Somalis have barely lost a fight in recorded history. During the pre-colonial period, Somalis successfully fought against European colonial powers as well as other Christian empires in the region, such as the Abyssinians.
Somalis are traditional warriors and conquerors who never let their adversaries have the upper hand.
This is evident in the size of the current Somali-inhabited peninsula given the small number of Somalis compared to other adjacent countries. Somalis now occupy Somalia, Ogadenia (a restive region in Ethiopia), the Northern Frontier District (a region in North Eastern Kenya) and the majority of Djibouti.
History of struggle
During the colonial period, Somalis in different parts of the peninsula fought against European colonial powers as well as Ethiopia, a neighboring adversary that had ambitions to secure a sea route on the Horn of Africa.
The struggle for self-determination and full independence sparked British Imperial forces to launch the first modern airstrike in Africa in 1920 against Sayid Muhammed Abdullah Hassan, a Somali freedom fighter who led the anti-colonial Dervish state movement. Somali warriors have confronted multiple forces from the British, Italians and French and have on several occasions overpowered them.
After the collapse of Somalia’s military government in 1991, the international community intervened by sending UN Operations in Somalia (UNOSOM) peacekeeping forces to deliver humanitarian aid and help resolve the conflict.
However, the whole mission ended in vain after the troops engaged in combat operations against local militias and subsequently crossed the Mogadishu line. Consequently, two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters were downed and 18 American soldiers along with hundreds of Somalis were killed in the fight.
In 2005, 11 years after the withdrawal of the UNOSOM mission, Somalis took up arms against local warlords and factional leaders who were accused of collaborating with the U.S.’s war on terrorism to kill, capture or extradite local imams and religious leaders.
The warlords were dislodged from Mogadishu within a couple of weeks and the majority of the country – the south and central regions – underwent a short period of tranquility and stability thanks to the leadership of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC). At the end of 2006, U.S.-supported Ethiopian forces invaded the country and overthrew UIC rule. Again, Somalis took up arms against Ethiopia, a neighboring historical adversary, and within two years, Ethiopian troops, considered to be the strongest military in Sub-Saharan Africa in terms of numbers and quality, were ejected from Mogadishu and its neighboring provinces.
Devil of terrorism
Now, despite all those successful uprisings against foreign interventions and warlords, Somalia faces its greatest threat ever since its proclamation as a nation in the form of al-Shabaab.
The al-Qaeda-affiliated group wreaked havoc on Oct. 14 after it detonated a massive explosives-laden truck on a busy road in central Mogadishu, the country’s capital and largest city. In addition to property loss, the bombing, the largest and deadliest in the country’s history, claimed the lives of more than 350 people and injured hundreds more.
The incident drew a large national and international outcry with thousands of Somalis taking to the streets of Mogadishu in protest of al-Shabaab, denouncing its evil acts. This was the first-ever massive demonstration against the group and most probably will serve as a cause célèbre for Somali’s upheaval to depose Africa’s deadliest terrorist organization.
Since the collapse of the central government in 1991, there has never been a time Somalia has been closer to peace and political stability than today.
The country now has an internationally recognized federal government and a president considered to be the most favorite after Siad Barre, the long-time military leader. Federal member states, although some of them are newly established, are effective in all regions of the country except areas under the control of al-Shabaab. Given all these elements, a military offensive against the group is not only imaginable, but also imminent.
Apparently, President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed has conducted diplomatic shuttling with several countries contributing troops to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to lobby full support for the offensive. Additionally, Somali Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khayre also paid a two-day visit to Turkey, a staunch ally of Somalia, last week and met top Turkish officials to secure financial and military support before the offensive begins.
A trap not to fall into again
However, any decision to add Ethiopian troops in the campaign will eventually be in vain, and mostly lose public support. It is imperative to mention that the U.S. war on terrorism and Ethiopian troops’ frequent incursions into the country were among the leading causes that paved the way for al-Shabaab’s rise. Ethiopia has been a neighboring rival for many years, and a majority of Somalis will not be able to get behind it against al-Shabaab.
Another equally important factor is the involvement of the U.S. military, which could lead the operation into a quagmire. During the last decade, the U.S. military, under the leadership of the U.S. Africa Command, has been conducting clandestine airstrikes against the group, killing some high-profile al-Shabaab leaders over the years.
However, its operations have sometimes backfired. Reports have emerged that the man who carried out the Mogadishu truck bombing on Oct. 14 was a former soldier in the Somali army whose hometown was raided by U.S.-led forces in August. The raid claimed the lives of scores of civilians and so he may have been motivated by revenge. Other sources indicate the U.S.’s increased military involvement is a recruiting tool for terrorist groups.
