Can Somalia finally defeat al-Shabab?

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
A man in military clothing stands in a street.
A man in military clothing stands in a street.
Security officers patrol near the destroyed Hayat Hotel after a deadly 30-hour siege by al-Shabab jihadists in Mogadishu, Somalia, on Aug. 21, 2022. Hassan Ali Elmi/AFP via Getty Images

All right, here’s what’s on tap for the day: New offensives are putting the al-Shabab terrorist group on the defensive, the Biden team calls out Russia for violating its last remaining arms control treaty, and former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has choice words for one Fox News host.

The Beginning of the End for al-Shabab? 

The leaders of four East African countries met this week to chart a strategy to once and for all destroy the powerful al-Shabab terrorist group that has operated in Somalia and carried out attacks in the wider region for nearly two decades.

The leaders of Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti issued a joint plan calling to “search and destroy” the terrorist group after a meeting in Mogadishu on Wednesday.

It’s not the first time African leaders have vowed to destroy al-Shabab. Nor is it the first time that al-Shabab has faced a series of military defeats only to later bounce back. And yet, things seem like they are finally starting to go Somalia’s way, according to regional experts and terrorism analysts.

A new hope. Somalia, with the help of regional powers and the United States, has launched a massive new military offensive that has uprooted al-Shabab from territories it controlled for years and sent the terrorist group reeling.

“It is obvious that al-Shabab has been losing ground and were squeezed out of major towns and villages they have been controlling for more than 10 years,” Col. Abdullahi Ali Maow, a former Somali intelligence official, told Voice of America. “I think it is the beginning of their end.”

The stars seem to be aligning in Somalia’s favor politically, too. Kenya’s new president, William Ruto, has made defeating al-Shabab a top priority. Western officials have high hopes that Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud can carry out his pledged “total war” on al-Shabab, and a peace deal ending the the devastating conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region seems to be holding, at least for now, giving space for Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to focus more on the fight against al-Shabab.

“There’s clearly a regional and international effort underway, a much more earnest and sincere effort from all corners” to finally defeating al-Shabab, said Cameron Hudson, a former CIA and State Department official now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.

“You have a new willingness on the part of the region to try to really end this fight once and for all.”

The clerics strike back. In a political effort that parallels the military offensive, Somalia has rallied the support of influential Muslim clerics to condemn the terrorist group. Some 300 clerics attended a recent conference in Mogadishu backing the government’s offensive, in a move aimed at combating the strains of Islamic extremism that led to al-Shabab’s emergence in the first place.

The new offensive in Somalia comes as the United States has started notching its own high-profile wins against terrorist groups in the chronically impoverished and unstable East African country.

Return of the Biden. The Biden administration has re-energized U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the Horn of Africa over the last two years. President Joe Biden redeployed around 450 troops to Somalia last year, reversing a decision by former President Donald Trump to remove troops from Somalia in January 2021, shortly before exiting office.

U.S. special operations commandos killed a top Islamic State leader, Bilal al-Sudani, in northern Somalia last month, and in 2022 U.S. Africa Command stepped up the number of airstrikes it carried out against al-Shabab over the last year to back Somalia. (Though AFRICOM has a checkered history of inaccurately counting its strikes against terrorists and tallying up civilian casualties, according to human rights groups.)

A phantom menace. Still, no government can roll out the “mission accomplished” banner on al-Shabab just yet.

Taking back territory from al-Shabab won’t necessarily destroy or even cripple the notoriously resilient terrorist group—something the United States and its fellow interlopers in the world of counterterrorism have learned the hard way. (Remember Iraq? Or Syria? Or Afghanistan? Or the Sahel?) Al-Shabab, like other terrorist groups, has shown a remarkable ability to fade into the ether even if it loses territorial control, only to come back swinging with attacks against civilian and government targets later.

Plus, violent terrorist attacks have steadily been on the rise in the Horn of Africa and Sahel region in recent years, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. and Western funding that goes toward counterterrorism campaigns across Africa.

There were a record-shattering 6,255 violent events linked to terrorist groups in the Sahel and Horn of Africa in 2022, according to data from the Africa Center for Strategic Studies think tank—a 21 percent increase from the previous year.

To make matters worse, Somalia is facing a historic drought that has pushed it to the precipice of famine, according to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who recently visited Somalia. Thomas-Greenfield urged foreign powers to increase their aid to Somalia to avert famine, while also touting U.S. support for Somalia in its counterterrorism offensive to “destroy al-Shabab’s ability to terrorize the people of Somalia, to terrorize the region, and to terrorize the world.”

Don’t clone the last wars. Still, some experts fear the United States and its regional allies aren’t learning the lessons from past failed counterterrorism campaigns in Somalia even if things are looking up now. They’re laser-focused on the military campaign, without thinking through the types of state-building initiatives required to help push Somalia out of its failed-state cycle and address all the underlying grievances that led to the rise of extremist groups in the first place.

“We’re learning lessons the hard way in lots of other theaters that you can have no definitive defeat of a terrorist group without a much more holistic and organic plan for the political and economic development of the country,” Hudson told SitRep.

“It’s the lack of any kind of future that drives the recruitment of new people to these terrorist groups in the first place,” he added. “And that’s what strikes me as missing from this broader discussion on Somalia.”