An Expected American Withdrawal:

The Future of Al-Shabaab Al-Mujahideen Movement in the Horn of Africa

It seems that Somalia will witness a very critical stage on both the political and security levels in the coming months, especially with the approach of the general elections scheduled at December 2020 and February 2021. This coincide with the date of the withdrawal of African forces scheduled at February 2021, and the Pentagon’s announcement that US President Donald Trump ordered to withdraw American forces from Somalia in January 2021 before leaving the White House. This represents a security challenge to the Somali state which is saddled with many security, political and economic burdens. The most serious of these burdens are the threats of Al-Shabaab Al-Mujahideen Movement either internally and regionally, and Al-Shabaab’s aspiration to strengthen its control over new areas in Somalia in the coming period.

First: Indications of Continuity for Al-Shabaab Al-Mujahideen Movement

Al-Shabaab Al-Mujahideen represents one of the most prominent challenges to the security Forces in Somalia since the start of its activities in 2004. The Movement is mainly active in the center and south of the country and controls about 30% of the Somali lands. During this period, Al-Shabaab was able to destabilize the internal affairs in Somalia which suffers from troubles because the weak capabilities of the security forces and the armed forces since the overthrow of Muhammad Siad Barre in the early 1990s. Ths Movement has been involved in many terrorist attacks that affected most Somali national institutions and some headquarters of international organizations, which resulted in the killing of more than 22 thousand people during the past decade.

The Movement’s activity is not limited to Somali. Rather, its terrorist activities and threats extend to some countries in the region, such as Kenya and Uganda, a matter that poses a clear threat to regional security in East Africa, and at the heart of which is the Horn of Africa.

Despite the promise of Somali President Muhammad Abdullah Farmajo when he assumed power in 2017 to eliminate Al-Shabaab Movement as a top priority on his agenda, he faced many challenges that prevented the fulfillment of his promise, especially with the Movement’s increased activities over the past three years, and the continued weakness of the Somali security forces in confronting members of the Movement in many Somali regions. This made the Movement as leverage in the hand of the Somali political opposition against Farmajo in the subsequent election to oust him by attempting to influence the internal public opinion against him, though the Movement will definitely represent an existential challenge to potential Somali presidential candidates in the elections to be held in February, 2021.

It should be noted that the Somali army does not stand alone in combating Al-Shabaab. There are many military forces that contribute to combating the Movement, such as the African Union Mission in Somali “AMISOM”, which has been settling in the country since 2007, and its number currently reached about 18 thousand soldiers from Uganda, Ethiopia and Djibouti, Kenya, Burundi, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Ghana. Also, the new United States Africa Command “AFRICOM” is also participating in this confrontation. The United States deploys 700 soldiers in Somalia to carry out multiple tasks such as training Somali forces and carrying out air strikes by drones launched from some bases in Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia – before its closure – against the strongholds of Al-Shabaab Movement, classified by the USA as a terrorist organization in 2008. The number of the members of the Movement ranges between 5,000 and 9,000. In addition, some British and Turkish forces have contributed to training Somali forces to enhance their combat capabilities to defeat terrorism in Somalia.

In light of the current context on the Somali and regional arenas, there emerges a three-dimensional security crisis that may contribute to the continuation and increase of Al-Shabaab activity, its repositioning and the expansion of its control over a larger geographical area in Somalia. This may include its expansion to the neighboring countries in the Horn of Africa, a matter that threatens the stability and the security of Somalia and the region in the next stage.

On the one hand, the status of political conflict and instability in Ethiopia plays a role in endangering Somalia’s security as a result of the geo-security influence and due to the direct geographical neibouhood between the two countries, in addition that Addis Ababa is participating with military forces within the African Union peacekeeping mission beside other special forces not involved in Mission.

Second; the approach of the next presidential and parliamentary elections in Somalia, scheduled in December 2020 and February 2020, with disputes over them between the Somali federal government and some regional states, represnt a clear security burden for the Somali forces, which are characterized by their weak capabilities and efficiency. This means a good opportunity for Al-Shabaab to disrupt elections in some of the areas it controls, especially if the African forces will withdraw from Somalia as planned in February 2021.