In conclusion, Somalis have had a history of struggle against occupying forces both before and after the amalgamation of the country in 1960. It is currently struggling with al-Shabaab, one of Somali’s worst enemies and Africa’s deadliest terrorist entity.
The Mogadishu massacre in mid-October has led massive public uproar that will most probably pave the way for a larger upheaval to depose the group. The government is now embarking on a new military offensive against al-Shabaab. However, any decision to include Ethiopian troops in the onslaught would give more energy and resolve to the group, and most importantly would dismantle the hanging together of public spirit. Ethiopian forces’ role should be minimal, if any. Likewise, direct U.S. military participation should be limited to precision airstrikes on predetermined military targets and other extremist camps.
Bring Kenyan troops home from Somalia
On January 15, 2016, Kenyans reacted with anger and horror at the news that Al-Shabaab militants had attacked Kenyan troops at a military outpost in El Adde, southern Somalia.
The attackers claimed to have killed dozens of soldiers and captured scores of others, including their commander. To date, the Kenyan military has not released details of the attack, although some reports put the death toll at 100.
The El Adde attack raised serious questions about Kenya’s efforts in Somalia. Why is the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) still in Somalia? What are they trying to accomplish? Why was the outpost vulnerable? When will the troops come home?
The KDF first entered Somalia in 2011 on “Operation Linda Nchi”, aimed at securing the northeastern border with the Horn of Africa nation following a series of attacks on tourists and aid workers.
Until El Adde, things were going well for Kenya, with little violence. The KDF captured Kismayu port, a source of income for Al-Shabaab from charcoal trade and sugar smuggling into Kenya. Ironically, a United Nations report said the KDF was also involved in the illicit trade.
But the cost of Kenyan and Amisom efforts is staggering, with a heavy toll of African troops and Somali civilians. Although Amisom has kept a tight lid on its casualties, more than 4,000 soldiers are said to have been killed and thousands more wounded, making it the deadliest peacekeeping mission.
Due to lack of political progress on the ground, even the United States’ counter-terrorism efforts, billions of dollars in foreign aid and 28,000 AU soldiers from 11 countries are unable to impose order in Somalia. The Mogadishu central government is mired in political infighting over the spoils of foreign aid, factions and corruption.
The president of Somalia is holed up in a hilltop palace in the capital city — where a tenuous government exists that is unable to protect its people, administer justice and deliver basic services.
Al-Shabaab also exploits discontent among marginalised clans in the Shabelle River valley, who believe the US-trained, Al-Shabaab-infested, corrupt, one-clan-dominated Somali National Army (SNA) is using the fight against the Al-Shabaab to grab their fertile land. Although they don’t share the militants’ extremist ideology, they see them as defending their lands from State-backed clan militias.
But southern Somalia’s problems are not limited to Al-Shabaab. There is also small arms in the hands of clan militias and the second-generation of merchants of corruption and violence.
Moreover, the heavy-handed foreign meddling, including self-interested neighbours, impedes creation of a functioning, stable government. In fact, the 2006 US-backed Ethiopian incursion into southern Somalia midwifed the Al-Shabaab.
Then-President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Odinga may have started the Somalia military mission on the wrong foot but President Uhuru Kenyatta has the opportunity to end it well. After all the Kenyan troops are accounted for, he should withdraw the KDF from Somalia in an orderly manner.
The policy on Somalia is neither protecting the homeland nor serving Kenya’s interest. In fact, it has made border counties more vulnerable to attacks.
There is no compelling reason worth risking more Kenyan lives or treasure in Somalia’s clan-driven terrorism or dictating the political outcomes in the war-torn neighbouring country. It’s time to bring Kenyan troops home and let the Somali fight for their own country and destiny.
Mr Mohamed is founder and editor, Gubanmedia.com, a 24/7 online magazine of news analysis and commentary on the greater Horn of Africa region. email@example.com.
More airstrikes, less aid not enough to secure Somalia
The end-of-2017 U.S. decision to suspend military aid to the Somali national army until the federal government can demonstrate better accountability and performance of its forces is appropriate.
However, as I saw during my December research in Somalia, even combined with the significant increase in U.S. air strikes against the jihadi group Al Shabab, the U.S. policy is inadequate.
To mitigate terrorism threats and foster stability in the country, the United States must do what the Trump administration explicitly disavows: Focus on internal governance and state-building and insist on far broader accountability of Somalia’s federal and state governments and powerbrokers toward their citizens. Otherwise, the brutal Shabab or its mutation will remain entrenched.
In 2016, Somalia received about $250 million from the international community for its security sector, following years of similar contributions. Yet, its army is not able to engage even in joint patrolling with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces, let alone hold territories nominally cleared of al Shabab.
