Al-Shabaab—al-Qaeda’s largest, wealthiest, and most kinetically active cell—has posed a critical threat to Somalia’s security since the group’s establishment in late 2006. The group’s insurgency in Somalia and high-profile attacks against neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia has reshaped the region’s security and driven international and multilateral responses that are reshaping conventional counterterror methods and practices.
Eroding al-Shabaab’s network has proven to be no easy feat. The organization boasts a steady flow of fighters, annual revenues of $100 million via multiple funding streams, an extensive arms acquisition unit with a monthly budget of $2 million, an intelligence division that is vital to conducting suicide attacks, and a police force.
According to scholars, al-Shabaab controls about 70 percent of south and central Somalia. In areas with a heavy insurgent presence, the group attempts to present itself as a viable alternative to the central government in Mogadishu, providing goods and social services while extorting taxes and controlling local populations. While some local and tribal militias have taken up arms against the group, the insurgency maintains a force of 7,000 troops committed to expelling foreign forces and establishing an Islamic state in Somalia.
However significant, prioritizing only a military response to al-Shabaab would be a glaring oversight. Al-Shabaab won’t be defeated unless responses target each part of the group’s developed network. Not only are on the ground operations critical to containing al-Shabaab’s reach and ability to carry out suicide attacks on civilian targets, but aggressive and protracted programs to dry up the group’s financial network must also be implemented. Additionally, the new Somali government must present itself as a stable and non-corrupt authority to offset past social, ideological, and economic factors that have driven young men to join al-Shabaab and guarantee its staying power.
Multilateral counterterrorism efforts have not been insignificant in Somalia. President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud recently declared a “total war” against al-Shabaab, the U.N. has renewed its assistance mission in Somalia, and the U.S. has redeployed 450 Special Operations forces inside Somalia while also approving the targeted killing of key al-Shabaab leaders who have facilitated attacks both within and outside of Somalia. In November, the Somali government delivered on its aggressive pledge when security forces reportedly killed more than 200 militants over a four-day period.
Along with renewed drone operations—including an October airstrike that killed al-Shabaab co-founder, Abdullahi Nadir—the U.S. has made substantial efforts in targeting individuals critical to al-Shabaab’s financial and weapons networks. On November 1, the U.S. Department of the Treasury designated individuals of ISIS-Somalia who also facilitated weapons, equipment, and financial transfers to al-Shabaab. The action followed the designation of five other al-Shabaab financial facilitators and weapons smugglers on October 17. Among those designated in October were the head of the group’s interior wing and the chief of Amniyat, al-Shabaab’s intelligence unit. The designations are designed to prevent al-Shabaab’s ability to unleash violence over the long term by degrading the operational capability of the group.
Al-Shabaab continues to employ high-impact, high-casualty attacks, and on October 29, the group carried out a double car bombing in Mogadishu. The group’s deadliest attack since 2017, the explosion killed 121 and injured 333 others. While attacks have not subsided, the group has shown some signs of defeat as they recently vacated key towns in the central states of Galmudug and Hirshabelle. Following heavy fighting on November 9, the Somali army recaptured Wabho, a town in central Somalia that had been under al-Shabaab’s control for more than 15 years. On December 7, extremists reportedly abandoned the town of Adan Yabal without any resistance. The town was held by al-Shabaab since 2016 and was reportedly used as a training base. However, some media sources point out that the jihadists could simply be playing a strategic game where they abandon some areas at the start of an offensive, later to return after intensive bombing campaigns.
The fight against al-Shabaab continues to be long and difficult but has also yielded opportunities for regional cooperation and collaboration. As the group continues to threaten Kenya and Ethiopia, cumulative deterrence from the horn of Africa countries must be part of the response. However, despite the Somali military reclaiming critical territory in recent weeks, it is unclear if Mogadishu has a definitive strategy to defeat al-Shabaab, let alone a workable blueprint for regional action.
As far as the possibility of peace talks are concerned, President Mohamud has stated negotiating with the militants is not on the immediate horizon. Mohamud’s administration may be waiting until Somalia’s military is in an advantageous position before engaging in talks. However, continued military action and the goal of violence reduction are difficult to reconcile. The resolution of Somalia’s humanitarian crisis depends on defeating al-Shabaab, and that can only be achieved by intense targeting of its operational capacity, its financial network, and its leaders.