Thirdly; Trump’s decision to withdraw the majority of US special operations forces from Somalia by mid-January 2021 came as a shock for the official and popular Somali circles, as this matter implies more troubles in the Somali security situation, as well as a potential crisis for the forces combating Al-Shabaab in Somalia and the Horn of Africa.

Thus, this may represent a motive for the continuation of the activity of Al-Shabaab in the country and the expansion of its control over the largest geographical area. There are a number of indicators that strengthen this claim during the next stage, the most prominent of which are:

 -Funding Flow:

In an indication of the cooperation of some external parties with the Al-Shabaab, a UN report issued in September 2020 indicated that Al-Shabaab is using weapons made in North Korea in its attacks against Somali and international institutions during the current year, though Korea denies this, and officially stresses its firm stance on confronting terrorism in all its forms and manifestations.

According to a UN Security Council report published by the “New York Times”, the sources of funding for Al-Shabaab Al-Mujahideen Movement are various and their fund reaches millions of dollars coming from taxes imposed by the Movement on vehicles transporting goods. The Movement forces companies to pay monthly fees as well as collecting Zakat by force. There is an expansion in monetary transactions through Somali banks, especially Salaam Somali Bank, and the use of bank accounts and electronic phone services. The Movement is also investing in the real estate and corporate sector. It also controls the port of Mogadishu, where it extorts importers to pay taxes on goods.

Al-Shabaab has gained $13 million of revenues between December 2019 and August 2020: $ 2.4 million from checkpoints in Lower Juba in the south of Somalia, and $ 5.8 million from shipping companies in the southern coastal city of Kismayo. In addition, bank accounts belonging to the Al-Shabaab owing 4.7 million from merchants, shipping agencies and car agents have been detected. The Movement of Al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen has collected during 2019 more than 21 million dollars, which it spent on fighters, weapons and intelligence, which indicates to the enhancement of the financial capabilities of the Group. This allows it to finance its terrorist operations, buy weapons, and recruit more Somali and foreign members in the next period.

 -A Possible US Withdrawal:

As a part of the global process of withdrawal by the US forces, President Trump intends to withdraw most of his country’s forces from Somalia before leaving the White House, according to a statement from the Pentagon on December 5, 2020. This is against the American steps taken during the previous period regarding the war on terror in Somalia. In March 2017, US President Trump approved the Pentagon’s proposal to expand the scope of US air strikes against Al-Shabaab in central and southern Somalia. 

In 2019, Washington carried out about 63 airstrikes against Al-Shabaab targets, and between January 2020 and May 2020 it carried out 40 air strikes. This is a significant increase compared to the number of air strikes launched by Washington in 2016 under the administration of former president Barack Obama, which were 14 raids.

Trump’s decision caused the dissatisfaction of Somali and Kenyan officials, even that Somali President Muhammad Abdullah Farmajo asked Washington to change its decision, emphasizing the central role that the US-Somali partnership plays in achieving stability in the country. The withdrawal of US forces is likely to worsen the fragile security situation in Somalia, which suffers from insecurity for 3 decades.

 -The Failure of Negotiations with Al-Shabaab:

Reports indicated that Washington has been trying to enter into negotiations with Al-Shabaab recently, but these negotiations failed. However, observers believe that these negotiations are necessary to protect US interests in the East Africa. 

There have been several US attempts to dismantle Al-Shabaab, as one of The US plans was to get rid of 12 leaders of the Group who had a strong relationship with Al-Qaeda to eliminate the Group’s threat to Washington.

 -The Intention of some African Forces to Continue their Presence in Somalia:

Kenyan Minister of Defense, Monica Juma, stated that the Kenyan forces will remain in Somalia until the restoration of stability in the country and the elimination of Shabaab Al-Mujahideen Movement. This was the same statmnet of Kenyan President, Uhuru Kenyatta, who said that his country will remain a part of the African forces until the restoration of stability in Somalia. This may drive Al-Shabaab to carry out more terrorist operations against the Kenyan forces inside Somalia, the continuation of terrorist attacks in the Northeastern region of Kenya and in other areas of Kenya, the recruitment of more members and the creation of outposts and cells affiliated with the Movement in Kenya.

