Somalia returned to the attention of the U.S. national-security community after 9/11, as the result of a decision by bin Laden to dispatch lieutenants to the country. On the run in Pakistan, bin Laden was sprinkling his faithful across Muslim lands to reduce his movement’s vulnerability and diversify its recruiting base. The lack of a viable central government and the presence of Sunni Muslims made Somalia an ideal place to recruit followers, plan terrorist strikes, and hide from the Americans.
In 2006, a Somali-Islamic extremist group known as the Council of Islamic Courts took control of Mogadishu, driving out the feeble provisional government. The Council’s fighters swept into central and southern Somalia and seemed on the verge of consolidating control of the whole country. Neighboring Ethiopia, however, became so alarmed at the prospect of an extremist state on its borders that it unleashed its army. The Ethiopians handily defeated the Council, seizing Mogadishu in just a few days.
For U.S. special-operations forces, Ethiopia’s occupation of Somalia was a windfall. Arriving in Mogadishu together with the Ethiopian forces, American special operators set up shop alongside them. While the Ethiopians secured roads and swatted down lowly insurgents, the Americans nabbed al-Qaeda leaders.
But after the Ethiopians reinstated the provisional government, it remained incapable of governing effectively or organizing large security forces. Al-Shabab, an ascendant offshoot of the Islamic Courts Union, waged a vigorous, effective guerrilla war on the Ethiopian occupation forces, inflicting heavy casualties. To ease the burden on the Ethiopians, the UN Security Council decided in 2007 to deploy 8,000 African Union troops to Somalia for what would come to be known as African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).
In early 2009, Ethiopia negotiated a peace agreement with the Islamists and withdrew its forces. The Ethiopians had scarcely crossed the border when the Somali Islamists breached the peace agreement. UN-trained Somali security forces were supposed to protect the transitional government, but they quickly crumbled once the Ethiopian buttresses had been removed. Extremist forces took control of Mogadishu and most of Somalia’s other territory. Radicals from around the world flocked to Somalia to join in the fun.
According to the FBI, at least 30 Americans joined al-Shabab by 2011, three of whom had carried out suicide attacks against African Union forces. Abdisalan Hussein Ali, a 22-year-old American of Somali extraction who had briefly studied chemistry at the University of Minnesota before disappearing in 2008, recorded a message to inspire future jihadists prior to blowing himself up. “Don’t just sit around, you know, and be, you know, a couch potato and just like, just chill all day,” he said. “Today jihad is what is most important. It’s not important that you become a doctor, or some sort of engineer.”