Al-Shabab in Somalia
Al-Shabab continues to conduct attacks both within Somalia and in neighboring Kenya, including a January 15, 2019, attack on an upscale Nairobi hotel complex in which at least twenty-one civilians were killed and hundreds held hostage. The militants also continue to target the Somali state and African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces.
The United States has significantly increased the tempo of air strikes against al-Shabab since 2016 and broadened its troop presence and involvement in Somalia in 2017. In June 2018, al-Shabab claimed responsibility for an attack that killed one U.S. special operations forces soldier, the first U.S. combat death in Somalia since a member of the Navy SEALs was killed in a raid in May 2017.
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, 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.