Talking Proud Archives --- Military

Somalia: Why is the US in combat?

Advise, Assist, Train, yes, and, Find, Target and Destroy!

By Ed Marek, editor

December 17, 2018

The threats presented by Somalia: More than you might think

Somali history is one of incessant civil war, battles between multiple clans and militias, famine, multiple attempts at governance, dysfunctional institutions, lawlessness, coups, often intense friction with Ethiopia, mass casualties of Somali civilians, and manifold foreign interventions. If that's not enough, it ranks among the world's most corrupt countries. It is all mind-boggling to track.

I have whittled it down to a three-fold threat, each of which can get quite complex:

  • Terrorists
  • Waterways
  • Instability


The common refrain justifying deploying US forces to Somalia has been to counter the threat posed to Somalia by terrorists. The US effort began with 9-11 against al-Qaeda in 2001, and continues to this day. These days, the threat in Somalia is mainly al-Shabaab, and most recently ISIS. But Al-Shabaab has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda. It says it is waging jihad against “enemies of Islam.” Al-Shabaab is also waging jihad against ISIS. That is probably because both al-Shabaab and ISIS want to control the country. My focus will be on al-Shabaab, but keep ISIS in mind.

The back cover of the book,
Inside Al-Shabaab: The Secret History of Al-Qaeda’s Most Powerful Ally, written by Harun Maruf and Dan Joseph, describes al-Shabaab:

"One of the most powerful Islamic militant groups in Africa, Al-Shabaab exerts Taliban-like rule over millions in Somalia and poses a growing threat to stability in the Horn of Africa. Somalis risk retaliation or death if they oppose or fail to comply with al-Shabaab-imposed restrictions on aspects of everyday life."

These terrorists are most certainly a threat. But what is it they threaten? That's what we should pay attention to as we move forward.

Multiple contributors wrote, “
US Counter-terrorism Objectives in Somalia: Is Mission Failure Likely?” published by Newsweek. They said:

“Al Shabaab sits on a key line of communications between the Middle East and Africa—a link that al-Qaeda has sought to maintain over the years.

“It interacts with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, as well as the network of al-Qaeda and ISIS groups operating throughout Egypt, Libya, and Sudan and into Mali and Nigeria. Al Shabaab’s strength contributes to the strength of the al-Qaeda network overall.

“Al Shabaab, al-Qaeda’s branch in Somalia, is resurgent and set to make additional gains in 2017. It rebuilt its strength after the losses it sustained in 2012 and 2013 …“

The issues include:

  • The group has been challenging the Government of Somalia for power.
  • American leaders see the group as part of a global terrorist threat, to include a threat to the US and the near region.
  • The US does not want Somalia to be a refuge for terrorists.
  • Al-Shabaab has managed to recruit from the Somali diaspora in the US, focused on Minneapolis, Minnesota.
  • Finally, al-Shabaab sits on a key line of communication between the Mideast, Africa and the Indian Ocean. I'll get to this shortly.

Al-Shabaab is said to have between 7,000 and 9,000 fighters, many of whom come from outside Somalia. Most of its activities have been in Somalia. However, the group has attacked into neighboring Kenya and Uganda.

The Somali population in the US has grown to a point where the US is unsure how many Somalis are in the US. I have seen estimates ranging from 35,000 to 150,000 with Somalia ancestry. A survey done in 2010 estimated about 86,000. Several have gone to Somalia to fight for al-Shabaab, and there are concerns about its recruiting efforts in the US.

Stratfor has looked into "
Al-Shabaab Threats against the United States." With regard to immigration, Stratfor has said:

"The critical question … is one of intent. Are these Somalis with militant ties traveling to the United States in pursuit of a better life (one hardly need be an Islamist bent on attacking the West to want to escape from Somalia), or are they seeking to travel to the United States to carry out terrorist attacks?"

I commend the paper to you.

Al-Shabaab's insurgency has been largely confined to southern Somalia. But recently ISIS has moved into northern Somalia, to an autonomous region of Somalia known as Puntland. The US has been taking the offensive to ISIS in Syria and northern Iraq, so I assume the US considers ISIS in Somalia a threat as well as al-Shabaab.

In its paper, "
Al-Shabaab as a Transnational Security Threat," March 2016, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) has said:

"Since at least 2010, Al-Shabaab has aspired to become a truly regional organization, with membership and horizons that transcend national borders … Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Ethiopia."

That means it threatens the entire Horn of Africa, which includes the Seychelles. Each country in the Horn is allied with the US in some fashion.

US military actions against al-Shabaab have been significant. Nonetheless, the al-Shabaab threat appears to be worsening. Thus far, however, the group has not shown a capability to operate in the US. That said, the FBI and law enforcement are watching the group closer and closer.

The Government of Somalia lacks the resources to defeat al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab is gaining strength.

