The Horn of Africa has been described as the “frontline of the war on terror,” and there is considerable interest that Somalia is a gateway of war on terror in the region. The concern of terrorism in Somalia can be extended back to 1998 when al-Qaeda-sponsored bombings to U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Lam Tanzania. After 9/11, the United States has been conducting counterterrorism operations and has strongly engaged in bringing peace internally and reconstruct government institutions for a longer-term counterterrorism objective to be achieved in the Horn of Africa. Thus, the United States has taken the responsibility of training and advising elements of the Somali National Army take on terrorist groups in Somalia. U.S. government has helped design, fund, and train an elite Somalia special force, Danab (Enlightening) Brigade. This elite unit has developed a reputation as Somalia’s most professional combat force against Al-Shabab, and even conducting joint operations with U.S. special forces. The United States has predicted to continue training Somali elite special forces until 2027, with a projected strength of 3000-3.500 troops. But that have changed when the former administration decided to withdraw U.S. forces from Somalia and stopped the “Train-and-Assist” mission that raised the concern of the collapse of the elite Danab unit, and the potential for further chaos for Somalia and the region’s overall security.
U.S. Security Policy in Somalia:
U.S. primary interest in Somali is preventing the country from becoming a safe-haven for terrorist groups to plot attacks on the United States, and therefore, does provide development and humanitarian assistance to the Somali people; achieved deployment of African stabilization forces, and continue to track terrorists to prevent Somalia from remaining a safe haven for terrorism (2020-US Lead IG report). These goals are also shared by U.S. partners in the region. Initially, critics of U.S. presence in Somalia have called to disengage militarily from Somalia due to potential reactionary risks of violence and anti-American sentiment. In this regard, the United States has primarily given stabilization tasks to regional states, like, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Kenya. The UN Security Council authorized African Union forces in Somalia under AMISOM. Hence, the United States has established a combined joint task force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) for training national militaries in the region. The stated purpose of CJTF-HOA is to “conduct operations and training to assist host nations to combat terrorism to establish a secure environment and enable regional stability” through the African Contingency Operations Training and Assistance (ACOTA) which provides training and equipment for African peacekeepers in Somalia. Additionally, the United States has established Africa Command (Africom) in regards U.S. forces respond more actively to perceived threats, and strengthen regional stability. Danab Brigade is the most successful military initiative and considered as being the most effective Counter-insurgency unit in the Somali National Army.
Despite Al-Shabab’s continue deadly attacks, it is no longer dominant political force in south-central Somalia, and controls fewer territories than seven years ago (UNSOS 2018). Al-Shabab has also lost important leaders and active militia personnel as the result of counterterrorism operations and defection. The unique element of engagement of the United States in Somalia is the prominence effort of stabilizing Somalia through training, advising, and support coordination to Somali National Army elite forces, Danab Brigade. Danab Brigade unit has the capabilities and proficiency of combating terrorist groups in Somalia. As of result, the federal government of Somalia has made tremendous gains since the creation of the Danab force and pushed terrorist groups from urban areas. In contrast, the government’s territorial gains are fragile, and the special unit is very dependent on U.S. military support. Consequently, Somalia’s international partners fear U.S. troops’ withdrawal from Somalia as a victory for al-Shabab and the potential for further chaos for Somalia and the region. U.S. “advice-and-assist” role cannot be replaced easily and helping Somali forces with plans and raids, accompanying them into firefights against terrorist groups.
According to the Pentagon Press release on Dec. 4, 2020, the withdrawing decision will “allow cross-border operations by both U.S. and partner forces to maintain pressure against violent extremist organizations operating in Somalia.” Proponents of the withdrawal decision argue that U.S. can launch and stage operations from U.S. bases in Kenya and Djibouti. However, airstrikes staged from neighboring countries risk civilian casualties, which will eventually empower the terrorist groups’ propaganda machine against the U.S. security mission in Somalia. With this in mind, the absence of U.S. presence has already created a security vacuum that has resulted from a recipe for maximum damage after Al-Shabab fighters stormed nearly a dozen military bases in three months. Al-Shabab is a major challenger of the legitimacy of the Somali Federal Government, both through its violence and through presenting itself as an alternative to the government. According to the 2020 Lead Inspector General (Lead IG) report, Al-Shabab carried out over 400 violent attacks in Somalia in two months period, the highest number in two years. President Biden promised that he will end “forever-wars” which are counterterrorism missions since the 9/11 attacks of 2001. Somali special forces, Danab brigade is the main counterterrorism force of Somalia and is heavily relied on U.S. support.
Now, with hundreds of the U.S. troops who trained the Danab unit have left Somalia, current and former Danab officers are fearful that diminished American supervision will leave the elite division vulnerable to political interference from the Somali federal government, which is embroiled in a bitterly disputed unscheduled election. Currently, Somalia is escalating deterioration of security and political instabilities by delayed parliamentary and presidential elections. According to the 2018 Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Hearing report, Somali National Army is suffering the effects of clan division in Somalia which is contributing to infighting within senior officials on poor command and control. In this scenario, loyalty, and obedience of the member of security forces lies on their affiliated clans regardless of their ranks. The recruitment of Danab forces is vetted from clan affiliation and loyalty by the nonprofit organization contracted with the State Department to recruit and train Danab at its initial pilot program of the Unit’s creation, and it was the condition the State Department attached recruitment that recruited personnel would be apolitical. (Bearek, 2020). But, the absence and supervision of the United States, the Danab Brigade unit will leave prone to political interference, potentially by the Somali federal government and its key allies Qatar, and Turkey on one side, and their rivals Saudi Arabia and UAE.
Finally, U.S. presence in Somalia and the Horn region serves beyond counterterrorism efforts. It promotes U.S. values and interests and responds to humanitarian and security crises in the region. Thus, the threat of Shabab remains imminent and dangerous to Somalia’s government, civilian and international personnel in the region. The group is also remaining capable of launching large-scale terror attacks in Kenya and beyond. Thus, the U.S. departure from Somalia has changed the behavior of the terrorist groups. Al-Shabab violent attacks have increased significantly after the U.S. forces departed from Somalia. U.S. withdrawal from Somalia has created a security vacuum for al-Shabab, which is detrimental to the U.S. war on terror and strengthening the capabilities of Somalia’s security forces. If the United States continues its disengagement in Somalia, the Horn region will likely remain a major conflict and terrorism zone. Given Somalia’s history as a venue for terrorist attacks, and its potential value as a base area for terrorism operations, U.S. presence, and continued vigilance are required for long-term goals. American military presence in Somalia is both operational and symbolic with training, equipping, financing, and mentoring Danab Brigade. Therefore, sending US troops back to Somalia is warranted to conduct train-and-equip operations, including “advise and assist” missions.