Redeploying US troops to Somalia is the right move
Following the victory of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud in the May 15 Somali election, President Biden authorized approximately 500 U.S. special operations forces personnel to redeploy to Somalia. This reverses the Trump administration’s December 2020 withdrawal of the 700 troops stationed in the country.
President Biden has made the right move, bringing U.S. forces back to support our Somali partners as they face increasing challenges in the fight against al Qaeda-aligned terrorist group Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahidin. The group issues threats against the United States and plans attacks on American targets, such as one foiled 2020 plot to hijack a plane and crash it into a building in a U.S. city. Further, al-Shabaab is among the most well-funded terrorist organizations, making at least $180 million in 2020 (for context, the Islamic State has no more than $50 million in reserves). Allowing such a group to grow would be a great danger to Americans at home and abroad.
Fortunately, al-Shabaab faced significant losses against the U.S.-trained Danab Brigade, Somalia’s premier U.S.-built commando unit. Danab remains the only fighting force in Somalia able to conduct offensive actions against al-Shabaab, and since American troops left, efforts to combat the group stagnated. The return of U.S. forces is overdue and will help reinvigorate Danab.
Al-Shabaab emerged in 2006 as a particularly radical militant faction of another Islamist group. It helped seize Mogadishu that year and then waged a guerrilla war against the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) that rose to oppose it. AMISOM grew to over 20,000 personnel drawn from six countries and ousted al-Shabaab from major Somali cities by 2011.
However, al-Shabaab remained in control of some rural areas in south-central Somalia. AMISOM focused on holding the cities it liberated, but the Somali National Army (SNA) — the nominal armed forces of the internationally recognized government of Somalia — was incapable of taking the fight to al-Shabaab. In fact, SNA brigades are organized along clan lines, beholden to the interests of local tribes rather than a national effort to fight the common foe.
Danab was formed to capitalize on AMISOM’s successes. The U.S. military, together with the military training company Bancroft Global, began the Danab program in 2012, deliberately aiming to produce a multi-clan force with an insulated command structure safeguarding it from the deficiencies of the larger SNA. Rigorous training of Danab cadets, close relations with U.S. personnel, and careful distancing of Danab from the corrupt Somali political establishment resulted in the creation of a powerful special forces unit, nearly 1,000 strong as of last year. Indeed, I found that in the 2019-2020 period, Danab liberated 29 towns and villages from the jihadist group.
In short, the United States, through a modest commitment of 700 troops in a non-combat role, mentored an aggressive fighting force to fight al-Shabaab.
The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Somalia threatened to reverse these gains. Danab relies heavily on U.S.-provided intelligence, logistics and equipment, and the sudden loss of these assets paralyzed its operations. Training virtually ceased from late 2020 until July or August 2021. At the same time, al-Shabaab more aggressively targeted the unit. In November 2020, for example, it claimed to have killed 12 Danab members in an attack near Baledogle Airbase, Danab’s headquarters.
Absent the insulated U.S.-dominated command structure, Somali politicians began misusing the unit for political gain. The most egregious violation was Danab’s involvement in a government offensive against the formerly allied anti-al-Shabaab militia called Ahlu Sunna wal-Jamaa in Guriel. The move even prompted a U.S. government review of its support for the unit.
There is a clear pattern: With close U.S. support, Danab is an asset. Without it, the unit stagnates or becomes counterproductive. Perhaps one day, Danab will stand on its own, capable of sustained operations without much American involvement. But for now, Somalia needs our help to ensure we can effectively fight our common enemy.
The return of U.S. forces to Somalia is a welcome development that will bring renewed energy to the effort to defeat al-Shabaab. Indeed, it is also a tacit acknowledgement that the Biden administration-touted “over-the-horizon” approach — or striking terrorist groups without any boots on the ground — just will not cut it. Strong counterterrorism requires strong connections between U.S. and local personnel on the ground. Withdrawing ultimately will play into the hands of our enemies, as it has recently in Afghanistan. Standing side-by-side with our partners will produce the shared resolve and adaptability that we need to fight our enemies.
Ido Levy is an associate fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy focusing on counterterrorism and military operations, particularly relating to jihadist groups. He is the coauthor of a recent study on the Danab Brigade and the author of “Soldiers of End-Times: Assessing the Military Effectiveness of the Islamic State.” Follow him on Twitter @IdoLevy5.
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