Since its inception in 2006, al-Shabab has capitalized on the feebleness of Somalia’s central government, despite the government’s strengthening in recent years, to control large swaths of ungoverned territory. The terrorist group reached its peak in 2011 when it controlled parts of the capital city of Mogadishu and the vital port of Kismayo. Kenyan troops, operating as part of AMISOM, entered Somalia later that year and successfully pushed al-Shabab out of most of its strongholds.
In response to the 2011 intervention, al-Shabab has committed more than 150 attacks in Kenya, a long-time U.S. ally. The most brutal were a January 2016 attack on a Kenyan army camp in El Adde killing 200 soldiers, an April 2015 attack on a Kenyan college campus that killed 148 people, and a September 2013 attack on a mall in Nairobi that killed at least 67.
The United States has pursued a two-pronged approach in Somalia by providing financial and logistical support to AMISOM and conducting counterterrorism operations, including drone strikes and special operations forces raids, against suspected al-Shabab militants. Since 2007, the United States has provided more than half a billion dollars to train and equip African Union forces battling al-Shabab. In September 2014, the United States launched an air strike that killed at least six people, including al-Shabab’s leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, after which the group immediately named Ahmed Umar as his successor. In May 2016, a U.S. strike using both drones and manned aircraft reportedly killed 150 al-Shabab soldiers at a training camp north of Mogadishu.
The primary U.S. objective in Somalia is to minimize the ability of al-Shabab and other violent groups to destabilize Somalia or its neighbors and harm the United States or its allies. Al-Shabab’s continued attacks degrade the Somali government’s ability to both provide security and alleviate the dire humanitarian situation in the country, and its influence in Somalia undermines the United States’ efforts to prevent the use of Somalia as a refuge for international terrorists.
Al-Shabab continues to conduct attacks both within Somalia and in neighboring Kenya, targeting civilians, the Somali state, and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Meanwhile, security forces in Somalia that are working to counter al-Shabab—including forces from the United States, AMISOM, and the Somali government—are all in the midst of transition. AMISOM is tasked with handing over authority to Somali security forces, but this transfer of responsibility has faced multiple delays and setbacks, with the African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council voting to extend AMISOM’s mandate until the end of 2021.
The Somali state is currently facing a governance crisis after political leaders failed to organize presidential elections in time before the four-year term of President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed—also known as Farmaajo—expired on February 8, 2021, with no successor chosen to take his seat. In mid-April 2021, Farmaajo signed legislation extending his term, and in late April, talks between the opposition alliance and the central government broke down and devolved into violence as pro-government and opposition forces clashed in Mogadishu. Prominent regional and international bodies—including the United States, European Union (EU), and African Union (AU)—have pointed out that resolving the leadership crisis is critical for Somalia's security and economic development, and that civilians could face grave consequences if al-Shabab is able to further capitalize on the leadership divides and uncertainty emerging from a crisis of central governance. Many people in Somalia already face a range of threats from al-Shabab and deteriorating humanitarian conditions, which political instability and a lack of coordinated humanitarian action from the government would exacerbate.