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Home Discussion Papers Conflict & Terrorism The U.S. drone war expansion into Somalia: When tactic overshadows strategy
The U.S. drone war expansion into Somalia: When tactic overshadows strategy
Written by Chloe Gleitz (1) Tuesday, 16 August 2011 05:26

On 23 June 2011, the U.S. Special Operations Command unit operating in Yemen launched a drone airstrike against a convoy of fighters belonging to the Islamic organisation Al-Shabaab in the southern port town of Kismayo, Somalia, reportedly killing one midlevel operative and wounding several others. The attack marked the U.S. drone war expansion into the east African country, after evidence was found of increased cooperation between Somali insurgents and Al-Qaeda's franchise in Yemen.(2) Plagued by violence and instability since the collapse of its central Government in 1991, Somalia is the sixth country to undergo U.S. drone airstrikes after Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, and Yemen.(3)

The U.S. Administration's increased focus on Somalia is part of the recently released National Strategy for Counter-terrorism, which discards large land wars to the benefit of precision strikes and raids against Al-Qaeda, its affiliates and adherents.(4) Increasingly used in airstrikes, drones have become a weapon of choice in the U.S. Overseas Contingency Operations, with measurable effects in the disruption of terrorist networks, killing key leaders and hampering operations, while avoiding American casualties.(5)

But in Somalia, as elsewhere, the costs of such interventions may outweigh the benefits. The short-term tactics of drone strikes are likely to work against U.S. counter-insurgency efforts,(6) by undermining the Transitional Federal Government's (TFG) already feeble authority and legitimacy, creating a surge in Anti-American sentiment, and strengthening the power of extremists.(7) A review of the intertwined issues of Islamist militancy and counter-terrorism efforts in Somalia downplays the relevance of a drone strike campaign, most likely to prevent the development of a comprehensive strategy, and therefore doomed to fail.

Nature and scope of Islamist militancy in Somalia

Dating back to the early 1980s, Somali Islamist militancy has thrived in a context largely framed by the international community's failure to prevent Somalia's political, social, economic and security drift.(8) The TFG's(9) failure to impose order in south and central Somalia, misguided foreign interventions, and the ongoing combination of “a war economy, warlordism, criminality, factionalism, human rights abuses by both the TFG and foreign forces, and humanitarian disaster,” all facilitated the rise of Somali Islamic politics and militancy.(10) Fighting for the establishment of a strong Islamist state, groups such as Al-Itihaad al-Islamiyya and later Al-Itisaam bil-Kitaab wa al-Sunna operated in Somalia throughout the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s. While the former eventually emphasised political and ideological work among the population, the latter carried on the armed fight in a context marked by increasing external support to Somali Islamists - aid channelled though Islamic non-governmental organisations, contracts delivered to affiliated business people, and military training provided in or out of Somalia.(11)

The 9/11 events and their aftermath provided Islamists with new opportunities. Involved in the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam in August 1998, the alleged members and supporters of Al-Qaeda in Somalia were then subjected to a vast campaign of targeted killings led by the U.S., its regional ally, Ethiopia, and surrogate local forces.(12) Creating a siege mentality among the population, these operations eventually radicalised Islamists and increased their popular support.(13)

At the same time, Islamic courts grew in popularity. Active since the mid-to-late 1990s, they demonstrated their ability to provide some semblance of order. By early 2005, eleven of these courts had merged into a Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) rivalling the TFG's administration.(14) Acclaimed by Somali business leaders as a source of stability, the UIC received the latter's financial and military backing and spread its control from central Somalia southward to Mogadishu.(15) On 5 June 2006, it claimed control of the capital from the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism.(16) Raising fears of a fierce Islamist and nationalistic Somalia, the UIC was finally overthrown in December 2006 by a major military intervention, led by Ethiopia and backed by the U.S. Its demise threw most Islamists into exile in Eritrea, where they formed the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia to oppose the TFG, instated in Mogadishu. Al-Shabaab's schism with the newborn alliance has marked the rise of a more radical jihadist ideology, opposed to any cooperation with the non-Muslim Eritrean regime.(17)

