The U.S. has quietly upgraded its involvement in the troubled East African country this year, aggressively using drones, local allies, local intelligence, and regional militaries to fight the Somali group al-Shabaab
African Union peacekeepers patrol the Deynile district of Mogadishu, Somalia's capital / AP
After years of strategic drift in Somalia, the U.S. appears to have developed a new strategy for this battle-torn country. This four-part approach, which is based on our research and confirmed by U.S. government sources, has greatly increased pressure against the militant group al-Shabaab. But Kenya's invasion of Somalia earlier this month could complicate that effort.
The government of Kenya, after several kidnappings in its territory by the Somalia-based Islamic militant group al-Shabaab, has launched a military incursion into its fractious neighbor's territory. The purpose of the invasion, according to Kenya, is to capture the key port city of Kismayo from Shabaab -- and Kenya appears to be closing in on this objective. Kenya's actions have proven controversial in the region -- Somali president Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed has decried Kenya's presence in his country, though this may or may not be mere political posturing. A number of analysts and commentators have publicly raised questions about whether the U.S. is playing a role in the invasion.
American national security planners have viewed Somalia as strategically significant for some time. In 1999, for example, staffers on the National Security Council suggested that Osama bin Laden's most likely destination was Somalia if he lost the Taliban's protection in Afghanistan. But U.S. interest in the country has appeared to grow dramatically since 2006, when an Islamist group known as the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) captured the capital of Mogadishu and soon after made a number of strategic gains. Late that year, the U.S. backed an Ethiopian invasion designed to push back the ICU. Though Ethiopia rapidly reversed much of the ICU's geographic gains, it wasn't able to prevent a powerful insurgency from taking root.
Al-Shabaab emerged as a force distinct from the ICU during the course of the insurgency; not only was this new group more hardline in ideology, but a number of its leaders openly declared their support for al-Qaeda. As Ethiopia withdrew and was replaced by troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), al-Shabaab emerged as the country's dominant insurgent force. It soon took control of significant swathes of territory in southern Somalia. Al-Shabaab even established governorates in some of the areas where it was dominant. During much of this period, the U.S. lacked a real plan for the region. America tried to help AMISOM protect Somalia's UN-recognized transitional federal government from being wiped out by al-Shabaab, but otherwise lacked a strategy to reverse the jihadi group's gains.
This year, however, a coherent U.S. strategy has taken shape. Four distinct aspects could be discerned prior to Kenya's invasion. Though the contours of this strategy have not been reported previously, we were able to speak to three independent U.S. government sources who work closely on the U.S. effort in Somalia and have inside knowledge of the planning process. These sources confirmed the outlines of U.S. strategy in Somalia.
The first prong of U.S. strategy, according to our research and backed up by these sources, is to support the AMISOM forces in counterinsurgency efforts, particularly in the Mogadishu area. Al-Shabaab withdrew from Mogadishu in early August, under pressure from AMISOM and facing a famine in areas of Somalia that it controlled. Al-Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamed Rage insisted that this was a tactical withdrawal and that the group was in fact "aiming to counter-attack the enemy."
Yet forces aligned with the Somali transitional government have been able to capture some territory beyond Mogadishu. One March offensive by government-aligned forces reportedly won "sizeable gains ... in the south and center of the country."
The second prong of U.S. strategy is to recruit various Somali groups, including militants and warlords -- many of them former adversaries to the transitional Somali government -- to fight al-Shabaab. The U.S. use of proxies in Somalia isn't new -- by early 2003, the U.S. supported a coalition of warlords known as the "Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism" -- but these efforts have grown significantly this year.
The Nation reporter Jeremy Scahill has detailed the many groups that the U.S. appears to have turned toward opposing al-Shabaab. Some of these actors naturally oppose the jihadi group -- for example, a Sufi group called Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah, which opposes al-Shabaab's ideology. Other actors, though, have fought on the same side as al-Shabaab during the conflict in Somalia. These include, for example, former ICU members such as Sheikh Ahmed Mohammed Islam and General Yusuf Mohamed Siad (also known as Indha Adde). As Scahill wrote, the U.S. is trying "to purchase strategic loyalty from former allies of the current enemy" inside Somalia, much as it did in Iraq in 2006 and 2007.
The third prong of U.S. strategy is to help build an indigenous Somali intelligence network. The U.S. has been doing this relatively quietly, with only occasional reports making their way into the media. The New York Times reported in August that the CIA has been involved in building the Somali National Security Agency. These efforts have attracted controversy, in part due to the central role played by private contractors. Whether or not this controversy is justified, the U.S. clearly considers developing local intelligence capabilities to be an important part of its strategy for the country.
The fourth major component of U.S. strategy in Somalia is to use "decapitation" strikes to kill al-Shabaab leaders, an effort where drones are playing a key role. In late June, a U.S. drone strike in Kismayo wounded two al-Shabaab senior officials. In September, the Washington Post reported that the U.S. has either built new bases for drones or else expanded existing bases in Ethiopia, Djibouti, and the Seychelles islands.
So how does the Kenyan advance fit into U.S. strategy? Many details of Kenya's invasion remain unknown at this point. Kenyan government officials recently revealed that the invasion of Somalia "was not simply a response to a wave of recent kidnappings, as previously claimed, but was actually planned far in advance."
It seems, however, that Kenya's incursion into Somalia has been broader than the U.S. expected when Kenya first went in, with the apparent objective of carrying out punitive strikes for the kidnappings that had taken place in its territory. This fact has made some observers fear that Kenya's effort could backfire. David Anderson, a Kenya specialist at Oxford, told the New York Times, "The invasion was a serious miscalculation, and the Kenyan economy is going to suffer badly." There are also concerns that this outside power's meddling could undermine attempts to turn local forces against al-Shabaab -- by, for example, potentially delegitimizing anti-Shabaab groups by making them look like the pawns of foreigners. Ethiopia's invasion in 2006 stirred up great nationalist unrest.
The U.S. appears to be attempting to use the Kenyan invasion, whatever its faults, to advance the strategy it has developed for Somalia, allowing Kenya to push al-Shabaab back in areas other than Mogadishu (where AMISOM already has a strong presence). But there are real dangers to having the Kenyans, who will be portrayed as a "crusader" force by al-Shabaab and others, inside Somalia.
There were possible problems with the U.S. strategy in Somalia even before Kenya's invasion. Its most glaring omission has been governance, which remains non-functional. The transitional government is still not able to govern within Somalia. As long as the country lacks long-term stability, it will be difficult to prevent the reemergence of another potent insurgency -- if the current one can even be quelled in the first place. Still, at least the U.S. has a strategy now, a fact that is in itself significant.