Decisions by Somalias Al Shabaab Should Lead to a Dead End

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Al Shabaab, the militant wing of the former Islamic Courts Council in Somalia, has emerged as a transnational threat with ever strengthening ties to the global jihad led by Al Qaeda. Through this emergence, Al Shabaab has made some strategic decisions that they believe will lead them down a path to success. However, if leveraged appropriately, Al Shabaab's recent decisions should lead them straight into a dead end. The United States, through AFRICOM and SOCAFRICA, needs to refine its current policy and leverage the situation revealing Al Shabaab's duplicity and destroys its credibility. The strategic aim of this policy would be to contain Al Shabaab and its foreign support while building legitimacy, confidence and capability in the Transitional Federal Government of the Republic of Somalia (TFG).

Somalia has been an ungoverned and lawless state for the past 20 years. The situation there remains highly unstable and increasingly visible on the global stage. Much of the violence in Somalia is directly attributed to Al-Shabaab and uses terror tactics in conjunction with guerrilla style fighting to keep the region unstable. The violence is usually directed against the African Union (AU) presence in Somalia and against members of the TFG, but too often, civilians are killed as well. Al Shabaab will claim responsibility for high profile bombings and attacks throughout Somalia in order to gain legitimacy as a force to be reckoned with. In addition to their bombing campaign, Al Shabaab is responsible for assassinations of peacekeeping forces, policemen, doctors, government officials, and international aid workers. [i] 

In order to gain more legitimacy and credibility with other terror organizations, Al Shabaab went public with its bayat to Al Qaeda and swore to connect the Horn of Africa with the jihad led by Osama bin Laden. By the spring of 2010, Al Shabaab clearly demonstrated its allegiance to the greater jihad and in turn, Al Qaeda Senior Leaders responded with an influx of foreign fighters, equipment and financing. [ii] 

Shortly after Al Qaeda leaders arrived, the attacks became more brazen. [iii] Al Shabaab made world headline news with their deadly attack in Uganda during the World Cup in July, 2010. The bombings targeted civilian establishments and killed 74 soccer fans. Following the attack, Al Shabaab announced that there would be further violence until the AU peacekeeping forces left Somalia. They promised a bloody summer against all apostates. [iv] 

Al Shabaab delivered on their promise of a bloody summer with an increase of attacks in Somalia with a heavy terror campaign in and around Mogadishu. While Al Qaeda publicly praised Al Shabaab's gains, they also urged them to redirect their attacks against western interests and suggested that the Al Qaeda / Al Shabaab relationship be downplayed for the time being. [v] This may seem counterintuitive, but Al Qaeda has learned some lessons during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that they do not want to repeat in the Horn of Africa.

If Al Shabaab continues to demonstrate a resolve for transnational violence, Al Qaeda fears that the U.S. will directly intervene. A standing Execution Order (EXORD) from 2004 authorizes the U.S. to target and capture or kill members of Al Qaeda and their affiliates even in countries that we are not at war with. [vi] This authority has been used over the past six years in numerous countries, including Somalia. Al Shabaab's blatant and public allegiance with Al Qaeda makes them targetable. The U.S. has the authority to conduct attacks, has already set precedence, and through strategic communications can try to persuade more support from the global community to take action against Al Shabaab.

The last U.S. targeted strike on Al Shabaab was against foreign Al Qaeda operative Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, wanted for bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and an attempted surface to air missile strike on an Israeli passenger jet in 2002. He moved into Somalia to organize their military operations and was killed in a U.S. Special Operations strike while he was traveling from Mogadishu to Kismayo, Somalia in September, 2009. This strike was conducted under the EXORD and consistent with SOCAFRICA's objectives.

Three of SOCAFRICA's objectives are to build operational capacity, implement effective communication strategies, and eradicate violent extremist organizations and their support networks. [vii] The strike on Nabhan is clearly an effort to eradicate the extremists in Somalia and was able to destabilize Al Shabaab, even if for a short time, in order to provide time to develop the capacity of TFG and AU peacekeeping forces. Following the strike, strategic communication efforts did not highlight the fact that Nabhan was a foreigner from Kenya but there was still very little response from the Somali people in outrage. Because Nabhan was foreign, his targeting seemed to be "fair game". In response to this strike, Al Shabaab vowed revenge and in memoriam renamed one of their brigades the "Nabhan Brigade". This specific group claimed responsibility for the attack on the soccer fans in Uganda. They justified this attack by calling for all the foreign troops, namely from Uganda and Burundi, operating under the African Union (AU) to leave Somalia immediately. Al Shabaab claimed that they do not want interference from outside nations for a problem in Somalia. They claimed they want Somalis solving Somali problems.