Geographic location

Set the concerns about al-Shabaab and ISIS aside for a moment. I must address the threat to commercial maritime operations because of the geographic positions of both Somalia and Yemen.

Somalia’s geographic location is very important. It borders on Ethiopia to the west, Djibouti to the northwest, the Gulf of Aden to the north, Indian Ocean to the east, and Kenya to the southwest. Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya are US allies.

I'll focus on the waterways.

Somalia has a long 1,880 mile coastline, the longest on mainland Africa. Its coastline on the Gulf of Aden is about 550 miles. And, Somalia sits astride the Indian Ocean. The waterways connecting the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea, to wit the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, are crucially important to US national security, naval and commercial passage, and global interests.

Allison Fedirka, writing “
Why the US Cares about Somalia,” published by Geopolitical Future, I think, hits the nail on the head:

"Ideally, the United States would like to see al-Shabaab, and indeed all radical Islam, destroyed. But to achieve this requires the United States to use vast resources for results that are far from guaranteed. Instead, the United States will settle for keeping the world’s sea lanes off the Horn of Africa open and safe for passage. This is the U.S. imperative in the region, and a containment approach to al-Shabaab in Somalia achieves that goal, particularly since the group is relegated largely to the south, separated from the strategic north by vast deserts and poor transportation infrastructure. The United States will try to use its allies to help it keep al-Shabaab there, a sufficient outcome for a country trying to strike a balance of power in virtually every corner of the world.”

I want to introduce you to the overall geography of the region around the critical waterways. There are two important passages connecting the Red Sea, Suez Canal and Mediterranean Sea to the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean. Somalia is an issue for both. One is the Bab al Mandeb Strait, the other is the Guardafui Channel.

Bab al Mandeb Strait

The first is the Bab al-Mandeb Strait between Djibouti and Yemen. It is a strategic link between those other bodies of water. It can be viewed as a potential bottleneck. It is dangerous to navigate. The distance across is about 20 miles between Yemen and Djibouti. One section of the Strait is only two miles wide and 30 meters deep, while another is about 16 miles wide and 310 meters deep. Currents are tough to navigate. The island of Perim divides the Strait into two channels.

Thus far, the main threat here has been Yemen. However, one can easily imagine ISIS or al-Shabaab eventually developing similar capabilities as employed in Yemen. Yemen has been in a state of war for some four years now, the government vs. Houthi rebels, the latter thought to be supported by Iran. The Houthi rebels have attacked commercial and military targets in the Strait.

The Houthi rebels in Yemen attacked naval vessels of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in this region. They struck the Saudi Royal Navy's frigate al-Madinah in January 2017, damaging it and killing two Saudi sailors. The attack on the al-Madinah is shown in the photo. They have employed cruise missiles, remote-controlled boats packed with explosives, small arms, and mines since 2015.

The Houthis have conducted several attacks against shipping in the Strait, to include USN ships. Multiple naval battles have occurred in the Strait. USN ships have responded with cruise missile strikes against Yemen.

The Maritime Executive said, "U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats testified in May (2017) that the U.S. believes that Iran is supplying the technology for the Houthi remote-controlled boats."

The Saudis stopped all oil shipments through this area in July 2018 after the Houthi attacked two large crude oil carriers in the Red Sea area of the Strait in July 2018.

The US Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) warned commercial shipping that there was evidence the Houthi forces laid floating mines around a Yemeni port. Two Yemeni coastguard members were killed when their patrol boat hit one of those mines near the Strait. In March 2015 the Houthi rebels and their allies took control of the Strait. It took until October 2, 2015 for Yemeni forces and its coalition allies to take back control. In the past, Iran has also placed mines in the Strait.

Thus far, we have not seen any evidence that Somali insurgents are preparing to conduct such attacks against maritime traffic other than piracy actions. However, given Somalia's instability one cannot dismiss such a threat. For example, ISIS is operating from northern Somalia.

Guardafui Channel

The second important passage is the Guardafui Channel This is an important photo. Cape Guardafui is in Puntland and is the western anchor for the Guardafui ChannelIt shows Cape Guardafui, Puntland, Somalia to the left and the island of Abd al Kuri, part of the Socotra Archipelago center. The distance from Cape Guardafui to Abd al-Kuri is about 60 miles, and about 40 miles between Abd al-Kuri to Samhah. The channel is plenty deep.

The area experiences cyclones coming from the Indian Ocean. Usually they bring intense rain, winds, and seas with waves up to 25 ft., on the order of a hurricane. The photo shows Cyclone Mekunu, which occurred in May 2018, one week after Cyclone Sagar.

UAE seeking to control waterways?

