Why are US troops returning to Somalia?
Reversing Donald Trump’s policy of ‘ending the forever wars’, US President Joe Biden has decided to send hundreds of US military personnel to Somalia.
Various factors have forced Washington to rethink its engagement in volatile strategic areas, including the escalation of al-Shabab activity, the withdrawal of the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) by the end of 2024, and Washington’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan.
America and Somalia between two eras
The timing of the White House's announcement to send US forces to Somalia was significant, as it came just one day after Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was elected president of the country following a marathon election in which his rival, Mohamed Abdullahi, also known as Farmajo, lost.
In light of a complex array of issues on the table for the new president, Sheikh Mohamud is in need of American support on security issues, especially following an uptick in al-Shabab activity following Trump’s withdrawal of US forces in December 2020.
Washington’s message of support also underlines a new phase in relations with Mogadishu, which witnessed continuous tensions during the Farmajo era.
"Reversing Donald Trump's policy of 'ending the forever wars', US President Joe Biden has decided to send hundreds of US military personnel to Somalia"
The tripartite axis that he helped forge in 2018 between Eritrea, Somalia, and Ethiopia was considered a source of instability in the region, while Farmajo was also considered closer to Russia and China.
As a result, Washington played an important role in ‘extracting’ Farmajo from the presidential palace by rejecting the extension of his mandate for two years in February 2021.
The US had also urged Somali political parties to complete parliamentary and presidential elections and to overcome recurring logistical obstacles before them.
In this context, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreed to extend the deadline for Somalia to receive its allocations until 17 August following Sheikh Mohamud’s election.
It had previously threatened to stop them on 17 May if a new federal government had not been announced.
Hours after Sheikh Mohamud's victory, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said the country's leaders now had the ability to focus on the reforms needed to achieve the "shared goal" of a peaceful and prosperous Somalia.
Washington also has experience with Sheikh Mohamud. During his first presidency between 2012 and 2017, it sent a small team of military advisors to Mogadishu for the first time in 20 years.
During that time, the US enjoyed what it would call military ‘successes’, including the assassination of Ahmed Abdi Godane, the leader of al-Shabab who pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda, in a US drone strike in 2014.
Nearly 500 soldiers are expected to arrive in Somalia, where they will work to enhance capacity-building in combating terrorism in the country.
In this context, the role of the Danab Brigade, which was established by the US in 2012 and included nearly a thousand fighters, is important, as the Pentagon is expected to resume supervision and increase the number of its members.
Danab enjoyed American training, and logistical and intelligence support, which made it one of the fiercest units tasked with tackling al-Shabab. The brigade was able to turn over several positions from the extremist group, but the withdrawal of US forces threatened these gains.
It is now expected that US drone strikes will expand, as its drones launch from their bases in Somalia and neighbouring countries to strike the leaders and gatherings of al-Shabab.
The return of US forces will also activate work with local partners on the ground, which will contribute to better collection of tactical intelligence.
The danger of al-Shabab
The al-Shabab movement is the main target of Biden's decision, and over the years it has turned into a source of danger not only for Somalia but also for the region.
Despite its classification as a terrorist movement by Washington in 2008 and its involvement in an open war with Somali and African forces for more than a decade and a half, the movement is still strong.
The US Africa Command (AFRICOM) described it as “adaptive, resilient, and capable of attacking Western and partner interests in Somalia and East Africa”.
The movement establishes its own authority in the vast areas it controls in the south and the centre of the country, where it exercises state functions and its judicial system takes on dispute resolution.
Its economic bodies also collect taxes from citizens along with other criminal activities, which provides them with sums estimated at $130 million annually, according to a report by the Soufan Foundation.
"The al-Shabab movement is the main target of Biden's decision, and over the years it has turned into a source of danger not only for Somalia but also for the region"
This financial liquidity, along with the central government’s inability to carry out its duties, provides the movement with the opportunity to arm itself and recruit young people, with the number of fighters estimated at 7,000.
The group is a source of concern to Washington, as it has repeatedly called for targeting US interests in the region and attacked one of the most important US military bases in Somalia in 2019. A year later, the group killed US soldiers who were training Kenyan forces to combat terrorism.
The US Department of Justice has also accused the movement of plotting to carry out an attack on US soil by hijacking a plane, similar to the September 11 terrorist attacks.
In this context, the Philippines in 2020 handed over an alleged al-Shabab activist to the United States for trial as an alleged mastermind of the attack.
Washington is also concerned about the recruitment of American Muslims and the expansion of the group’s network in the US.
The geopolitical context
The US decision to return troops to Somalia cannot be separated from turbulent political conditions in the Horn of Africa. The war in Ethiopia, a faltering democratic transition in Sudan, and the expansion of al-Shabab’s regional attacks all factor in to the US decision.
In addition to suicide bombings in Kenya and Uganda, the group has also threatened to target Djibouti, which hosts US and French military bases, among others.
The war in Ethiopia has also affected Addis Ababa’s contribution to counter-terrorism forces operating on Somali soil, whether individually or as part of AU forces, and there are fears the country could become a new front for al-Shabab.
Last month, Ethiopian security forces said they had foiled an attack by the group in the country’s capital.
"Geopolitically, the US wants to re-establish its presence in Somalia in the face of Chinese and Russian advances in the Horn of Africa"
In the context of protecting its allies in the region, Washington needs to undermine al-Shabab’s threats to Kenya, which has become the most important partner of the United States in the region after tensions in US-Ethiopian relations following the war in Tigray and its repercussions.
Geopolitically, the US wants to re-establish its presence in Somalia in the face of Chinese and Russian advances in the Horn of Africa.
Last year, Eritrea agreed to join the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, and China's influence in neighbouring Ethiopia is moving Addis Ababa, which was historically the main US ally in East Africa, away from Washington. The situation is not much better in Djibouti, from a US perspective, which is mired in Chinese debt.
Russia, in turn, is strengthening its relations with Eritrea, which was the only African country that refused to condemn its invasion of Ukraine in the United Nations General Assembly.
Moscow also signed military agreements with Addis Ababa last summer, while its relations with Khartoum seem to be at their best since the fall of Omar Al-Bashir's regime in 2019.
But despite the motivations of the American policy change, the extent of its effectiveness is linked to the need to stabilise the political situation in Somalia, and the ability to coordinate effectively with both Somali and African forces.
Abdolgader Mohamed Ali is an Eritrean journalist and researcher in African Affairs.
Follow him on Twitter: @AbdolgaderAli