Arising out of the militant wing of the UIC, Al-Shabaab has gained ground by projecting itself as the staunchest nationalist and Islamic group resisting both the TFG and Ethiopia's occupation.(18) Over time, the group has expanded its local focus of driving out foreign forces to an increasingly international agenda – evidenced by the July 2010 twin bombing in Kampala, Uganda, and the organisation's formal adhesion to Al-Qaeda.(19) Al-Shabaab's strength has increased with time. But the group lost much of its popular support after Ethiopia's withdrawal from Somalia in January 2009. It then turned notoriously brutal, imposing Sharia law by the barrel of a gun.(20) Despite ideological differences and territorial disputes, groups such as Hizbul Islam and Mu'askar Ras Kamboni eventually joined forces with Al-Shabaab, thereby strengthening the latter's strike capacity.(21)

The tainted legacy of counter-terrorism efforts in Somalia

For almost a decade following the controversial U.N. and U.S. interventions from 1992 to 1994, Somalia has been treated at best by international indifference.(22) Haunted by the Black Hawk Down incident, U.S. policymakers have evaded the Somali issue. But the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and then 9/11 raised new concerns that Somalia could turn into a safe haven for Al-Qaeda. U.S. preoccupation with the terror threat has both justified reinvesting in the field and motivated international efforts to restore a central government. But local resistance to these efforts sparked off the rise of jihadists groups, likely to support Al-Qaeda's growth and agenda in the region.(23)

In the early days of the U.S. war on terror, Washington authorised military operations to monitor and assess the situation in Somalia. Investigations found no clear evidence of Al-Qaeda ties or presence in Somalia, invalidating the resort to military intervention. Meanwhile, Washington undertook financial actions against individuals and groups suspected of links with terrorism. On 27 November 2001, the U.S. Treasury blocked the assets of Al-Barakaat, the largest Somali telecommunications and remittance network. The U.S. failure to justify such action caused bitterness and resentment among many Somalis who lost savings and the ability to remit money back home.(24)

U.S. efforts to gain access to Somalia soon waned, giving way to the identification of potential partners and rivals within Somalia, while securing regional allies such as Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. Sharing Ethiopia fears and doubts on the established Transitional National Government, Washington refused it recognition and endorsement. In parallel, the U.S. financed local counter-terror networks, which monitored, apprehended, and sometimes shot down suspected terrorists. Success was circumscribed given the sporadic and ad hoc nature of these interventions.(25)

At the same time, state-building efforts were undertaken to settle a stable Somali Government with which the West, and more specifically the U.S., could eventually partner. With the fifteenth attempt to create a functioning government since the fall of Siad Barre's dictatorship in 1991, the TFG was formed in 2004 after two years of internationally sponsored reconciliation talks, held in Nairobi.(26) This loose coalition of Somali leaders intended to lay the foundation for a national government over a five-year period. But “the open blessing of the TFG by the U.S. and other Western countries has perversely served to isolate the government and, at the same time, to propel cooperation between previously fractured and quarrelsome extremist groups.”(28)

The overall U.S. counter-terror strategy did little to challenge, if not fuelled, the rise of political Islam and militancy in Somalia. The financing of local warlords to hunt down Islamists eventually led to the creation of new confrontational lines between the widely resented Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism and the emerging Islamic courts. Conflict escalated and broke out in Mogadishu. Assimilating courts with security and U.S. backed warlords with the status quo, the local population supported the rising UIC. The Alliance's defeat in June 2006 represented a major setback for the U.S., which lost both its informants in the capital and public support.(28)

Initially cautioning dialogue between the TFG and the UIC, Washington was soon concerned by the courts' expansion beyond Mogadishu. Fears of an Islamist jihadist-ruled Somalia explains the U.S. support of the Ethiopian offensive, which routed the popular UIC in December 2006. While throwing most militants in exile, this intervention radicalised and legitimised Al-Shabaab's fight against foreign forces and their local surrogate, the TFG.(29)

The Obama Administration has offered little change in the U.S.’ apprehension of both political and militant Islam in Somalia. It merely expanded its predecessor's policy of providing limited, indirect diplomatic and military support to the TFG, hoping it would hamper Islamist militancy. And while drone strikes are likely to disrupt militants' grip over the territory, they do not address the root causes of the rise of radical Islam in Somalia, mainly endemic violence, and instability.(30)

Concluding remarks

So far, the U.S.’ counter-terrorism strategy in Somalia, but also that of its Ethiopian and European allies, has proved rather disastrous. It has managed to transform what were, initially, small and marginal groups into a radicalised force that has managed to extend its control to most of central and southern Somalia, including parts of Mogadishu.(31) A potential gateway between the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, Somalia represents an obvious target for the U.S.’ war on terror. A new tactic, drone strikes are in keeping with the U.S.’ previous attempts to hinder Islamist militancy on Somali soil. They prolong the U.S. counter-terrorism perspective in Somalia, while the country's social and political configuration calls for the support and strengthening of governing capabilities, either at the local or national level.


