How can Somalia win the war against Al-Shabaab?


In February 2007, the United Nations approved the proposed mandate of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). The peacekeeping mission was tasked with supporting the government with national security operations, training the country’s army, assisting in the delivery of humanitarian aid and helping in the fight against Al-Shabaab.

Now, AMISOM troops are leaving Somalia with the target of fully withdrawing by 2020. The fight against Al-Shabaab is far from over, though. In October, the extremist group carried out the most deadly attack in its history, killing at least 513 people in one of the most devastating attacks the world has seen in recent years.

Somalia says it isn’t ready to lead the fight against Al-Shabaab alone and the US has appealed AMISOM’s withdrawal. Even the strongest optimist would say Somalia is already struggling to cope with its security problems – and this is with AMSOM troops on its side. Without them, it’s hard to see how the current military strategy is going to cope with a resurgent Al-Shabaab and the threat of other militant groups expanding in the country.

At this stage, nobody seems to know what it will take for Somalia to win the war against Al-Shabaab.

Can Somali take this fight alone?

The plan all along has been for Somalia to take national security into its own hands. A stronger Somali army was supposed to replace AMISOM but the country’s security forces are nowhere near ready to handle this fight alone – this much experts pretty much all agree on. What key figures are more divided about is how the country can proceed from here.

The obvious solution would be for AMISOM to extend its mandate until Somalia is ready to handle things on its own. However, the peacekeeping mission has a serious money problem. The European Union, which finances 80 percent of the AMISOM budget, is cutting back on its funding. Soldiers have had to go without pay and work with subpar or missing equipment due to the mission’s financial problems. AMISOM simply can’t continue to operate unless a major injection of funds come from somewhere.

There are other problems, too. While Somalia needs the military presence of AMISOM troops, it is resented by many people in the country. There have been ongoing reports of human rights violations carried out by AMISOM troops, including the gang rape and abuse of Somali citizens.

Not everyone will be sad to see the peacekeepers leave Somalia.

What about US intervention?

One of the biggest question marks hanging over the war against Al-Shabaab is to what extent the US will continue to intervene in the conflict. The Trump administration has already stepped up its military involvement in Somalia but operations are still officially on the basis of supporting Somalia’s national army.

How the US reacts to AMISOM withdrawing its troops remains to be seen but it’s about to become Somalia’s only ally on the ground in this fight.

A key issue for the US is that it knows simply throwing more troops at the conflict won’t solve things. However the battle against Al-Shabaab pans out, it will only end once a stronger Somalia can establish authority over its fractures political and social environment. And, as the global war on terror continues to prove, pushing extremists out of one country does little to prevent them spreading to others – something Al-Shabaab has already shown it is capable of.

Which raises questions about the political solutions Somalia needs to come up with before it can end its civil war.

The political battle against Al-Shabaab

Al-Shabaab was born out of discontent that the Somalia government was turning its back on Islamic law. The terrorist group represents the extreme end of demanding a return to Islamic principles but there are considerably less aggressive groups with similar ideologies.

Many of the leading figures from the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), from which Al-Shabaab emerged, have already joined the political mainstream. Somalia’s government has made an effort to find a political compromise that maintains its power and secures the Islamic future of Somalia.

The country’s new president Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed Farmajo has repeatedly indicated he would be willing to open talks with Al-Shabaab over striking a peace deal. However, this looks increasingly unlikely after the recent wave of deadly attacks in Mogadishu.

This is where the conundrum lies. Al-Shabaab is bitterly reacting to the increased US involvement in Somalia and both Somalia and the US are reacting to Al-Shabaab attacks with additional force. The result so far has been a continued state of escalation that only claims more lives as the years pass by. More troops and more firepower has only resulted in more deaths and seemingly less chance of negotiations.

A battle of retaliation

Somalia finds itself locked in a battle of retaliations between an uncompromising extremist group and a government struggling to prove its authority. Every Al-Shabaab attack prompts a reaction from Somalia’s national army and the international forces so despised by the extremist group. Which, in turn, prompts further attacks from a group that can’t tolerate intervention from outside forces like AMISOM and the US army.

Somalia’s army might not be ready to take on Al-Shabaab directly but perhaps it’s the government’s ability to take it on diplomatically that should be prioritised. Genuine progress has been made during Farmajo’s short tenure so far but it means nothing unless he is able to bring security to Somalia.

With few options left on the table – at least, in terms of military might – perhaps it’s time to try a different approach. The United States Army might not be able to comprehend the notion of negotiating with the enemy but perhaps this is the kind of non-US approach that would appeal to Al-Shabaab. Perhaps diplomatic efforts are the only path Somalia can take on its own when international military support is proving so problematic.

Featured image: By AMISOM Public Information – Flickr, CC0,


About Aaron Brooks

Aaron Brooks is a UK journalist who wants to cut out the international agendas in news. Spending his early years in both England and Northern Ireland he saw the difference between reality and media coverage at an early age. After graduating from the University of Chester with a BA in journalism, his travels revealed just how large the gap between news and the real world can be. As Editor-in-Chief at East Africa Monitor, it’s his job to provide a balanced view of what’s going on in the region for English-speaking audiences.