January 28, 2021

Biden should reverse Trump’s decision on Somalia

US force levels in both Iraq and Afghanistan have been reduced to 2,500, meeting former President Donald Trump’s deadline for the drawdown. The United States has also withdrawn its forces from Somalia, another oft-ignored front in the fight against al Qaeda’s and the Islamic State’s global networks. Yet the US faces a rising terror threat from Somalia, where al Qaeda’s affiliate al Shabaab actively plots attacks against the United States.

The new Biden administration should reverse the Trump administration’s shortsighted eleventh-hour decision to withdraw from Somalia to stave off a worst-case possibility: al Shabaab pulling off a transnational mass-casualty attack from its Somali sanctuary. In early December, the Pentagon announced its decision to remove nearly all US military personnel from Somalia by early January 2021, pivoting from a long-rumored drawdown in West Africa. Both former President Trump and President Biden have pledged to end America’s “forever wars”; withdrawing troops from Somalia, in concert with force reductions in Afghanistan and Iraq, may seem like the right step toward fulfilling this promise. But this decision doubles down on a flawed counterterrorism approach that requires special forces to be deployed indefinitely and risks American interests in the Horn of Africa.

The short time from the Pentagon’s December 4 announcement and the January 15, 2021, deadline for withdrawal from Somalia left little time for the US military and its partners to prepare for the change. US Africa Command scrambled to execute the orders. It stood up Joint Task Force-Quartz to support the force relocation from Somalia while maintaining pressure on al Shabaab. By December 21, a significant US naval contingent—including the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group, the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, and the USS Hershel “Woody” Williams—was off East Africa’s coast supporting the repositioning of Somalia-based US troops. By the end of December, US military plans for continued engagement with Somali partners were still being refined.

The US military’s counterterrorism footprint in Somalia was already minimal. Roughly 700 US troops conducting counterterrorism missions in Somalia were deployed alongside a specialized Somali force—the Danab Advanced Infantry Brigade—to advise, assist, and accompany Somalis in operations against al Shabaab and the small Somali branch of the Islamic State. The US seeks to turn the fight over to Somali forces fully in the near future. Now, these US troops will only enter Somalia for specific missions. They will be based in neighboring Djibouti and Kenya—joining the 3,000 troops at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, that support regional counterterrorism operations and the fewer than 350 US troops and contractors already working with Kenyan forces against al Shabaab.

The withdrawal occurred as the risk to troops in Somalia has risen notably. Al Shabaab killed four Americans in the past year alone—a “definite shift” in the focus of its attacks. The Pentagon has yet to reveal specifics regarding the new force posture in the Horn of Africa, but it is clear that the rapid withdrawal and repositioning comes at a dangerous time.

Today, al Shabaab presents the most-imminent threat to US interests of all al Qaeda and Islamic State branches in Africa. Years of sustained counterterrorism pressure from the United States and regional partners have not degraded the group, which still carries significant influence throughout Somalia. Al Shabaab has about 5,000–10,000 fighters under its command and frequently attacks sites in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital. The group collects more taxes from Somalis than the actual government does, including from businessmen outside areas under its control. Its intelligence network, the Amniyat, is fearfully effective and has penetrated the Somali intelligence services.

The fight against al Shabaab has stalemated, but time favors the group. The forces aligned against al Shabaab—including African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeeping troops, the regular Somali army, Danab forces, and a collection of local militias—have made limited progress. In reality, the specialized Danab forces conduct nearly all Somali counterterrorism operations against al Shabaab, though they are still far below their targeted force size. The Somali National Army has been plagued with problems, and AMISOM does not have sufficient forces to conduct offensive operations and protect current positions.

How long AMISOM forces will stay in Somalia is an open question. AMISOM’s drawdown was planned for the end of 2021 after transitioning its security responsibilities to Somali forces. Somali forces have yet to meet key milestones for operational and institutional capabilities identified in the transition plan.

Removing US troops places the future of the Danab—and with it, the bulk of Somali-led counterterrorism operations—in peril. The number of trained Danab troops still lags behind benchmarks, and the situation will only worsen as fewer join and regular attrition occurs. These forces (along with the beleaguered Somali army) should be taking over the fight against al Shabaab. The withdrawal also compromises the security of the AMISOM forces in Somalia, whose bases risk being overrun by al Shabaab without US assistance. The United States seeks to deny victory to al Shabaab, but this withdrawal might be equal to handing part of Somalia back to the group.

Al Shabaab already targets US interests in East Africa today. Its first international attack was in Uganda in 2010, and it repeatedly targets Kenyans, notably the 2013 Westgate Mall and 2019 Dusit D2 Hotel attacks in Nairobi, Kenya. Al Shabaab has shifted to US military targets in the region over the past few years. It has targeted US bases in Baledogle and Jana Cabdalle in Somalia since September 2019, conducted an assault on a US forward-operating base in Manda Bay, Kenya, in January 2020, and fatally wounded a CIA operative in Somalia in early November 2020.

