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US and Somali Armed Forces Put Pressure on Al-Shabaab and Islamic State
The recent success of Somali government forces and their clan allies — backed by US operations and intelligence — was punctuated by the capture of the port of Haradhare on January 16, 2023. It was a significant symbolic victory for the Somali government as the port had a notorious reputation for being the epicenter of the piracy that plagued the Gulf of Aden in the 2010s.
In light of this recent gain, it is reasonable to ask whether the Somali government can maintain its current momentum against Al-Shabaab. Bolstering these efforts are the precision air strikes provided by the United States military in recent weeks supporting Somali operations.
The first of these more recent actions launched by the US took place on Jan 20th. In that instance, Somali troops and jihadi militants engaged one another in the area around Galcad, which is 260 kilometers northeast of the capital Mogadishu. A force of an estimated 100 fighters attacked elements of the Somali National Army when the latter called for close air support. As a result, three vehicles were destroyed and an estimated 30 fighters were eliminated with at least seven government troops killed and no reported civilian casualties.
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The next operation took place on January 25th. That event was a raid by US Special Forces on a cave complex in northern Somalia. It became newsworthy in the United States after it was revealed that Bilal Al-Sudani, a paymaster and senior leader for the Islamic State’s (IS) Somalia branch was killed in the engagement. Ten other IS members were also killed in the firefight which resulted in one US soldier being wounded and no civilian casualties.
It is also reasonable to ask whether continued military successes against insurgent movements can potentially translate to other improvements in Somali society, namely, in Somali governance. In answering this question, it is important to look at the relationship between the federal government in Mogadishu and local leadership structures throughout the country. A basic characteristic of successful insurgencies is that the militants provide to locals in regions far from the reach of capital cities what government officials are either unwilling or unable to provide.
If those renewed ties between the government and local leaders in rural Somalia fracture, then the foundation for a potential return by Al-Shabaab or future militant groups in the areas will be laid and it is possible that some of the same real estate and issues will once again be contested. This happened before when the Islamic Courts Union was defeated and Al-Shabaab emerged in force. Can Somalia afford to repeat that mistake? One way to avoid this, according to Shoki Hayir, is to have senior leadership from Mogadishu visit the recently liberated areas of Somalia. Another idea that has been proposed is to have the military and their clan allies establish bases in the recently liberated areas. Those simple acts of goodwill and increased security presence could go a long way to resolve the issues that have plagued the country since the collapse of the Siad Barre regime in the 1990s.
Despite these potential courses of action and their respective levels of feasibility, Al-Shabaab remains a highly capable and dynamic militant force, while the Islamic State also continues to operate in the country. The incremental successes are certainly encouraging for the Somali government, however, it is much too early to talk about any decisive victory over these groups, particularly the much stronger Al-Shabaab movement.