US drone war in Somalia – the urgent need for new approaches

15 March 2016 Sunil Suri

In the same week that President Obama was described as “the most successful terrorist-hunter in the history of the presidency”, the US once more stepped up its military operations in Somalia. This has been welcomed in some quarters as a sign of continued US resolve in Somalia. However, Sunil Suri argues that such attacks are frequently counter-productive – particularly as they reinforce a strategy for approaching Somalia that is overly focused on al-Shabaab – diverting attention from other more important drivers of conflict in the country.

Last week, the US Department of Defense announced that it had struck an al-Shabaab training facility, with media reports indicating that 150 people had been killed. If this figure is correct, it would exceed the casualty rate of all US counter-terror operations in Somalia over the past nine years combined. Only days later, it was reported that US Special Operations Forces had conducted a joint helicopter raid with Somali forces against al-Shabaab, but only in an advisory capacity. The earlier operation has been heralded in some quarters as a decisive shift in the US’s strategy, with Somalia expert Ken Menkhaus arguing that it underlined newfound US willingness to go after al-Shabaab’s “rank and file” – a point also made by Foreign Policy’s Ty McCormick who contended that the attack indicated greater alignment between US, and African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali National Army operations on the ground.

The lack of coordination between the US and its partners in Somalia has been the subject of complaints in the past, with one AMISOM representative describing the September 2014 drone strike that killed al-Shabaab’s then leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, as having made “absolutely no difference” because such attacks typically took place in a vacuum – disconnected from any sort of long-term strategy aimed at resolving the Somali conflict. But even if the recent operations do represent a willingness on the part of the US to work more closely with its partners in Somalia, wider questions remain about whether militarised approaches are actually contributing to conflict resolution.

First, despite a senior White House official recently stating that the US would release figures on how many terror suspects and civilian casualties it has killed in drone strikes since 2009, operations like the first one that occurred in Somalia last week take place in an environment where there are still troubling questions about the exact legal authority enabling the US to carry them out. Such concerns have led Saferworld to recommend that all countries, including the US, cease military engagements outside African Union/United Nations authorisation, as there is little accountability for these actions, and they create grievances that armed actors like al-Shabaab can exploit.

Second, notwithstanding questions of legality, there is considerable evidence to suggest that drone and airstrikes can have counter-productive effects, which can be illustrated by looking at the changes in al-Shabaab’s leadership following US strikes targeting its leaders. After Al-Shabaab’s then leader Aden Hashi Ayro was killed in 2008, Ahmed Abdi Godane affiliated al-Shabaab with al-Qaeda – realising the worst fears of many – and Godane’s successor has been described as “an even more determined extremist”. While the US drone and airstrikes last week were different in that they targeted a wider group of al-Shabaab’s membership, it is too soon to conclude based on past experience, as one Pentagon official did, that “the removal of these fighters degrade al-Shabaab’s ability to meet the group’s objectives in Somalia”.

Third, the official narrative and media portrayal of Somalia as primarily a battle-ground between al-Shabaab and its opponents needs greater scrutiny. In coverage following the attacks, one article in The Washington Post declared “Despite U.S. airstrikes, a Somali militia is rising again”. Another in Foreign Policy warned that “U.S. Attacks Reveal Al-Shabab’s Strength, Not Weakness”. In both cases, the very fact that 150 al-Shabaab members were gathered in one place was taken as evidence of the danger posed by the group. If Somalia is understood in this way, the long-standing strategy for approaching Somalia appears compelling: for example, the White House press secretary hailed the attacks as a “good example” of how the US could use its “resources and capabilities in partnership with forces on the ground… [to] counter extremism and protect the United States”.

Certainly, there is no shortage of evidence to demonstrate that al-Shabaab continues to pose a major security threat, but analysts and officials need to consider the ramifications of such strikes and the puzzle of how to solve Somalia’s problems more carefully. For example, absent from much of the subsequent analysis was a serious discussion about whether such tactics can possibly advance a solution to Somalia’s conflicts in a wider context in which US partners like Ethiopia and Kenya – and even the Somali Federal Government – are feeding the war economy and undermining peace. The way federalism processes are being pursued according to external timetables and without sufficiently inclusive discussion is also exacerbating the fragmentation of the Somali people and sparking violence across Somalia. As International Crisis Group’s Adbul Khalif and Cedric Barnes observe, this has allowed al-Shabaab to retain some appeal as it has been able to position itself “as a mediator in local conflicts, where international, regional and Somali forces are frequently seen as partisan”.

Ultimately, if the threat of terrorism emanating from Somalia is to be effectively addressed, it will require both decision-makers and the international media to reflect upon and address all conflict drivers that the Somali people deem to be most important – such as corruption, poor governance and the behaviour of regional actors – not just those that Western policymakers and the general public consider to be most significant or newsworthy. 

Sunil Suri is Policy Coordinator at Saferworld.

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“If the threat of terrorism emanating from Somalia is to be effectively addressed, it will require both decision-makers and the international media to reflect upon and address all conflict drivers that the Somali people deem to be most important”

Sunil Suri