Somalia: A Sober Assessment


March 11, 2016: The growing number of American Special Forces troops operating in Somalia are there for several different jobs. One is training Somali forces, another is carrying out raids and reconnaissance with (or without) Somali forces along and lastly, and perhaps most importantly the U.S. troops are there to evaluate, up close and often in combat, how effective the Somali soldiers and police are. These assessments have not been reassuring. That is largely because endemic corruption continues to cripple the security forces and assist al Shabaab recruiting. The Special Forces men have seen this before in other parts of the world but Somalia appears to be the worst case.

Because of the corruption related problems the 22,000 peacekeepers, 20,000 Somali soldiers and over 10,000 pro government militiamen have not been able to eradicate Islamic terrorists like al Shabaab or unruly clan leaders and warlords. Violence has been greatly reduced over the last few years but al Shabaab continues to stage high profile (likely to make the international or regional news) attacks, especially in the capital (Mogadishu). Corrupt government officials and clan leaders help keep the violence going by tolerating all manner of illegal activity as long as the bribe is large enough. Fortunately the neighbors (especially Ethiopia and Kenya) are tired of all this Somali lawlessness as neighboring countries have been victims of it for as long as anyone can remember. The UN agrees that something should be done but so far no one has been able to come up with a plan that will quickly bring long-term peace, or at least do that as quickly as the neighbors and donor nations demand. This the major reason why foreign aid for Somalia is declining, largely because of the corruption and violence against aid workers. Aid in 2015 was half of what it was in 2014 and the decline continues.

Relations between Somalis and their neighbors have never been good and they are getting worse. While the UN and foreign aid groups urge peaceful means to bring peace to Somalia that has not worked after more than two decades of efforts. Historically force is the only thing that has worked in Somalia. British 19th century colonial administrators learned that the best way to deal with violent Somalis was to "shoot on sight, shoot first, shoot to kill, keep shooting." Not unexpectedly, post-colonial Somalia proved unable to govern itself. Britain administered Somalia from 1884 to 1960 and after much effort imposed more peace, prosperity and unity that the region had known for some time. That lasted about two decades and then the usual bad habits began tearing Somalia apart again. The tribal rivalries kept the pot boiling and even the rise of a "clean government" party (the Islamic Courts) after 2001, based on installing a religious dictatorship, backfired and turned into al Shabaab. That caused even more Somalis to flee their homeland and led to even more problems as Somali refugees throughout Africa and worldwide acquired a reputation for violence and criminal behavior.

Meanwhile al Shabaab still has a lot of popular support. The majority of Somalis oppose Islamic terrorism but a significant minority (up to 20 percent) support or tolerate groups like al Shabaab. The main reason for the support is desperation for a solution to the poverty, corruption, factionalism and chaos that make Somalia such a dangerous place to live in. Many Somalis tolerate corruption because it makes it possible to obtain enough cash to flee the country and settle somewhere else. Al Shabaab is still attracting recruits and is still a dangerous factor in Somali life. Then again al Shabaab is part of the problems that bother most Somalis. It has long been recognized that the biggest barrier to effective national government and peace is the corruption. In this department Somalia is unique. Somalia one of the two (along with North Korea) most corrupt nations in the world. Corruption in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The two most corrupt nations have a rating of 8 (North Korea and Somalia) and the least corrupt is 91 (Denmark). African nations are the most corrupt, followed by Middle Eastern ones. What is happening in Somalia is happening throughout Africa and for the same reasons. But Somalia is the worst case and thus the most difficult challenge.

There is progress, just not a lot of it and it comes slowly and at great cost. Thus the economy continues to grow and some refugees who fled the country (mainly to Kenya) are returning. The Somali Army continues to grow and perform better. Most of the soldiers have been trained by foreign experts and the defense budget is largely paid for by foreign aid. This makes it possible to at least try to deal with the corruption. Traditional bad habits, like officers stealing money to pay and feed their troops and blaming it all on someone else, are easier to expose and deal with when foreign donors are providing the cash. If soldiers actually get paid regularly being in the army is an attractive career, especially since over 60 percent of younger (under 35 years old) Somali men are unemployed or underemployed (not earning enough to support a family adequately). Yet the American Special Forces observers are finding that the corrupt practices are remarkably persistent.