 -The Regional Expansion of the Movement’s Activity:

The Movement is considered a source of threat to the security of some countries in the region, such as Uganda and Tanzania, since some members of the movement are involved in training a number of the fighters of Ansar Al-Sunna Organization in the north of Mozambique, to the extent that the organization to call itself Al-Shabaab (The Youth).
The movement is also involved in many terrorist attacks in Kenya, in addition to its potential threat to Ethiopia in light of the ongoing conflicts inside Ethiopia, which represents a favorable environment for its potential penetration into the Ethiopian territories. Al-Shabaab’s desire is to lead terrorism in the East African region at the expense of ISIS, as some of ISIS members, about 250 individuals, are active under the leadership of Abdelkader Moamen -a leader who defected from Al-Shabaab- in “Galgala” Mountains in Puntland State, the north-east of Somalia.

Second: The Consequences of the Survival of the Al-Shabaab Movement

There are a number of possible repercussions for the continuation and expansion of the Al-Shabaab’s activity in Somalia and the Horn of Africa during the next stage either internally, regionally and internationally. The imminent withdrawal of the US forces in January 2021 represents a serious crisis for the Somali government, especially as it prepares soon for presidential and parliamentary elections in December 2020 and February 2021. This decision is also a blow to the Somali army, as these forces support the military operations and logistics of the Somali forces.

1-More Threats to Countries of the Region

The American withdrawal may encourage Al-Shabaab and some active organizations to pose more threats to the countries of the region and the strategic interests there, as it would give a large space for Al-Shabaab to expand in Somalia, and spread across its borders with regional neighborhood, carrying out guerrilla attacks, more bombings and assassinations. This means more control of the land and the expansion of the geographical area controlled by Al-Shabaab. This will lead to the increase of in the Group’s funding resources through Zakat revenues that the movement collects from the areas under its control, as well as the increase in kidnappings of foreigners to get ransom.

2-More Consolidation and Unity of Al-Shabaab Movement

It is possible that Al-Shabaab will be more consolidated and united, which means it would be more difficult to have divisions, especially after the incident of the former spokesman for the movement, Mukhtar Robow, who defected from the Movement and submitted himself to the federal government, but the government treated him badly. He was arrested for his attempt to participate in the regional elections, a matter that weakened movement members’ motive to take the same action. 

This enhances the Movement’s capabilities inside Somalia, which could enable it to restore lands it lost during the past five years. Moreover, it will enable it to revive trade and smuggling between Somalia and Yemen through controling smuggling operations in the south through the ports of Mogadishu and Kismayo.

3-Expanding The Scope of the Movement’s Alliances

In light of its permanent desire to expand regionally, there are strong indications to expand the relationship between the Al-Shabaab and some other terrorist organizations in the region, such as the Houthi movement in Yemen supported by Iran, which is secretly allied with Al-Shabaab in order to create an intelligence center and a secret network to implement and achieve its objectives and support its interests in the Middle East and Africa. This represents a clear threat to the security of the Horn of Africa, especially the southern entrance to the Red Sea at the Bab Al-Mandab strait.

4-Continued Closure of the Borders between Somalia and Kenya

The activity of the Movement may cause the continuation of closing the borders between Somalia and Kenya to eliminate human trafficking, good smuggling and cross-border terrorism. This negatively affects the trade movement between the two countries. However, this closure did not prevent the infiltration of Al-Shabaab members into the Kenya.