(1) Contact Chloe Gleitz through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Conflict and Terrorism Unit ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ).
(2) Mazzetti, M & Schmitt, E., ‘U.S. Expands Its Drone War Into Somalia’, The New York Times, 1 July 2011,
(3) ‘US extends drone strikes to Somalia’, Al Jazeera, 1 July 2011,
(4) ‘National Strategy for Counterterrorism’, The White House Website, June 2011,
(5) Kilcullen, D & McDonald Exum, A., ‘Death From Above, Outrage Down Below’, The New York Times, 16 May 2009,
(6) ‘The Costs of Drone Strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan’, 3D Security Initiative, October 2009,
(7) Khan, M., ‘As US extends its drone strikes to Somalia, does it run the risk of exposing itself to more dangers?’, Al Arabiya, 4 July 2011,
(8) Marchal, R., ‘The Rise of a Jihadi Movement in a Country at War: Harakat Al-Shabaab Al Mujaheddin in Somalia’, March 2011,
(9) The international community promoted throughout the 1990s a series of reconciliation processes, all met with failure. Following the Arta Peace Conference of 2000, Somalia attempted another formal government in the form of the Transitional National Government. Marked by poor governance and corruption and unable to extend its authority beyond Mogadishu, the latter was replaced in 2004 by the Transitional Federal Government, which mandate was lately extended to 2012.
(10) ‘How Country of Origin Information can help with asylum cases: Somalia’, Immigration Advisory Service, October 2009,
(11) West, S., ‘Somalia's ICU and its Roots in al-Ittihad al-Islami’, The Jamestown Foundation, 4 August 2006,
(12) Ibid.
(13) Ibid.
(14) Kaplan, E., ‘Somalia's High Stakes Power Struggle’, Council on Foreign Relations, 7 August 2006,
(15) Ibid.
(16) The Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism was a short-lived coalition of secular warlords allegedly backed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
(17) Kaplan, E., ‘Somalia's High Stakes Power Struggle’, Council on Foreign Relations, 7 August 2006,
(18) Marchal, R., ‘The Rise of a Jihadi Movement in a Country at War: Harakat Al-Shabaab Al Mujaheddin in Somalia’, March 2011,
(19) Hanson, S., ‘Al-Shabaab’, Council on Foreign Relations, 28 July 2010,
(20) Jamaa, A., ‘The Sapping Strength of Al Shabaab’, Somalia Report, 16 March 2011,
(21) ‘Somalia’, The American Foreign Policy Council's World Almanac of Islamism, 14 July 2011,
(22) ‘Somalia's Prospect’, Observatoire de l'Afrique, 2 July 2010, pp.4-5.
(23) Bronwyn E. Bruton, ‘Somalia: A New Approach’, Council on Foreign Relations, March 2010,
(24) Quaranto, P., ‘Building States While Fighting Terror: Contradictions in United States Strategy in Somalia from 2001 to 2007’, Institute for Security Studies, May 2008,
(25) Ibid.
(26) Hanson, S & Kaplan, E., ‘Somalia's Transitional Government’, Council on Foreign Relations, 12 May 2008,
(27) Bronwyn E. Bruton, ‘Somalia: A New Approach’, Council on Foreign Relations, March 2010,
(28) Quaranto, P, ‘Building States While Fighting Terror: Contradictions in United States Strategy in Somalia from 2001 to 2007’, Institute for Security Studies, May 2008,
(29) Ibid.
(30) Bronwyn E. Bruton, ‘Somalia: A New Approach’, Council on Foreign Relations, March 2010,
(31) Ayad, C., ‘Interview, Roland Marchal: Au lieu d'affaiblir les Shebab, on les a renforcés’, Libération, 13 July 2010,


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