Meanwhile the Special Forces teams are also finding that al Shabaab has corruption problems as well. However an even bigger issue with the enemy is the increasingly violent dispute within al Shabaab over the desire of many members (most of them foreigners) to join ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant). Violent factionalism within al Shabaab is nothing new. After 2010 al Shabaab began having serious problems with factional disputes. For that and several other reasons the group is constantly losing members. Over half of those who join al Shabaab eventually (after a few months or years) quit. Some later rejoin but then leave again because al Shabaab members keep encountering a corrupt and inefficient organization that proclaims itself as the only hope. Moreover a major attraction for most Somali recruits is regular pay (up to several hundred dollars a month) which is offered deliberately because otherwise the group would be dominated by foreigners willing to work for less (or nothing). Al Shabaab often ran into financial difficulties and could not pay many of their men for months at a time. At that point many would quit and often did so with the permission of their leaders. Al Shabaab had learned that deserters were more likely to inform on the Islamic terrorist group. But allowing departure (and often helping the former followers get home) made the former members less likely to talk and some even returned. This is in sharp contrast with ISIL, which threatens execution of those caught trying to desert.

Secrets Revealed

The March 9 commando raid west of the capital revealed the extent of the American effort to train Somali soldiers as commandos. The raid was carried out by over a dozen Somali commandos accompanied by a smaller number of American Special Forces troops who were there to observe and advise and did not use their weapons. The Americans did not suffer any casualties either and it is unclear if the Somalis did. Al Shabaab claims that the attackers were “white soldiers” who were repulsed at little cost to the Islamic terrorists. Al Shabaab always tries to spin defeats like this. Nevertheless the raid was a success for the Somalis because a night time operation involving helicopters is one of the most difficult situations commandos encounter. The Somali commandos wanted to take their target alive but killing him was an acceptable alternative. American officials made a point of stating that the U.S. commandos along with the Somalis were armed but did not open fire. That means the S0malis can take credit for all the fighting. This raid ends years of efforts to train Somalis to carry out these complex commando operations. The problem is that few Somalis have been trained to this high level of skill and reliability.

The CIA and American Special Forces have been in Somalia for over a decade. In 2014 the U.S. admitted that it has had personnel in Somalia since 2007 and that in 2014 there were 120 Americans in Somalia. This was no secret as since 2005 there were reports of an American compound in Mogadishu and occasionally there were reports of American Special Forces or CIA personnel carrying out intelligence missions. The U.S. would never admit there were American operatives stationed in Somalia but would acknowledge the occasional military action. No details of the special operations training program for Somalis was released.

Coming Home

Kenya revealed that since 2014 over 60,000 Somalis returned from Kenya as part of a Kenyan program to persuade Somali refugees to voluntarily return home. Kenya offered inducements it hoped would persuade at least 100,000 to go back by the end of 2015. That did not happen. This is a big step back from the original plan to expel all (over 600,000) legal and illegal Somali refugees in the country. The expulsion threat came in response to ever more horrendous al Shabaab attacks inside Kenya, including an April 2015 al Shabaab massacre of 148 Christian students at a university. The UN promised to help with refugee camp security and moving more of the refugees back to Somalia but strongly opposed expulsion. Nevertheless the UN has promised to get 50,000 Somali refugees to leave Kenya in 2016. That seems unlikely because in January only about 1,200 left. In Somalia politicians and al Shabaab agree that Kenya should stop mistreating Somalis in Kenya if only because this mistreatment is used by al Shabaab for recruiting. The Kenyan government recognizes this problem and talks about curbing violence against Somalis in Kenya but controlling popular hatred of and hostility towards murderous Somalis is difficult. This is particularly true because of the recent al Shabaab terror attacks in Kenya and the centuries of Somalis raiding into Kenya. It’s an old problem that does not lend itself to quick or easy solutions. Meanwhile the UN has to cut food supplies to all the refugees in Kenya (mostly Somali but some from Sudan) because not enough donors could be found. There is only so much donor money out there and many donors seek areas where they believe their money will do the most good. Long term refugees (as with the Somalis in Kenya) are not seen as the best use of donor funds. Currently the UN spends about $115 million a year to feed the refugees in northern Kenya. Nearly half that money comes from the United States. Refugee officials continue having problems maintaining security in the Somali refugee camps and a growing number of foreign aid organizations are withdrawing from some camps because of the chronic violence.

