Disappear, Now Reappear: The Effects of a Renewed US Military Presence in Somalia

The announcement in May 2022 by the Biden administration on the revival of a US footprint in Somalia resulted in five hundred American forces sent on an “advise-and-assist” mission to aid in counter terrorism efforts throughout the country. This news likely comes as reassurance for the newly elected president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud as the war-torn country faces a slew of problems, most notably from the group known as Al-Shabaab. The terrorist organization maintains a strong presence in the countryside of southern Somalia. The insurgents continue to conduct transnational attacks with one as recent as May 3, 2022 at an African Union peacekeeping force base near Ceel Baraf, Somalia. Al-Shabaab reported, albeit unsubstantiated, 170+ casualties of the African Union Transition Mission In Somalia (ATMIS) Burundian forces. The alleged voracity of this attack combined with the concerning realities of a fragile Somali central government and a gradual withdrawal of African Union military presence in Somalia can convince one to believe the presence of Al-Shabaab will continue to swell and subsequently pose a greater risk to US security in the region. Therefore, one can argue, the news of a revived US presence in the aftermath of its full withdrawal under the Trump administration is justifiable.

There is one argument that US presence might be necessitated by the actions of Al-Shabaab in the name of stability while there is another argument that external intervention (Ethiopia; 2006, AMISOM;  2007, Kenya; 2011, & US; 2013) has been the radicalization force for Al-Shabaab militants. Together, these claims engender a paradox that leaves the expected outcome of the announcement by the Biden administration undetermined. However, there may be other factors that were engulfed into its decision-calculus.

A major factor that could have played a role in Washington’s decision to reassert its presence in Somalia is the vacuum that is Afghanistan. The dire humanitarian situation, in addition to the country being controlled by the Taliban, increases the likelihood that it will remain and continue to grow as a cradle for terrorist efforts. Washington believes it must aid other Middle Eastern countries in order to counteract this and uphold stability in the region. Therefore, this line of logic brings the recent announcement into more context and sheds light on the future of US strategy in the Middle East under the current administration. Indeed, the presence of Al-Shabaab in a country that is one of the poorest in the world, is currently facing severe droughts, and is retroactively combating political upheaval gives great concern to US strategists who attempt to identify regions where plausible individual causes of terrorism are increasingly present. To be sure, it would be beneficial to identify if these causal dynamics are in fact present to gain a better understanding of the expected outcome of the decision to place US troops back into Somalia.

There are often four individual causes of terrorism that experts identify. These include grievance (economic & political), identity (i.e., religion), psychology, and networks. As an aside,  there exists issues in the interpretations of individual causes of terrorism that discredit them due to realities in the demographics of terrorists. For example, economic grievance as an individual causal factor on terrorism is attributed to the idea that poverty and economic turmoil pushes many to join terrorist groups. However, many of the hijackers that conducted the attacks on US soil on Sept. 11, 2001 in fact had college degrees and were not poverty-stricken. Although there exists rebuts to these plausible individual causes, there remains value to a holistic analysis of these causes to gain insight into the trajectory of terrorist expansion in Somalia under Al-Shabaab. 

Indeed, economic and political grievance is currently increasing in the region. The country ranks as the second poorest country with $310 GNI per capita as compiled by the World Bank. Moreover, the decision of the Somalia government to delay parliamentary elections in 2021 resulted in major protests in the country before an eventual peaceful transfer of power over a year later. An examination of identity as a causal mechanism in Somalia quickly brings into play religion. Over 99% of Somalia identifies as Sunni Muslim and major swathes of Al-Shabaab affiliate with the extremist ideology of the religion, claiming global jihad. This ideological belief system can be attributed to its partner organization, Al-Qaeda, and acts as a divine cause for many in Al-Shabaab. The psychological cause is harder to quantify, but in Somalia tradition there is a collectivist and communal backbone to familial undertakings so the psychological dynamics of trouble with peers and family on an individual level may not be present in Somalia. However, the historical precedent of and exposure to violence, attrition, and war in Somalia may play a psychological role in its causal relation to terrorism. Similarly, it is harder to quantify the network cause, but the existence of Al-Shabaab recruitment in US states like Minnesota and Washington gives insight into how the terrorist group is formulating its network. It is intriguing to know that Al-Shabaab’s extension of recruitment programs in Western countries attempts to attract those who are not affiliated with Somalia clans or other political groups. This demonstrates that the network that Al-Shabaab plans to expand necessitates young children who are not yet politically inspired in the hopes that entry to Al-Shabaab will radicalize them. However, the five major clans in Somalia makeup major portions of the country’s population and could hinder expansive radicalization within the country. To conclude, three out of the four individual causal mechanisms are explicitly present in Somalia while two (grievance & identity) are showing growth in the region.

The analysis of plausible and individual causes of terrorism elucidates the real prospect of terrorist growth in Somalia. Therefore, one can come to the logical conclusion that a renewed presence of US troops in Somalia is important for US security in the region. In addition, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has exacerbated further security concerns. Many efforts by Washington, such as President Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia, hope to regain regional security and the announcement of a US troop presence in Somalia can be a step in that direction. However, it remains to be seen if a renewal of the external intervention cycle in Somalia will act as a radicalization force for Al-Shabaab and its militants across the region.

[Photo by Senior Airman Daniel Hernandez/US Air Force handout via Reuters]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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