Somalia: Somalia December 2023 Update


December 18, 2023: The UN lifted the Somalia arms embargo on December 1st. This was at the request of the Somali government, which needs weapons to upgrade its forces and to arm new soldiers and pro-government militias. UN peacekeepers remain, but only after the UN was persuaded to cancel a planned withdrawal. The Somali army complained that they would have a lot of problems if all the foreign peacekeepers left on schedule. Peacekeeper commanders in Somalia agreed and 3,000 peacekeepers that were supposed to leave Somalia by the end of September did not go. The peacekeepers began withdrawing in June 2023, when 2,000 departed. It soon became apparent that the withdrawal plan was over-optimistic about what might go wrong if there were fewer peacekeepers. Much could go wrong, and Al Shabab and other troublemakers took advantage of the situation.

Withdrawing peacekeepers was an issue because it was very dangerous to be a peacekeeper in Somalia, much more dangerous than peacekeeping anywhere else. Over the past 16 years at least 3,500 peacekeepers have been killed in Somalia. The EU (European Union) and United States pay for the peacekeeping force and nearly $200 million has been disbursed for death and disability benefits during that period. That’s in addition to the $200 million a year cost of operating the peacekeeper force. That is provided by the UN via contributions from the U.S. and EU (European Union). The UN approves the size and duration of the peacekeeper force annually. The peacekeepers have been in Somalia since 2007 at a cost of over three billion dollars. In addition to peacekeepers killed, at least as many were permanently disabled from their wounds. The African Union (AU) pays for medical care, including long term care for some of the wounded. For years the AU played down the high casualty rates in Somalia, reporting less than a third of the actual deaths. The usual growing number of corruption scandals involving missing death benefits and other compensation led to the actual loss statistics being revealed.

The peacekeeper casualties suffered in order to cripple Al Shabab, which is now on the defensive and unable to withstand growing army efforts to drive al Shabaab forces out of towns and villages. Al Shabaab depends on those towns and villages for food and other supplies. The army and peacekeepers take advantage of that by keeping al Shabaab away from these supply sources. This causes al Shabaab to lose men to desertion. Without supplies al Shabaab cannot feed their men and many of those men simply desert and go home. Defeating an enemy force by depriving them of supplies is an ancient tactic that still works. Government and peacekeeper forces face a complex situation because there are more villages in the countryside than the troops can protect with garrisons. What the Somali forces can do is keep al Shabaab forces on the move, which is something al Shabaab is not used to and cannot sustain without vehicles and fuel. The army destroys these vehicles whenever they can go after local merchants who supply al Shabaab with fuel and other supplies. Al Shabaab can afford to pay because the looting also involves gathering any money they can find.

The violence in Somalia is not decreasing rapidly. There are violent incidents every week, most of them involving al Shabaab losing. This is rapidly depleting al Shabaab manpower through casualties and desertions. For most of 2023 al Shabaab has been losing over a hundred men a month killed and even more losses through desertion. It is becoming more difficult to recruit new members because the government has been working with local forces, usually long-standing clan militias, to prevent al Shabaab recruiters from getting near prospects. At one time al Shabaab offered attractive and low risk employment for young men with few job opportunities. This strategic approach to reducing al Shabaab strength and capabilities worked.

There are also sometimes problems with soldiers not being paid during peacetime in their home countries. Too much of this sometimes sparks a rebellion or insurrection over missing pay and other grievances. Despite this there was never a problem obtaining peacekeepers for duty in Somalia, paid for by the AU and a long list of African and Western donors. Somalia is the most dangerous peacekeeping duty in the world. About 300,000 men served as peacekeepers in Somalia, receiving an average annual compensation of $9,100 each. Officers, NCOs, and privates all receive different amounts and peacekeeping duty pays better than their regular pay when back home. In most countries, peacekeeping duty is relatively safe. This was not the case in Somalia, where about three percent of peacekeepers were killed or badly wounded and disabled.

While the peacekeepers are leaving, American forces belonging to AFRICOM (U.S. Africa Command) are still available to provide some assistance in the form of aerial surveillance, airstrikes, and training for Somali forces. There are only 7,500 American troops in Africa and their theater (AFRICOM) headquarters in Germany. Since early 2017, when AFRICOM increased its use of armed UAVs over Somalia, there have been about 172 UAV airstrikes that have killed nearly a thousand al Shabaab and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) members. In 2020 there were fifty of these UAV airstrikes and 280 in Somalia in the last decade. In 2021 there were seven UAV airstrikes and fifteen in 2022 and even more in 2023. American forces, and airstrikes, returned t0 Somali in 2022. This was prompted by the formation of a new Somali government. All American airstrikes are at the request of the Somali government.

