Since its inception in 2006, al-Shabaab has capitalized on the feebleness of Somalia’s central government, despite the government’s strengthening in recent years, to seize control of 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-Shabaab out of most of its strongholds.
In response to the 2011 intervention, al-Shabaab has carried out 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-Shabaab militants. Since 2007, the United States has provided more than half a billion dollars to train and equip Somali forces and five times that amount in security assistance for African Union forces battling al-Shabaab. In September 2014, the United States launched an air strike that killed at least six people, including al-Shabaab’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-Shabaab soldiers at a training camp north of Mogadishu. Airstrikes peaked under the President Donald J. Trump administration, causing controversy over civilian deaths. Though the President Joe Biden administration introduced new limits, the strikes have continued to date; the U.S. military claimed to have killed one of al-Shabaab’s co-founders in an October 2022 strike and around thirty militants as they attacked a Somali base in a January 2023 strike.
The primary U.S. objective in Somalia is to minimize the ability of al-Shabaab and other violent groups to destabilize Somalia or its neighbors and harm the United States or its allies. Al-Shabaab’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. The United States maintains a small troop presence in Somalia to support Somali military forces.
Al-Shabaab continues to conduct attacks both within Somalia and in neighboring states, targeting civilians, the Somali state, and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Meanwhile, security forces in Somalia that are working to counter al-Shabaab—including forces from the United States, AMISOM, and the Somali government—have all undergone transitions in recent years. AMISOM was tasked with handing over authority to Somali security forces, but this transfer of responsibility 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. However, AMISOM remained in place until April 2022, when it was replaced with the AU Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS). With around eighteen thousand troops, ATMIS essentially serves as an extension of AMISOM and is not due to fully depart until the end of 2024. In 2022, Biden approved the redeployment of hundreds of U.S. special forces to Somalia, reversing the Trump administration’s withdrawal.
In 2021 the Somali state faced a governance crisis after political leaders failed to organize presidential elections 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. In May 2022, former leader Hassan Sheikh Mohamud defeated the incumbent president in an indirect election by parliament members, which was met with celebrations on the streets. The win granted Mohamud a five-year mandate, and Somalia says it will return to the direct election of officials in 2024.
In August 2022, Mohamud launched a “total war” against al-Shabaab. In the first phase, Somali forces concentrated on the central regions of Hirshabelle and Galmudug, supporting local clans that were rebelling against al-Shabaab. The terrorist group had seen public support deteriorate in those areas after it raised taxes on residents to make up for losses incurred from an economic downturn and natural disasters, disregarding the effects of the policy on people’s livelihoods. The first stage was the most effective offensive since 2016, expelling al-Shabaab from areas it had controlled for over a decade, and in March 2023 the government launched phase two to attack al-Shabaab in the south. However, concerns remain about Somalia’s ability to hold the areas it has cleared and take more territory given the planned drawdown of foreign troops and the fact that southern clans have not shown the same propensity to turn on al-Shabaab.
Though the government offensive has weakened al-Shabaab’s hold on territory, it has not stopped the group’s attacks. In 2022, there was a 41 percent increase in al-Shabaab violence targeting civilians. Al-Shabaab has also kept up attacks against foreign military forces; in 2022 and 2023 it conducted numerous incursions into the border regions of Kenya and Ethiopia, and in June 2023 it killed fifty-four Ugandan peacekeepers in an assault on an AU base. Suspected al-Shabaab kidnappings have also occurred in areas reclaimed by the government. Fleeing from government forces, some al-Shabaab fighters have also reportedly started to move northward, where political instability in Puntland and Somaliland could provide an opportunity for al-Shabaab to expand its presence.
Facing threats from terrorists, climate change, and economic stagnation, the Somali people continue to bear the highest costs. In 2022 and 2023, as fighting raged on, Somalia faced its worst drought in forty years, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths. The UN warns that 400,000 of the 6.6 million Somalis in need of aid are facing famine-like conditions, and 1.8 million children are at risk of acute malnutrition in 2023. To make matters worse, the World Food Programme has been forced to drastically cut its services in the country as funding has dried up.