombs and establish a secret and effective financial and administrative infrastructure.”
Bryden said that the ability of the Al-Qaeda movement to inflict heavy losses in Somalia and other places in the region underscores the fragility of the central government, which is mired in controversy and which focuses on staying in power more than on fighting extremists.
In fact, the danger is not limited to the Somali interior. The movement is expected to escalate its terrorist attacks on Kenya, which has troops in the south of Somalia, while Ethiopia withdrew a large part of its forces deployed in the west after the outbreak of the Tigray region war last month.
Last January, Al-Shabaab launched an attack on the American-Kenyan joint Camp Simba military base in Lamu, northern Kenya. At the same time, a spokesman for American forces in Africa announced that IS has worked to expand its influence in Somalia since 2015 and chose it as a destination to compensate for its defeats in Syria and Iraq. It carried out attacks in broad daylight, including the assassination of security and intelligence personnel.
According to the estimates of the US Department of Defense, there are between 3,000-7,000 Al-Shabaab fighters and 70-250 IS militants in the Horn of Africa. United Nations experts say that Al-Shabaab includes between 5,000 and 10,000 fighters and that the group supports them financially by extorting companies and civilians. Unemployment is very high in Somalia, and 11,000 graduate annually from universities, 90 per cent of whom are unemployed. Youth constitute 70 per cent of the population.
Since the number of Somali army forces is small, their training poor, given the multiplicity of their tribal loyalties, their low morale, and the delay in paying their salaries for several months, which forced some of them to sell their weapons and join their opponents, as well as the killing of many of them in terrorist operations and tribal conflicts between Somali regions, they are unlikely to be able to confront Al-Shabaab.
A BBC reporter visited Somalia in May 2019 and said that militant Islamists remain relatively undiminished, despite a 12-year UN-backed campaign against them. “Once, after a trip to the south-western Somali town of Baidoa, I was given a detailed account of what I had done and where I had been”, she added.
A man who had defected from Al-Shabaab explained how, one day, a member of the group called him to tell him the colour of the shirt he was wearing and which street he was walking down on a particular day at a particular time.
Others have spoken about how militants come to their houses and places of work inside Mogadishu to threaten or try to recruit them. All this despite the fact that the group was forced to withdraw from the capital in August 2011.
Many scenarios could ensure after the withdrawal of US troops and African peacekeepers, including the fall of the government and takeover of Al-Shabaab in the capital and major cities in addition to vast rural areas that are currently under its control. If this happens, it is likely to prompt countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya to protect their security by creating buffer zones within Somali territory. Somalia will be further torn apart.
The suffering of the wounded Somali people appears set to continue. The United Nations Humanitarian Affairs Office announced that 6.2 million (around half of the people) are in need of humanitarian aid, of whom three million are in need of urgent assistance.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.