Ironically, in order for them to reach their objectives, they need support from foreign terror organizations and leaders. If Somalis begin to identify Al Shabaab as a foreign aligned organization with global insurgency tendencies that are not necessarily in line with the local needs, the insurgent support base will diminish and Al Shabaab will lose legitimacy. Both of these happened to Al Qaeda in Iraq and they are warning Al Shabaab so they don't make the same mistake. Failure by Al Shabaab is a failure for Al Qaeda and its global jihad.

A widely respected counterinsurgency theory focuses on the links between insurgent networks and how they are linked to the global jihad. Networks employing terrorism as a tactic to influence change in their regions should be viewed in aggregate and assessed for their connectivity to other terror networks. This is the global insurgency model that Al Shabaab represents. If viewed in this way, the strategies to defeat this insurgency need to be wide in scope and focus on the disaggregation of the networks common nodes and necessary links. [viii] 

One of the most recognizable and important links in a global insurgency is shared leadership. When the U.S. can identify this occurring, like Nabhan, targeting leaders is an appropriate disaggregate. Targeting leadership to defeat an opponent in a counterterror or counterinsurgency campaign can be a difficult endeavor but is critical as terror organizations / insurgencies morph into global enterprises and present transnational threats. [ix] 

In counterinsurgency, the main military goal is to set the conditions for non- military measures to succeed and is intricately tied to the host nation forces capability to ensure that stability lasts long enough for its government to mature effectively. When it comes to transnational insurgencies, targeting leadership is "too limited and risky a strategy to form the centerpiece of a counterinsurgency campaign" and is "sorely incomplete as a standalone policy." [x] The current situation in Somalia requires precise and effective targeting of Al Shabaab leaders as a compliment to more comprehensive means and can be pivotal in setting the conditions necessary for the TFG to succeed.

Targeting insurgent leaders can weaken and disrupt insurgent organizations, making them more vulnerable to host nation forces. Killing or capturing an insurgency's leadership can hinder the insurgency's operational capabilities, especially planning and coordination. Removing an insurgency's leadership disrupts planning and operations, limits a group's expertise and weakens its ability to coordinate attacks. Killing or capturing an insurgent leader provides a means of eliminating the knowledge, charismatic power, and direction that the leader instills within the organization. All of these points become more important when an organization like Al Shabaab has to import this type of talent.

Since Nabhan, more Al Qaeda foreign advisors have taken key roles in Al Shabaab. Saudis, Pakistanis, Yemenis and even American born jihadists have emigrated to Al Shabaab's leadership ranks. [xi] When foreign influence is perceived as overwhelming by the popular support base, insurgent legitimacy can be threatened. Legitimacy is the main objective of a counterinsurgency campaign and restoring legitimacy to a government like the TFG can only be accomplished using all instruments of national power. [xii] 

The key to defeating insurgencies is balancing multiple approaches and applying them in the proper contexts. Incumbent governments should not design their entire counterinsurgency strategies around targeting leadership, but its ability to destabilize the insurgency and provide time for other elements of national power to take root and foster legitimate rule. [xiii] Targeting Al Shabaab leadership does not have to have an overt U.S. signature. Africans solving African problems is the goal of AFRICOM and a major part of the capacity building campaign is providing the intelligence and capability for African forces to find, fix and finish Al Shabaab leadership. A successful campaign in Somalia would have African, preferably TFG soldiers, capturing and killing Al Shabaab leaders. Because many of the leaders are Al Qaeda supplied foreigners, this provides focus for a strategic communication plan to discredit Al Shabaab.

Al Shabaab has demonstrated their willingness and ability to export their violence and they relish their role as a transnational threat. They have reached out to Al Qaeda and garnered support ideologically, militarily, financially and with leadership. These foreign leaders need to be targeted and discredited. In order for Al Shabaab to be successful, they need to appear as a local insurgency with local aspirations. They need to be viewed by the Somali people as the ones who understand their grievances. Al Shabaab's efforts must be viewed as a movement that represents the people of Somalia. If they fail in this perception, they will fail. [xiv] 

The U.S. needs to continue with its objectives in Somalia, focus on targeting the foreign Al Shabaab leaders, communicate how Al Shabaab has become a patsy for Al Qaeda, alienating them from the greater global insurgent movement. These steps should offer more time for the TFG and the AU to mature, develop, gain legitimacy and govern Al Shabaab and Somalia.