A Somali government-led alliance with clans may be a winning strategy against the al Qaeda-linked terrorist group al-Shabab.
The shadowy fight against terrorists in Somalia intensified under three U.S. presidential administrations from Obama and Trump to the Biden administration. This should come as no surprise because continuity is axiomatic for U.S. counterterrorism policy work. And still, Somalia’s al-Shabab problem endures as a significant terrorism threat, from their 2013 attack at the Westgate Mall, in Nairobi, Kenya to twin bombings last October that killed over 100 people in Mogadishu.
Ever mindful that the U.S. has sacrificed “blood and treasure” in Somalia, there is room for cautious optimism in the counterterrorism fight. Biden’s order to redeploy a small footprint of the U.S. military back to Somalia by reversing a December 2020 decision by the previous administration to withdraw military personnel from the region makes good sense. Until 2020, the general counterterrorism blueprint across three presidential administrations was executed on the ground by small footprints of special operations forces (SOF), coupled with relentless airstrikes, and working with the right counterterrorism partners. It seems like a trotted-out cliché, but it’s profoundly true that U.S. counterterrorism pressure in Somalia, and elsewhere, protects the U.S. homeland. And yet, U.S. counterterrorism measures are seldom decisive, nor are they a panacea for countering terrorism everywhere.
The Somali clan strategy — a homegrown indigenous-led campaign — is proving an uncomfortable thorn in the flesh of the terrorists, and a growing threat to their existence in Somalia. Since last May, with President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s new government in place, Somalis are providing extensive backing to clan militias, which is buoying the morale of aggrieved Somalis to fight against al-Shabab.
Magnanimously, Mohamud has opened the door for al-Shabab if they leave their malignant ideology behind, but if they don’t, he has promised their destruction. Mohamud has employed tried-and-true “carrot and stick” counterinsurgency measures, including addressing the ideological drivers for terrorism in Somalia. At the same time, the U.S. is offering up to $10 million by incentivizing information that will help disrupt al-Shabab finances.
Taken together, these measures, coupled with the decision to reintroduce a persistent U.S. presence in Somalia, will infuse the Somali government with the confidence that’s needed to defeat al-Shabab.
Several years before serving on the Trump National Security Council team, I traveled to a couple of locations in rural Somalia to survey the possibilities for implementing a clan engagement strategy. I was guardedly upbeat that the modest results I enjoyed by engaging with tribal leaders in Afghanistan could be replicated in Somalia. I was wrong about a U.S.-driven clan strategy, but right about the idea of a partner-led clan strategy, which as it turns out, is what is now being implemented in Somalia.
I concluded that both counterinsurgency and counterterrorism approaches necessitate engagements with tribal leaders and local security forces to unify efforts against insurgents and terrorists. From my focused engagements with tribal leaders in Yemen, Afghanistan and Iraq, I settled on the idea that the compound nature of insurgencies demands lines of operations that address the causes of the insurgency while also leveraging indigenous tribal networks. An engagement strategy was needed, to be sure, but the complexities of clan dynamics in Somalia could only be navigated by Somalis themselves.
What’s now happening in Somalia looks like a top-down strategy that the Somali president is driving. This, coupled with a persistent U.S. presence in the country, enables U.S. partners to pursue al-Shabab with greater confidence.
—Christopher P. Costa is the executive director of the International Spy Museum and an adjunct associate professor with Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, Walsh School of Foreign Service. He is a former career intelligence officer and was special assistant to the president and senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council from 2017 to 2018.