5-Losing Recent Security Achievements

The spread of Al-Shabaab members across the Somali national and regional borders may lead to losing any security gains achieved in recent years, and may create negative effects on the collective security of the East African region on a wider scale, especially in light of the US and regional plans to withdraw from Somalia which coincide with the outbreak of the Ethiopian conflict. This may cause the expansion of the conflict to the regional neighboring countries, which entails the transformation of the Horn of Africa into a wider regional war zone and the lack of stability and security in the region. Moreover, Ethiopia, which has wide influence over Somali security developments, has withdrawn several thousand of its forces in Somalia. This would create a security vacuum that the terrorist organizations, especially Al-Shabaab and ISIS, will exploit to strengthen their role and increase their geographical control in Somalia, and extend their threats to neighboring countries.

6-The Increase of the Influence of Some Major Powers

The security vacuum in Somalia in the coming period may lead to an increase in the influence of some other major powers, such as Russia and China, at the expense of US influence. It is certain that Washington’s withdrawal will have far-reaching geopolitical effects on the Somali domestic and regional levels within the Horn of Africa. Perhaps Russia, China and some regional powers will benefit from the withdrawal of US forces. China has close relations with Somalia and is concerned about the growing instability in the Horn of Africa. In February 2020, Al-Shabaab attacked a Chinese construction crew on the Kenyan “Lamu-Garsen” road. The expected withdrawal may increase such attacks.

Although there are some international powers participating in the war against terrorism in Africa, such as Britain and France, they will not compensate a strong partner such as the United States of America. While France supported the Kenyan efforts to combat Al-Shabaab in Somalia in 2011, it is recently focusing to stop the wave of terrorism and the increasing tensions in the Sahel and Sahara region. Although Britain is training some elements of the Somali army in the city of Baidoa in the southwest of Somalia, it lacks sufficient experience in carrying out drone attacks like the US against the strongholds of the Al-Shabaab Movement.

7-The Weak Role of the African Union and the Use of Private Security Companies

In light of such situation, the Somali government may request an increased support from the African Union, though the military intervention of The Union is mostly unexpected. Since 2017, the Union has called for the handover of responsibilities of combating terrorism to the Somali army, and in October 2020 the Union repeated its plan to militarily withdraw from Somalia in early 2021, which means that Somalia may face a bilateral shock from a possible withdrawal of American forces, as well as the withdrawal of the African Union forces “AMISOM” from Somalia.

This case may drive Somalia to use private security companies from some of the powers involved in the Horn of Africa, such as China, to defend the investments it has in the countries of the region such as Ethiopia and Djibouti. This will enhance Chinese influence in the Red Sea at the expense of the US one, and it will enable Russia to expand its influence in the region at the expense of the United State withdrawal. Somalia asked Russia in 2016 for assistance to combat terrorism against Al-Shabaab Al-Mujahideen Movement

These demands are likely to be renewed if Washington withdraws from Somalia, which will enhance the Russian efforts to establish a naval base in the Horn of Africa, especially as the US Defense Department stated in January 2020 that Russia considered the port of Berbera in Somaliland as the “ideal site” for the potential Russian naval base after Washington thwarted its efforts to establish it in Djibouti.

The same thing applies regarding the possibility of many international and regional powers rushing to exploit the difficult security situation in Somalia to establish military bases in Somalia under the pretext of maintaining security, fighting terrorism and training Somali forces, which what Turkey did as it established a military base in Somalia and opened it in October 2017 to train the Somali army.

Third: The Future of the Movement in the Horn of Africa

The containment or elimination of the Al-Shabaab movement in Somalia remains subject to the existence of a strong international will to strengthen the capabilities of the Somali army to confront the Movement’s internal threats, and to bridge the gap of views between the Somali political parties to end the state of political polarization that the country suffers over the past years, so as to consolidate efforts to confront the threats of terrorism and Al-Shabaab Movement. 

This also applies in wider scope to the Horn of Africa in order to prevent a state of security chaos in the region in light of the negative repercussions of the Ethiopian conflict on the regional security. The continuation of the Movement in Somalia and the region is likely to lead to further militarization of the Horn of Africa, which is about to become a large camp for the military bases of many international and regional powers, to end a stage of relative stability in the coming period. This may have negative consequences that wlll appear on all levels.

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Ahmad Askar

A Researcher Specialized in the African Affairs at Al-Ahram Center


Ahmed Beca


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