US Troop Withdrawal from Somalia May Lead to Destabilization of Country and al-Shabaab Power Gain
Allegra Berg, Hubert Hongo, Faye Lax, Wendy Maxwell, Mahum Vance; Extremism, AFRICOM
On December 4, President Trump ordered the Pentagon to pull out a majority of the 700 US troops from Somalia and be redeployed elsewhere in eastern Africa. The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) believes it is highly probable that this will lead to an increase in al-Shabaab activity in the region.
CTG’s AFRICOM and Extremism teams have been tracking an increase in extremist activity and al-Shabaab attacks in Somalia.
A CIA officer was killed in Somalia in November, during a raid on a suspected al-Shabaab bombmaker.
General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has referred to al-Shabaab as an “extension of Al Qaeda.”
ISIS in Somalia has recently declared war on al-Shabaab.
Kenya and Ethiopia, Somalia’s key allies in their fight against terror, are turning away from Somalia as their relationships weaken.
With the US withdrawing troops from Somalia, a power vacuum will be available for Russia and China to fill and build up their footprints in the Horn of Africa. CTG assesses with high probability that China and Russia will increase their influence and disrupt the great power competition in the region. Russia and China’s strategic goals in the region may clash with US interests.
Russia is also expanding arms sales and security agreements in the Horn of Africa.
Former Somali Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire recently visited Russia ahead of elections in Somalia.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Federal Government of Somalia, Ahmed Isse Awad, has highlighted that they are strengthening relations with China and are open to establishing agreements.
China has recently increased investment in Africa, including a port in the Republic of Djibouti.
CTG believes that with the US withdrawing troops from Somalia, the region will be destabilized by a growing threat of extremism, particularly with al-Shabaab. CTG suspects that this move will also serve to alienate the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and other US partners in the region, such as Kenya, who might resolve to seek assistance from China, Russia in their war against the extremist group.
CTG estimates that it is highly probable that extremist groups in Somalia will intensify extremist activity in the region as the US withdraws from the country. Al-Shabaab has been highly active, accounting for 88 percent of all deaths in Somalia in 2019, placing Somalia as the fifth most impacted country from terrorism. Recently, the group has been clashing with Somali forces. In a raid on a Somalia military base in Bacadweyn on November 30, 2020, al-Shabaab claimed to have killed 53 soldiers.
Other recent attacks include:
On November 6, al-Shabaab took responsibility for the death of an American soldier in a suicide bombing.
On November 17, five civilians were killed in an al-Shabaab suicide bombing at a Mogadishu restaurant.
On November 24, six Somalian soldiers from the US-trained Danab special forces unit were killed in an IED.
On November 26, a CIA officer was killed in an al-Shabaab raid.
On November 27, a suicide bomber denotated outside an ice cream parlor in Mogadishu, killing 7 people.
On November 29, al-Shabaab reportedly killed a family of seven, including a pregnant woman.
On November 30, al-Shabaab attacked Turkish-trained Gorgor special forces unit in Lower Shabelle.
On December 18, al-Shabaab militants killed Somalian officers, a US-backed commando force, and civilians in a suicide attack that was aimed at Somalia’s Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble.