The Somali National Army (SNA) rosters have some 29,000 individuals on its payroll, of which some 12,000 may actually be soldiers with some capacity to fight. The rest are ghost soldiers, widows and the elderly. Despite the massive international aid, the military’s training remains inadequate, and equipment is siphoned off to clans and al Shabab.
Because of theft and corruption, soldiers’ salaries are not paid regularly, though Somalia’s current president Mohamad Abdullaji “Farmajo” Mohamad managed to cut the salary arrears from six months to two. As with many aspects of Somalia’s social and political life, the soldiers’ primary loyalties are not to the state, but to fractious clans.
Somali national security forces do not take the fight to al Shabab; but neither, any longer, does the supposedly 22,000-strong AMISOM. For some two years, it has remained in static positions, often locked-in garrisons.
It too struggles with effectively holding territory, with various clan and warlord militias and semi-official police forces most frequently performing that function. Often they extort local populations, engage in retaliation against rival and minority clans or steal land and other economic resources.
Still, when AMISOM withdraws from territories, as happened in 2017 and with further “conditions-based” withdrawals slated by 2020, security tends to deteriorate significantly and al Shabab fills the void. Its return exacerbates insecurity as the group punishes collaborators with AMISOM and the government.
Although much weaker than in 2012, al Shabab still controls significant territory and regularly conducts attacks in much of the country, including in Mogadishu. The intensified U.S. air strikes on al Shabab’s massing forces and vehicles significantly complicate its operations.
But they mostly disperse the militants, including to Mogadishu, with the same security vacuum left behind. Reliance on flipped and washed-out Shabab commanders, such as Ahmed Madobe in Kismayo and recently Mukhtar Robow and their militias, may bring immediate tactical gains. But if the politics and governance this unleashes remains predatory, discriminatory and capricious, the gains are ephemeral.
Although only numbering between 2,000 and 3,000 fighters, and despite its brutal and unpopular backward version of Islam, al Shabab remains deeply entrenched. Systematically, it outperforms the national government and local powerbrokers in the provision of order and brutal, although not corrupt, justice.
Meanwhile, official Somali political processes and public institutions remain in the pockets of powerful clans, which discriminate against their rivals and advance narrow parochial interests. They are also pervaded by corruption and usurpation of public resources for private gain.
Thus, even Mogadishu residents often prefer to approach al Shabab for the resolution of land and other disputes: Its decisions are widely seen as swift and not corrupt. Using al Shabab-controlled roads is predictable and safe at least for those who don’t collaborate with the government. Buses, taxis and trucks are charged a flat fee upon arriving at a Shabab checkpoint and given a receipt. Their cargo is safe.
Roads controlled by Somali national forces or militias feature many unpredictable fees and robberies are frequent. Thus Somali businessmen, including those based in Mogadishu, often hire al Shabab for security provision for their businesses.
Al Shabab also adroitly exploits widespread clan discrimination, aligning itself with weaker clans and providing them with protection and resource access. Its domestically-oriented recruitment propaganda emphasizes very specific local grievances and cases of power abuse and resource theft, not ideology.
For the United States to robustly weaken al Shabab, it must induce the Somali government to be accountable to the citizens, to deliver public services and to minimize clan discrimination and the exclusion of minority clans.
Priority must be given to reducing corruption in the justice system and in public and commercial contracts and to expanding access to resources for less powerful clans and individuals.
At the end of the day, al Shabab will need to be integrated into Somali society through accountability and reconciliation processes to which the various clan militias and flipped powerbrokers will also need to be subjected.
Vanda Felbab-Brown is a senior fellow in the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution.
A Trump decree is killing innocent civilians in Somalia
US President Donald Trump loves signing executive orders. During his first year in office, he has signed dozens of controversial orders on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from national security to trade.
Some of these executive orders, such as the ones on the Muslim travel ban and the Mexican border wall, received a lot of media attention and triggered protests around the world. But many other decisions by the president, causing death and destruction in faraway places like Somalia, went considerably unnoticed.
Only weeks after taking office, Trump signed a directive declaring parts of Somalia an “area of active hostilities”. This declaration relaxed some of the rules aimed at preventing civilian casualties when the US military carries out counterterrorism strikes in Somalia.
The Pentagon claimed that this order expanded its targeting authority “to defeat al-Shabab in Somalia” in partnership with the African Union and Somali forces. But, in practice, what this order did was little more than allow US soldiers to “kill at will” and with impunity within the borders of Somalia.
This is illegal, immoral and counterproductive.
An illegal order
The US aerial bombardment of Somalia started during George Bush’s “war on terror”, but the number of civilian casualties was minimal back then. Since the current US president “relaxed” the rules of engagement, the number and scope of these attacks increased dramatically, leading to many civilian casualties.
According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there were 32 to 36 reported US drone strikes in Somalia between 2001 and 2016. In 2017, 34 air and drone strikes were carried out, killing more than 200 people.