Somalia sent thousands of its soldiers to Eritrea, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Egypt for training. This is all part of the effort to have 24,000 Somali soldiers trained and ready for operations once all the peacekeepers are gone. Remote support from AFRICOM will continue using UAVs based in nearby African countries.

That al Shabaab controls any territory is mainly because of another problem; corruption. The government forces suffer from it while al Shabaab does not, or at least has much less of it. The inability of the government to ensure that their security forces are supplied and paid regularly, even though foreign aid provides the needed cash, means the Somali army remains unreliable and unable to control areas that al Shabaab has been driven out of. This is the case even when peacekeepers or pro-government militias did the work. It’s another case of greed overwhelming common sense and common interests. This is not unusual for Somalia, which has been rated the most corrupt nation in the world for a decade. One of the side effects of that degree of corruption is the inability to maintain reliable security forces.

Yet al Shabaab also lacks access to foreign aid and provides far fewer amenities for recruits than Somali soldiers or foreign peacekeepers enjoy. Al Shabaab continues to operate despite heavy attrition from combat, disease, and desertion. At one point Al Shabaab maintained its strength in rural areas by stealing children in addition to food and other supplies. Families that can afford to send their children, mainly boys aged 8-16, away to areas with less al Shabaab presence to protect the kids from a popular form of recruiting in Africa. This began with al Shabaab demanding that rural schools stop teaching anything that might be interpreted as hostile to al Shabaab. Then al Shabaab imposed a tax on some schools that had to be paid in the form of students. In the last year several hundred children have been taken and several thousand have been sent away by their parents to keep the kids safe from al Shabaab. This recruiting tactic has been used elsewhere in Somalia for years.

This tactic was not unexpected because the Islamic terrorist group has suffered heavy losses in the last few years but maintained its strength by improvising. This is mainly about using children and, at one point, at least half the al Shabaab gunmen were armed boys under age 18 with a growing number under 14 years old. This is why, despite losing control of 90 percent of the area it controlled at its peak in 2012, al Shabaab still exists with less than half the personnel it had in 2012.

The growing use of child soldiers was noted as early as 2010 when the fighting in Mogadishu was not going well for al Shabaab and many of their fighters had been killed or discouraged enough to desert. Unable to entice enough men to join, they convinced (or coerced) some clan elders to allow kids (large enough to handle an AK-47) to join the fight. Like most Somali children they were eager for the opportunity to have an AK-47 of their very own and people to shoot at. This is a big deal for Somali teenagers. By 2012 it was noted that 10-20 percent of most al Shabaab fighters appeared to be kids. Teenagers are not the best fighters. Most are impulsive and inexperienced, so they do not last long if there is a lot of combat, and even then, they require more supervision than adult fighters. But given the choice between disappearing because of heavy casualties and recruiting more and more kids, many African irregular groups like bandits, rebels and Islamic terrorists will resort to the use of children.

This is not a new phenomenon, but it did not become as affordable and widespread until the 1990s. That’s because several million cheap Cold War surplus AK-47s began showing up in Africa in the 1990s and child soldiers became a more practical solution to heavy personnel losses. The world market for AK-47s was inundated by the late 1990s. The only market left was Africa, but only if you were willing to sell cheaply. The gunrunners were, and still are, very active in lawless places like Somalia, Sudan, and eastern Congo.

The cheap AK-47 made it possible to use kids as young as 10-14 years old as soldiers. This was a new development because the old weapons (spears, swords, bows) required muscle. Kids had to be older, and stronger to be warriors. But now, if you could lift a 4.5 kg (ten pound) AK-47 and pull the trigger, you could be a killer. Child soldiers changed everything because warlords could just kidnap or entice kids and quickly brainwash them. These armies of child killers made insurrection and anarchy more common. Tens of millions of Africans fled their homes to avoid these tiny terrors, and many of those refugees died of starvation or disease. These victims were just as dead, even if the bullets didn't get them. In fact, few AK-47 victims died from bullets. It was the massive fear, and breakdown of society and the economy, that killed most people confronted by all these cheap AK-47s. The kids weren't very good shots, but if they got close enough to you, they were capable of unimaginable horrors. Al Shabaab is continuing this vile tradition, although in the name of God.

Another pragmatic tactic al Shabaab has adopted is to negotiate and keep economic agreements in rural areas where they live. This includes all traffic passing through the area having to pay a tax to pass al Shabaab road checkpoints. This includes trucks carrying foreign aid supplies like food and medicine. This is not much different than in government-controlled areas except that al Shabaab will fight any other groups like clan militias, security forces or bandits, seeking additional and unexpected taxes to pass. Al Shabaab will hand out written receipts so drivers will not be taxed more than once while in al Shabaab territory.




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