The truck bomb that devastated the Somali capital of Mogadishu and killed more than 320 people on Saturday was the deadliest terrorist attack in Somalia’s history. But beyond the catastrophic loss of life, the horrific tragedy is a clear indication that al Shabaab, the group believed to be behind the attack, continues to pose a dire threat to Somalia and the Horn of Africa in its entirety.
“Al Shabaab has morphed to become more of a regional terrorist organization and should no longer be considered an insurgency group within Somalia,” Ambassador Phil Carter, former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea, told The Cipher Brief.
While Somalia has witnessed a significant uptick in al Shabaab-orchestrated violence in recent years, the country’s struggle with Islamist insurgencies dates back to the 1990s when a militant Salafist group with connections to al Qaeda, known as al-Itihad al-Islami (AIAI), fought against Somali troops during the country’s civil war. According to the United Nations Security Council, AIAI formed an alliance with al Qaeda in 1993 and supported al Qaeda’s bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998.
AIAI was eventually defeated by Ethiopian forces the early 2000s. But in 2006, a number AIAI hardline members — known as “al Shabaab,” or the youth — joined a movement of Sharia courts known as Islamic Courts Union (ICU) that sought to implement Sharia law throughout Somalia. They rebelled against the Somali government, and took control of the capital Mogadishu. U.S.-backed Ethiopian forces eventually invaded Somalia and drove the ICU out of the capital, but from the ashes of that revolt rose the contemporary al Shabaab organization.
The U.S. State Department designated al Shabaab as a terrorist group in 2008, and four years later al Shabaab formally pledged allegiance to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
With a target on its back as an overt al Qaeda affiliate, al Shabaab bore the brunt of African Union Mission In Somalia (AMISOM) troops who dealt the group its heaviest blow in September 2012. Al Shabaab was forced to abandon its former stronghold of Kismayo in southern Somalia and appeared to be on the brink of defeat.
However, in the last five years, al Shabaab has regrouped at an alarming rate. The group executes frequent operations across Somalia, as well as in the self-declared republic of Somaliland and in neighboring Kenya, Uganda, and Djibouti. It has also been responsible for conducting several large-scale attacks that have reverberated internationally, including the September 2013 Westgate Mall attacks in Nairobi, Kenya, which left 68 people dead and 175 wounded, and the April 2015 Garissa University attacks, which left nearly 150 people dead.
Inside Somalia, al Shabaab has meticulously regenerated and worked to build support amongst various Somali clans who have felt disenfranchised or even threatened by the Somali government.
“If you look across the country, what you see is that there are administrations springing up all over that are basically clan fiefdoms that are building walls to protect themselves from the incursions of the Somali government,” explains Bronwyn Bruton, Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center and expert on al Shabaab.
“Those groups occasionally cooperate with al Shabaab not because they like al Shabaab or they think al Shabaab is better than the government, but because the government is their bigger concern at that moment,” Bruton told The Cipher Brief.
Yet despite haphazard cooperation between clans and al Shabaab, the terrorist group remains detested throughout Somalia. Following the truck bombing, thousands took to the streets on Wednesday to denounce al Shabaab in a show of unity against the organization. And in Somalia’s presidential elections held in February, Somali politician Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed emerged victorious in the country’s presidential elections after running on a staunch, anti-al Shabaab platform.
“To those who work with al Qaeda, al Shabaab and IS (Islamic State), your time is finished,” he said at his inauguration ceremony. “You have been misled, destroyed property and killed many Somalis. Come and we shall give you good life.”
AMISOM troops have battled diligently to beat back al Shabaab with mixed results. In August, the United Nations Security Council voted to extend the deployment of AMISOM in Somalia until May 31, 2018, albeit with a troop decrease.
The U.S. also continues to provide assistance in the campaign to defeat the terror group. America launches drone attacks against al Shabaab targets, trains and advises Somali forces, and accompanies them during ground assaults. Additionally, since 2006, the U.S. has provided Somalia with $1.5 billion in humanitarian assistance.
However, U.S. strategy in Somalia remains unclear, particularly as the U.S. has failed to delineate its objectives in the country. According to Bruton, U.S. policy in Somalia is faltering because it is too focused on nation-building as opposed to counterterrorism.
“The U.S. has very limited objectives in Somalia,” says Bruton.
“The U.S. should not be worried about reconstructing a state, it should focus on eliminating individuals in Somalia who wish harm to the U.S. homeland. That’s a very small objective.”
Experts suggest that the U.S. may benefit from taking a more diplomatic approach in Somalia rather than focus its efforts solely on militarily defeating al Shabaab.
“The problem from a U.S. standpoint is that the primary element of U.S. strategy in Somalia is military,” counterterrorism expert Seth Jones of the RAND Corporation told The Cipher Brief.
“There is no U.S. embassy in Somalia. The diplomatic and the development components are pretty small and largely ineffective. There’s a strong argument for increasing those focuses on Somalia, which can address deeper rooted problems in the country,” he stated.
Perhaps drawing lessons from other countries would behoove the Trump administration as it charts it path forward in Somalia.
“The administration has a lot to learn from Turkey; soft-power in all fronts,” says Abukar Arman, former Somalia Special Envoy to the United States.
“You can’t win against al Shabaab without public support, and you can’t gain public support without soft-power,” Arman concludes.
Bennett Seftel is deputy director of analysis at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @BennettSeftel.