Al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda-linked militant group, is the official target of most US drone strikes in Somalia. Its ultimate objective is to overthrow the government in Mogadishu and establish a new state in its place. Several African nations have been battling the armed group for over a decade, but Western nations, including the US, are now overtly leading the fight.
In the process, Washington appears to be relying on backdoor dealings and violating the sovereignty of an independent nation. It is not clear who authorises the air and drone strikes the US is conducting.
Somalia is not the “failed state” it once was – it is no longer a playground for uninvited foreigners. Today, there’s an internationally recognised administration in Mogadishu with functioning judicial, legislative and executive branches, and this administration, not Donald Trump, should be the one “authorising” the measures that can be used in the fight against al-Shabab in the country.
Somalia’s constitution clearly states that the country’s sovereignty is inviolable. Its legislative and executive branches are responsible for the security of the nation and only they can decide on military action. Without their approval, attacks are in violation of the nation’s sovereignty and are therefore illegal.
Immoral attacks on innocent civilians
The US cites its national interests and security as a pretext to conduct attacks on alleged al-Shabab bases in Somalia. No one is denying some of those killed as result of these strikes are indeed al-Shabab fighters, but the vast majority of the victims are civilians.
We know this because al-Shabab usually confirms the deaths of its senior commanders and fighters. We have witnessed this when Sheikh Ali Jabal, a senior al-Shabab commander in Somalia, was killed in a US strike in August last year. “The cowardly American enemy planes tried to strike him,” the group said in a statement circulated on social media. “The first missed him and the second hit, making him a martyr.”
Al-Shabab leaders do not try to hide the deaths of the group’s commanders and members, because they know that this would be a hard and futile task. Information about these deaths can easily surface through the clans and communities their fighters hail from.
So, when we see statements by US forces declaring that they killed dozens of “terrorists” in Somalia and hear no confirmation from al-Shabab leadership about these deaths, we question the validity of US claims about the identities of the victims.
Most civilian deaths do not get global attention because the attacks take place in al-Shabab-controlled areas. This makes it impossible for journalists and international human rights groups to investigate.
Sometimes local media publish photos and names of the civilian victims of US attacks. But even this depends on the victim’s clan. If a victim belongs to a minority clan that holds no political power, the government will easily dismiss them as “terrorist sympathisers”.
On August 17, 2017, the US launched three precision air strikes in the southern town of Jilib. US Africa Command released a statement claiming to have “killed terrorists”. However, the victims, seven of them, were civilians from the same family. Photos of their bodies and the remnants of their house were widely published in Somali media. But the victims belonged to a minority clan that has no power and influence in Somalia, and their relatives’ desperate plea for justice perished soon after they buried their loved ones.
A few days later, another US-led military raid took place in Bariire village, 45km from Mogadishu, killing 10 people, including children. Again, the Somali government and the US claimed that they only “killed terrorists”. This time, however, the victims hailed from an influential clan. Survivors and relatives challenged the false official claims about the attack.
To prove their case, family members took an unprecedented step and transported the victims’ bodies to the capital city to put them on display. Due to the pressure, government officials met relevant clan elders, apologised and agreed to pay compensation.
Despite the solid evidence and a confirmation from the Somali government, the US administration still insists that victims of this attack were not civilians. By denying facts, the Trump administration is damaging US reputation as a nation that respects human rights and the rule of law.
A counterproductive campaign
The US military campaign in Somalia will not yield any results.
Bombs dropped from the sky will certainly take out a few al-Shabab commanders; two of their former leaders were already killed by the US. They may also force their operatives into hiding or restrict their movements. But killing a few commanders and fighters isn’t going to bring the demise of the group.
After all, al-Shabab’s success is not based on individuals – it’s based on an ideology and you cannot defeat an ideology with bombs.
Somalis won’t be outraged over the fight against al-Shabab and the killing of the group’s fighters. People in the country understand these men have signed up to kill or be killed.
But the indiscriminate killings of civilians is antagonising Somalis. This gives legitimacy to the militant group as a resistance movement, especially within communities living under its rule. Every innocent person killed by the US is a gain for al-Shabab. Victims’ family members and fellow clansmen will seek retaliation. To them, revenge is an act of justice.
Most of the victims of US military operations in Somalia are farmers and nomads who have no animosity towards the American people. US bombardment is forcing many to flee their homes. In recent months, we have seen “drone refugees” arriving in Mogadishu’s overcrowded camps for the internally displaced. Children are traumatised by the constant fear of bombs falling from the sky.
Mr Trump, your bombs are breeding the next generation of suicide bombers in Somalia. Fight al-Shabab but stop terrorising innocent Somalis. To achieve any success, you must respect international and Somali law, reverse your immoral actions and rethink your strategy in Somalia.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.
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