In the last quarter, terrorist incidents in Africa have risen by 13% and are at high risk from Islamic extremists and may only worsen in 2021. Somalia, along with Burkino Faso and Mali, are the most at risk for terrorism. Somalia has been plagued with al-Shabaab extremist activity and, as highlighted by the US Defense Department’s Inspector General, the Somalian forces do not have the capability to thwart the threat on its own and without international support. The US military has been helping Somalia counter the growing extremist threat with an Executive Order signed by President Trump in 2019, which declared a National Emergency in Somalia, extended the Executive Order 13536 of April 12, 2010, and highlighted that Islamic extremism and instability in the region is an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.” The US presence in Somalia encompassed a variety of methods including training and supporting AMISOM troops, integrating Somali troops into the national army, and the US conducted airstrikes. In 2020, the US launched 50 airstrikes against al-Shabaab. Despite US presence and the use of airstrikes, the US and Somali forces have been unable to defeat al-Shabaab but have been disrupting operations and targeting al-Shabaab's explosive experts. The airstrikes have also had a part in preventing al-Shabaab from massing forces against African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali bases, through targeted airstrikes by US forces. The US has also been training the Somali National Army’s Danab Advanced Infantry Brigade but the Somalian forces are still incapable of fighting al-Shabaab on their own. However, Trump ensured that his ‘America first’ policy would be implemented before he left office. Trump’s announcement to withdraw troops from Somalia followed orders of removing troops from Afghanistan and Iraq in an effort to shrink US involvement in “endless wars” abroad. The Horn of Africa, however, remains a strategic region for US interests, and ending support in Somalia, may, in fact, not reflect an ‘America first’ policy.
The Islamic State in Somalia (ISS), also known as Abnaa ul-Calipha, formed in 2015 and operates in Puntland, where it has an estimated 300 fighters. However, the pushback from al-Shabaab against ISS in Somalia continues to support uncertainty if ISS will ever fully gain traction within the country, as al-Shabaab appears to actively counter them in the region and appears to want to maintain the monopoly on the region. ISS has been recruiting an increased number of fighters, some of whom are rivals of al-Shabaab. A video that circulated online recently shows ISS denouncing al-Shabaab, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda and declaring its intent to destroy al-Shabaab and highlighting a resurgence. Clashes between ISS and al-Shabaab, especially in Puntland, were at an all-time high at the beginning of 2020.
Neighboring countries like Ethiopia have actively been involved in arresting both al-Shabaab and Islamic State members. In November 2020, Ethiopian security officials arrested 14 ISS and al-Shabaab members who were accused of planning a bombing on the country's capital. However, following instability in Ethiopia and the necessity to focus on internal issues, Somalia is currently addressing the Al-Shabaab threat on their own, even more so now that the United States is removing troops from the region. Without a key ally such as Ethiopia in the fight against al-Shabaab in countering the group and foiling planned attacks, Somalia may be incapable of doing so on its own. Furthermore, Somalia’s alliance with Kenya is fading as well, which isolates Somalia even more in their fight against extremists. Al-Shabaab has a presence and recently carried out attacks in Kenya. For instance, on December 19, the group abducted a chief from Gumerey at Khorof Harar in Wajir East, Kenya. The militants raided the township. A few days later, the chief was found beheaded, to which al-Shabaab took responsibility. This highlights that al-Shabaab is active in both Somalia and Kenya. Without cooperation, however, intelligence to foil and counter the group can get lost amidst the tension, and al-Shabaab can exploit the growing instability.
Kenya has been aiding their neighbor, Somalia, in their fight against al-Shabaab since 2011 and is a part of AMISOM with more than 3,600 troops in Somalia which have been helping Somalia counter al-Shabaab. However, recently, Somalia and Kenya’s diplomatic ties have been severed, when on December 14, Somalia’s Minister of Information broadcasted on live television that Kenya violated Somalia’s sovereignty and would therefore ensure that all Somalian diplomats from Kenya would leave. This will further increase the instability in the region and may embolden al-Shabaab and escalate the group's activity.
CTG also estimates with high probability that Russia and China will exploit the power vacuum left by US withdrawal and establish a stronger foothold in Somalia. Already, Chinese state-owned media source CGTN is claiming that an outgoing commander of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) is seeking help from the international community to assist in stabilizing Somalia, suggesting to their people that China could fill that void. Chinese state-owned media source CCTV described diplomatic ties between China and Somalia as “flourishing,” and said that Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo stated that he was “committed to strengthening the friendship with China,” while Somalia looks to reconstruct their nation. Chinese influence and strengthened bilateral ties with Somalia may threaten great power competition and US interests in the Horn of Africa.
