The Troubling Silence Around America’s Presence in Somalia
By Dr. Richard Quinlan January 18, 2023
Many Americans are familiar with the nation of Somalia through the disastrous humanitarian action conducted in Mogadishu during the early days of the Bill Clinton administration. In October 1993, a firefight between Somali warlords and American soldiers resulted in the “Black Hawk Down” incident; following this bloodshed, stories about America’s involvement with Somalia largely faded from the news. The truth is that the U.S. and Somalia have maintained a long and often complicated relationship that has at times included forces on the ground. In the aftermath of September 11th, the U.S. focused its efforts on pushing back upon any extremist groups that could bolster the strength of al-Qaeda. When the Islamic Court Union (ICU) gained control in Mogadishu, the George W. Bush administration helped support Ethiopian and Somali forces that defeated the ICU in 2006. However, while the primary leadership of the ICU had been dismantled, the group’s younger members created al-Shabaab (“the Youth”) and gave rise to a terror organization that continues to launch deadly attacks throughout Somalia more than fifteen years after the defeat of the ICU. As the final months of the Obama presidency approached, al-Shabaab’s influence continued to grow, and Obama authorized intensified responses to the group’s escalating threat. Just as the U.S. had done in Yemen, the Obama White House authorized drone use as the primary deterrent against al Shabaab. The U.S. has used resources ranging from money to drones to soldiers in an attempt to assist the Somali government in its continuous fight against al-Shabaab. Donald Trump initially increased the number of military strikes against Somali targets before removing nearly all U.S. soldiers from Somalia to reduce America’s global military footprint; the Joseph Biden Administration quietly redeployed 450 troops earlier this year. One must wonder what the endgame is for the U.S. in Somalia and why this ongoing fighting does not generate greater attention.
In May 2022, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was reelected as president of Somalia after initially leading the country from 2012-2017. Mohamud inherits a country wrought with violence and a perpetual fear of terror. Poverty, limited educational opportunities, and political instability make Somalia a target for extremist violence, and the U.S. fears al-Shabaab’s growing influence throughout the Horn of Africa. A U.S. military presence in Somalia demonstrates that America hopes to eliminate al-Shabaab and perhaps elevate Somalia above the status of a “failed state”. However, the larger question concerning Somalia is why the story has remained so underreported; how have U.S. airstrikes in Somalia gone on with such little attention?
There are a few obvious answers as to why Americans do not seem invested in the Somalia question – economic woes, specifically gas prices and inflation, recent midterm elections, and worries about the future of America’s democracy have all dominated the American news cycles, with Somalia not even receiving an afterthought. Yet, the situation in Somalia should not be overlooked due to the reality that civilians are often caught in the crossfire in the effort to eliminate al-Shabaab. Airwars.org, a London-based NGO that monitors airstrikes in nations such as Syria, Yemen, and Somalia, was referenced in an article noting that the Biden Administration had authorized “at least sixteen” strikes against Somalia by late August 2022, and that these drone strikes were estimated to have killed between “465 and 545” alleged al-Shabaab operatives. A recent report from Airwars.org detailed a strike on November 9, 2022 in which the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) “conducted a collective self-defense strike against al-Shabaab terrorists who were attacking the Somali forces. The initial assessment is that the strike killed 17 and that no civilians were injured or killed”. This depiction of the strike was released by AFRICOM two days after the event and emphasized that only al-Shabaab operatives were killed, and all civilians were spared any violence. The increase in strikes follows a request from the Somali government in October to the U.S. in which President Mohamud asked the Biden Administration to increase the frequency of strikes against al-Shabaab. Adriene Watson, speaking on behalf of the National Security Council, told the New York Times, that the strikes are part of “a holistic approach” taken by the United States which also includes humanitarian aid and the training of Somali forces. Although the Somalia situation is not widely reported, the reality is that it should be.
The primary reason why the U.S. is interested in Somalia is as old as imperialism itself: economics. Somalia’s location has geo-economic significance for trade and, with Ethiopia struggling to negotiate peace after a two-year civil war and Eritrea potentially upending these efforts, Somalia’s place in the Horn of Africa is vitally important. The U.S. cannot allow this battered nation to become overwhelmed by al-Shabaab and threaten the stability of U.S. trade partnership with Somalia’s neighbor Kenya. The presence of U.S. forces and the use of drone strikes is nuanced and complex; it may be easy to dismiss Somalia as a self-destructive state that lacks the ability to heal and prosper, but the reality is that Somalia’s stability is significant to the United States. Understanding the larger ramifications of America’s presence in Somalia is worth exploring, and the American public needs to be made aware and educated about why this country deserves more expansive and detailed coverage.