Thus far I have highlighted terrorist attacks against critical waterways in the Horn of Africa region. There is now another potential threat from a country, the UAE. The US and UAE are currently good friends. But the UAE's military actions to control waterways in the Horn of Africa region have caused friction with the US and challenged the long-standing US-UAE relationship. Prudent American military planners must deal with this question, "just in case."

In 2018 UAE sent more than 100 (Al Jazeera says 300) troops with artillery and armored vehicles to the Socotra Archipelago. The photo shows UAE tanks being offload in Socotra. UAE forces "dismissed" Yemeni soldiers posted there. Saudi Arabia then sent troops to the archipelago. They were able to broker a deal for the UAE to leave the airport and sea ports, but UAE forces remained elsewhere.

UAE forces are allied with Saudi Arabia in the Yemen war to bring the recognized government back to power. UAE has ground forces in Yemen and has been conducting air attacks against the rebels.

That said, the UAE has established a zone of influence in southern Yemen including the port of Aden.

The UAE "appears to be building an airstrip on the island of Perim (Mayyun)" in the Bab al-Mandeb Strait.

Al Jazeera adds that the UAE also operates the Assab air and naval base in Eritrea on the Ban al-Mandeb Strait. It has been flying combat missions against rebels in Yemen from this base. The UAE is also building a military base at Berbera, Somaliland on the Gulf of Aden. Furthermore the UAE is building the Bosaso Gulf of Aden port in Puntland, Somalia and is training the local maritime police force.

Long term it appears the UAE wants to place itself strategically in this part of the world, giving it a capacity to control the waterways in this part of the world. Furthermore the UAE is seeking to move away from Saudi Arabia. There is also a view the UAE wants to prevent Iran from gaining a foothold in this region.

I will add that both China and Russia have growing interests in the Horn of Africa region, especially the waterways.

Somalia and piracy

Let's turn to Somalia. As I indicated earlier, I have not found evidence that al-Shabaab or any other insurgent group in Somalia has the kinds of weapons or has attacked vessels the way it has been done by there Houthis. But it could happen. Most weapons that make their way into Somalia come from Yemen. In previous times, the USSR flooded the country with weapons.

Pirates have been the dominant threat to shipping from Somalia. The piracy threat has existed since about 2005. The map shown above was created in 2010. It shows the extent of Somali pirate attacks on shipping vessels between 2005 and 2010. It is a bit hard to read, but the different shades of orange reflect how the pirates have steadily increased their area of operation since 2005 (inner lightest ring) to 2010 (outer darkest ring).

Piracy continued to thrive because the Somali state had failed to exert control over its citizens. Somali pirates have attacked hundreds of vessels in the region. Most attacks have occurred during daylight. Here you see one pirate (on the left) holding a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG).

This photo shows a .50 caliber machine gun mounted in a pirate's skiff. This kind of weapon is one of the deadliest weapons ever made.

Pirates usually employ skiffs operating from motherships. Motherships, such as one shown here, the FV Golden Wave (FV-Fishing Vessel), provided the pirates with a floating base. Pirates seized the Golden Wave, a south Korean Fishing Vessel offshore Kenya in 2010. They have since released it. These kinds of motherships have enabled pirates to attack ships farther away from the Somali coastline, and have enabled them to employ more skiffs. The pirates also use oceangoing fishing vessels. They have gone as far as waters offshore India. And they employ lethal weapons.

Between 2008 and 2012, pirates hijacked 170 vessels with 3,300 crew members, and killed 25 sailors. Another 37 starved to death or committed suicide in captivity. Ransoms collected in 2010, their best year, totaled about $238 million. However, more than 21,000 ships pass through this region annually. Somalia pirates, in their best years, have posed a threat to only 0.1% of them.

Starting in 2012, international maritime laws were adjusted so coalition forces could board any ship being hijacked, and could seize any ship that appeared to be engaged in piracy.

Piracy from Somalia began to ramp up again in 2017 and the resurgence has continued into 2018. In 2017, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) considered the Somali coast to be the most dangerous stretch of water in the world.

I will mention that in July 2018 al-Shabaab captured a small, strategic town about 60 miles south of Bosaso in Puntland, Somalia. Several attacks have occurred in Bosaso over the past years. Al-Shabaab attacked the town twice in early October 2018. ISIS conducted its first suicide attack on Bosaso in May 2017, killing five. Puntland forces have been insufficient to counter the attacks. While al-Shabaab does most of its fighting in central and south Somalia, the number of its attacks in Puntland have been rising. Recall that UAE is building the Bosaso port. And, as you can see, Bosaso lies on the Gulf of Aden.

Terrorism and Piracy: What if they partner?