Most worrisome, al Shabaab intends to attack the US homeland and is pursuing the capability to bring down commercial planes. An expanded sanctuary increases the risk of al Shabaab successfully carrying out such an attack. The group copied a laptop bomb from al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch in 2016, and al Shabaab operatives have been arrested trying to take flying lessons, copying the 9/11 hijackers, in the past two years. A Kenyan national, who was arrested in the Philippines in 2019 and transferred to US custody, faces charges for conspiracy to hijack aircraft on behalf of al Qaeda. The commander of US special forces in Africa, Brig. Gen. Dagvin Anderson, noted that though the plot may have been nascent, the United States only “stumbled upon some information” that uncovered the plans.

The United States and its partners may not be as lucky about al Shabaab’s next attack. The Pentagon’s withdrawal announcement claims the United States will retain the capability to “collect early warnings and indicators regarding threats to the homeland,” but intelligence and collection gaps have occurred even under the current posture. Removing US special operations forces from the field that act as remote sensors will affect the quality of US intelligence on al Shabaab.

The Pentagon denies any policy shift toward Somalia, but the major posture changes affect what the US can do. Withdrawing US troops assisting Somali forces not only limits what operations the United States can conduct or support against al Shabaab, but also what the United States is able to know about al Shabaab’s future activities. The new posture inevitably preferences drone warfare, targeting key al Shabaab operatives and any training camps. Yet a decapitation strategy is only effective temporarily and only if it buys time for ground forces to capitalize on a weakened enemy.

No forces are prepared to lead this fight in Somalia. Somali forces have historically been unable to hold newly captured villages, and too often, these villages fall back under al Shabaab’s influence. Tantalizing as it is to believe that air strikes and a few commando raids will effectively counter the threat from groups like al Shabaab, experience elsewhere proves otherwise. Counterterrorism alone is insufficient.

The withdrawal’s implications are farther-reaching than just the counterterrorism effort. Somalia’s delayed parliamentary and presidential elections loom as important milestones for the government. Managing the aftermath of the US drawdown diverts the Somali government’s attention from planning and holding these elections, which have already faced multiple setbacks.

Regional security has also deteriorated significantly over the past few months when Ethiopia’s conflict in its Tigray region spilled into Somalia. Ethiopia has pulled troops from the anti–al Shabaab fight to put down the Tigray uprising, and infighting has occurred among those remaining. The recent flare-up of tensions between the Somali and Kenyan governments will also pull forces from the counter–al Shabaab fight.

Reducing the US presence in Somalia will also cap American influence in Somalia and create space for others to fill. Competition for influence in the Horn of Africa among the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar is growing. Chinese concerns over this rising instability will probably increase their investments in the region, as Beijing seeks to protect its recent infrastructure investments and commercial maritime activities in the Red Sea. Russia, too, might read the US withdrawal as an opening to vie for influence in the Red Sea.

The Biden administration may be wary of sending US troops back to Somalia because of the optics. But what the United States has been doing against al Shabaab is a far cry from the resource-intensive wars elsewhere. Somalia is a model for the more sustainable by-with-and-through partnership-based counterterrorism approach that the Obama administration pursued. A myopic focus on counterterrorism has arguably hindered this effort, however, as local conditions contribute to backsliding. Pulling forces from the fight now is premature, handicapping America’s Somali and African partners and almost ensuring al Shabaab’s expansion.

Upholding President Biden’s promise to end forever wars is better done by changing the fight, not abandoning it. Al Shabaab has thrived due to local conflicts and poor governance in Somalia. Somalis tolerate al Shabaab not for its radical ideology but because it brings security and stability. Changing the fight means the US military’s role in Somalia will shift: counterterrorism operations against al Shabaab targets should be secondary to a primary mission of enabling political, diplomatic, and economic efforts. A light US military footprint should support a new civilian-led strategy that prioritizes a soft-power approach to diminish al Shabaab’s influence.

The United States should lead the effort to strengthen governance, better enable local and federal administrations to provide basic services, and reduce intra-Somali and regional conflicts. Resolving the ongoing power struggle between Somalia’s federal government and its member states is key as they compete for control over resources and drive the conditions that empower al Shabaab. So, too, will be addressing rampant corruption in the government that makes a mockery of the courts and siphons money from public coffers. Otherwise, success in removing al Shabaab from terrain under its control will be fleeting.

Defeating al Shabaab needs to happen off the battlefield. Only when Somalis have a better alternative to life under al Shabaab will the group lose its power. The new US president could then bring the troops based in Somalia all the way home.

Katherine Zimmerman is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of the recent report, “Fragility and failure: A better foreign policy to counter new threats.” She’s on Twitter @KatieZimmerman.