March 9, 2016: In Awdhegle (50 kilometers west of Mogadishu) Somali commandos in American helicopters landed outside the town at night and sought to capture a senior al Shabaab leader known to be in the town. The al Shabaab sentries were alert and the commandos encountered resistance. After a brief firefight in which at least ten al Shabaab men were killed, the Somali commandos withdrew. Apparently the Somalis had informants in the town because they knew which house the target was staying in and were pretty sure the next day that the target had been killed during the firefight. The al Shabaab men in the town also believed there were local government informants and were seen arresting suspects the next day.

In Mogadishu al Shabaab used a suicide car bomber to attack a police station and killed three policemen.

March 7, 2016: Outside the central Somali town of Beledweyne al Shabaab set off a bomb near the airport that wounded two peacekeepers and four civilians. Another bomb was found and disabled.

An Australian warship on anti-piracy patrol stopped and searched a fishing boat 300 kilometers off the coast of Oman and found over 2,000 weapons, most of them AK-47s. It was unclear if the weapons (which seemed to be from Iran) were headed for Somalia or to Shia rebels in Yemen.

March 6, 2016: In the southeast (Lower Shabelle region) soldiers and peacekeepers found and arrested a wanted al Shabaab leader who controlled many of the al Shabaab operations in the area.

March 5, 2016: Outside the town of Raso (200 kilometers north of Mogadishu) a newly built al Shabaab training camp was hit with an air attack using missiles and smart bombs that left most of the 200 or more al Shabaab men in the camp dead. The Somalis apparently had informants in the area because there is cell phone service available and many of the locals have cell phones. Al Shabaab denied that it had suffered 150 dead but refused to discuss details of their losses. Some locals used their cell phones to talk with journalists. Calling into radio talk and news shows is very popular in Somalia and the news here was that al Shabaab suffered heavy losses but none of the locals could give a precise number because getting too close to the bombed out camp ran the risk of being seized by al Shabaab as a spy. Al Shabaab knows many Somalis hate them and that cell phones make that hatred very dangerous. Efforts to get cell phone service shut down in areas where al Shabaab operates have been partially successful but when they do succeed the locals hate them even more. The Americans apparently used F-15E fighter-bombers and Reaper UAVs for the attack and Reapers carried a lot of earlier surveillance of the camp to confirm target details. Reapers tend to come around after such an attack to collect data on the aftereffects. This air strike spotlights a large increase in American air attacks in Somalia. Only 41 Islamic terrorists were killed by air attacks in Somalia during 2015, and that was an increase from four dead in 2011, the first year the United States undertook such attacks. The Raso attack was carried out partly because intelligence indicated that the men being trained there were going to be used during March for major attacks on security forces, peacekeepers and American operations in Somalia.

March 2, 2016: In central Somalia (Mudug region) soldiers found and fired on a group of al Shabaab men preparing to attack a village. The brief firefight left six Islamic terrorists dead and five wounded.

March 1, 2016: Some 20 kilometers north of Mogadishu an al Shabaab roadside bomb killed five soldiers and wounded eight others.

February 28, 2016: In the central Somalia town of Baidoa two al Shabaab suicide bombers left at least 36 dead.

February 26, 2016: In Mogadishu al Shabaab used a suicide car bomb and gunmen to attack a heavily guarded hotel. The attack failed to get into the hotel but left 14 dead, most of them civilians.

February 25, 2016: In Mogadishu al Shabaab fired at least eight mortar shells towards the Presidential Palace but missed and killed five civilians and wounded seven others in nearby residential areas. There was a similar attack in January.

February 23, 2016: In Mogadishu police found and arrested a much sought local al Shabaab leader. This arrest was made possible by the growing number of sweep operations in the city which make it difficult for al Shabaab members, especially known ones, to just slip away. So far this year several hundred al Shabaab members have been arrested in Mogadishu.




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