John C K Daly, writing "
Terrorism and Piracy: The Dual Threat to Maritime Shipping" published in 2008 by The Jamestown Foundation, has raised a serious prospect: "The danger of partnership between pirates and terrorists." He wrote this article when piracy off-shore Somalia was rising. He noted:

"The last several years have seen piracy increasingly shift its locus from southeastern Asian waters to the seas surrounding Africa, and the worry of many analysts is that opportunistic pirates, many of whom operate in Muslim-dominated nations, could make common cause with Islamic extremists. While this has yet to happen on any significant scale, the possibility exists, and the international maritime community is seeking interim solutions to the rising violence plaguing African waters.

"There are indications that poverty and unrealized nationalistic ambitions in Somalia are causing military personnel to participate in piratical activities … In the chaos roiling Somalia, Mogadishu now hosts at least four distinct piratical groups, led by warlords, corrupt business people, and municipal authorities, all organized along clan backgrounds."

Daly stressed views expressed on April 26, 2008 by a jihadist website. The website post said in part:

"The Crusader-Zionist campaign has nothing left besides roaming the sea. For more than a year, one after the other, armed battalions off the beaches of Yemen have started to hunt commercial [vessels], tourism [vessels], and oil tankers. In the current phase, it has become a necessity to the mujahideen in conducting a global campaign to restore the Islamic Caliphate and to rule the world through it. The next step is to control the sea and ports, starting with those surrounding the Arabian Peninsula… It becomes necessary to develop the battle to include the sea, and as the mujahideen have managed to form martyrs’ brigades on the ground, the sea remains the next strategic step toward ruling the world and restoring the Islamic Caliphate."

The Maritime Executive reported back on November 21, 2011:

"Using high-powered speed boats and operating stealthily under the cover of darkness, two divisions from the (al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen's) Naval Forces launched a carefully calculated attack on two Kenyan navy ships travelling between the islands of Kudhaa and Madhawo, near Kismayo, at around 0300 hours Sunday morning. In the exchange of gunfire, one of the ships was set ablaze when hit by rocket-propelled grenades, while the other ship escaped unhurt."

Piracy has continued to thrive because the Somali state had failed to exert control over its citizens. So lets' address that.

Instability - Poor Governance

Poor-to-no governance in Somalia is what has enabled the threats just described. Therefore one needs to view poor governance and the resulting instability as a threat. It could be argued it is the main threat, because no governance creates a vacuum to which the other threats gravitate.

I am not going to spend much time on this threat. It is a very complex and long lived political issue.

Federica Travalio Romeo, writing "The world's most failed state" while seeking a degree from John Cabot University in Rome, Italy, said:

"For a nation-state, the origin of its classification is widely held to be in what it provides the people, the type of government it carries, and the rule of law it promotes."

Somalia has failed in most of those categories.

Somalia suffers from long-term, some might say incurable instability. Trust in the central government is very low. It has had a dysfunctional government since 1991 when it endured a civil war that some might argue continues to this day. The matter of regional instability is high on the US list of worries. Not only does the US not want Somalia to be a refuge for terrorists, it does not want Somalia to become a refuge for multiple terrorist groups that might destabilize the entire Horn of Africa. Al-Shabaab in particular, and rogue militias in general, have been challenging the Government of Somalia for power for a long time. And, as I have said before, the US does not want people from Somalia disturbing the maritime traffic in the adjacent waterways such as is being done from Yemen.

Somalia at present has a functioning government. President Mohamed Abdullah Mohamed "Farmaajo," shown here, and Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khayre lead it. Farmaajo is an American citizen who served in the USAF for four years. His is a western-backed government, which is a thorn in al-Shabaab’s side. All said, the government, even if functioning, cannot control the country, which has been fractured for such a long period.

The East African published in Kenya said in its February 4, 2018 edition, "Unlike his predecessor, President Farmaajo has remained popular across clans, with observers saying having a prime minister for over 10 months is good for the continuity of government."

A However, the paper also said, "Political commentators say corruption will remain a major challenge until the country starts employing on merit rather than for regional balance.

Corruption is a dominant problem within Somalia. GAN, a company that helps companies mitigate against corporate risk, issued a
“Somalia Corruption Report," last updated in 2016, that says, among many other things:

“Somalia ranks among the world’s most corrupt countries … Corrupt government officials tolerate illegal activities in return for bribes. Dysfunctional institutions facilitate an environment of lawlessness, and the absence of any form of regulatory framework hinders prospects of economic competitiveness. Business is based on patronage networks, and tight monopolies dominate the market. Somalia’s Provisional Constitution criminalizes several forms of corruption (including abuse of office, embezzlement and bribery); however, implementation is non-existent. The governing elite is continuously involved in allegations of embezzlement of public funds from the already meager Somalian coffers. Finally, bribery is commonplace in all sectors, and procurement contracts frequently involve corruption.”

Two fallen special forces
The threats presented by Somalia
US policy review
Regional players enter the scene - The birth of AMISOM
AFRICOM: Under the radar
Maritime security - Efforts to secure the waterways
So what is the plan?
Postscript: "The Compound"