Countries such as China and Russia are already actively involved in Africa. Over the past few years, both Russia, with companies like Rosatom, and China have been involved in the continent as interests in nuclear energy, independence, and the implementation of small modular reactors have heightened. China is investing in training local Tanzanian soldiers as well as setting up armed force bases in Namibia. It is clear that US troop withdrawal from the region allows for other countries to have increased involvement in Africa and specifically in the Horn of Africa. A larger threat includes the implementation of nuclear reactors by countries with limited nonproliferation and security interests, like China and Russia, leaving sites vulnerable to groups like al-Shabaab or the Islamic State in Somalia to capture and exploit.
The withdrawal of troops in Somalia means a redeployment of troops into neighboring countries like Kenya. However, the movement of soldiers does not directly respond to the counterterrorism issue in Africa, but rather to the political interplay between the US and countries backed by the African Union. This situation creates a spillover effect in the region which will likely increase large-scale recruitment by al-Shabab and more distrust in government amongst the African population. US troops offered a sense of support for many civilians, but this withdrawal allows ISS to carve out a new, sophisticated caliphate and exploit any foreign security shortcoming.
Beyond the risk of violent extremism, the geostrategic assessment shows that Africa deserves more, rather than less, attention from the US. The Horn of Africa has been severely struck by COVID-19 in the past year leading to an increase in militant attacks. Furthermore, al-Shabaab has been exploiting the pandemic by offering responses to COVID-19. In June 2020, the group created a care facility and set up a hotline in Jilib. With limited health services available in the Horn of Africa, civilians may have no choice but to turn to al-Shabaab’s resources which may in turn act as a hotspot for recruitment. This dual crisis requires comprehensive support across Africa including Nigeria and Cameroon in their fight against Boko Haram as well as Mozambique, which has remained a focus for American diplomacy.
The United States troops within Somalia are tasked with providing both operational and tactical training to the Danab Bridge and with Trump’s decision to withdraw these troops from the region, this increases the vulnerability of Somalia’s military apparatus. Moreover, regardless of President-Elect Joe Biden’s policy in Africa, the death of the CIA officer during a raid on a suspected al-Shabaab bomb maker and later US troop withdrawal, al-Shabaab will potentially self-proclaim the withdrawal of US troops as an immediate victory which will bolster the groups tenacity and activity in the region. Furthermore, with a compromised AMISOM and without key allies such as Ethiopia and Kenya, Somalia may be facing the threat of al-Shabaab on its own. If AMISON operational capabilities are negatively affected, al-Shabaab may feel emboldened to gain territorial control and increase attacks against government officials and civilians.
This has the potential to be used for future recruitment, as the image portrayed maybe that al-Shabaab forced US troops out of the region, as well as the lack of support for the Danab Brigade may allow for al-Shabaab to force a gain in political power and territory acquisition. Al-Shabaab may intensify attacks prior to the elections in Somalia that could lead to further instability and attacks following the election after US troops have left. This could lead to a collapse of the newly-formed political party and the weakening of local law enforcement in the region.
China and Russia will likely continue to enter into the region as US troops withdraw from Somalia. The US troop withdrawal lowers the likelihood of both a dispute and physical confrontation between the United States and either China or Russia, leaving the country open to foreign influence, foreign troop placement, and ultimately further control over the Horn of Africa and Africa as a whole. Additionally, the current ties between countries in the Horn of Africa who have been actively working to combat the threat of al-Shabaab may be further disrupted with either Chinese or Russian influence within the region, depending on the priorities and goals of these countries.
The Counterterrorism Groups (CTG) works to detect, defeat, and deter terrorism by monitoring and analyzing events as they occur to predict potential outcomes and avoid further conflicts. The Extremism and AFRICOM teams will be coordinating and closely monitoring a potential increase in al-Shabaab extremist activity, shifts in policy, as well as the military movements of both US troops and local Somali troops as it continues to develop through the end of the current Trump administration and into the Biden administration in 2021.
Al-Shabaab operational areas amidst the COVID-19 pandemic
Kenya-Somalia border town, Bula-hawa 
_______________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)
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