By Toby Armour

For decades, Somalia has teetered between being a failed state leading to regional destabilization, despite significant international assistance efforts. This lack of success, combined with shifting geopolitical priorities from distant decision-makers, has led a majority of the world to forget both the extreme hardships that Somalians endure daily and the large dangerous strategic impact a failed Somalia could have across  East  Africa and the Arabian Sea.  

The situation in Somalia was very difficult to even before the recent bungled international effort. Complicated by entrenched ethnic loyalties that often supersede a tenuous allegiance to any central governing body, a litany of terrible shared experiences from the second half of the 20th century into the 21st, and an opportunistic terror group that plays off both of those existing factors, the country has been in a state of disarray for approximately 30 years.  

Stoking inter-clan conflicts was a foundational pillar of General Siad Barré’s strategy to maintain power when he was Somalia’s military dictator.  “Ruling” from 1969 to 1991, Barré repeatedly instigated inter-clan conflict while favoring certain clans to which he had family ties.  While compiling one of the “worst human rights records in Africa,” according to the UN Development Programme, Barré’s regime purposefully segmented the clans to maintain power, thus creating long-standing grievances that have not been forgotten by these communities. This increased division engendered a setting in which many clans created their own militias to protect themselves, thus resulting in a deep segmentation that is a lasting effect of Barré’s time in power.  

Meanwhile, other central resources and initiatives that his socialist government created collapsed, in part because of high levels of corruption.  Both the success of Barrés’ evil strategy to maintain control and the failure of state responsibilities due to the government’s own issues enhanced clan loyalty while creating a deep distrust of any central governing body. Strengthened by the perception that efforts of the SNA are motivated by officer clan loyalties, faith in the central government is minimal while the number of local militias increases.   

Coordinated international efforts don’t have a good track record of implementing change in environments that are different from the ones with which implementing countries are familiar.  Unfortunately, the efforts in Somalia have not been met with success.  On top of the situation in Somalia is complicated and foreign to the international coalition, to begin with, there were other misunderstood regions in the world and ill-conceived international efforts that grabbed the headlines.   A more publicized failure of efforts stemming from a misunderstanding of realities on the ground recently unfolded in Afghanistan.  

The fall of Kabul may have reintroduced much of the European and American population to the mishandling of the situation in Afghanistan, but that doesn’t mean that military, economic and diplomatic efforts had been continuously failing because of misconceptions on the ground for years before the Taliban deposed Ashraf Ghani’s government.  The events that unfolded in Kabul this past summer were a perfect illustration of how a failure to comprehend the underlying facets of a conflict can skew a response that is then condemned to fail before it begins.  These crippling misconceptions have been demonstrated in Somalia. 

The international community, largely led by the United States, believed they could improve the Somalian situation through counter-terrorism operations.  This belief was incorrect as the situation in Somalia is much more nuanced than that. While the terrorist tactics of Al-Shabaab are head-turning, the internal divisions that hamper reconstruction efforts mostly stem from the unresolved civil conflict that intensified at the very end of the Barré regime and the struggle for power that his departure left in the country.

Broad misunderstandings at the strategic level are often baked into plans at the tactical and operational levels.  Once again, there was no exception to this pattern in Somalia.  The misconception of the overall situation led to strategic stakeholders’ failure to recognize the fact that military, economic and diplomatic efforts had to be woven together in a cohesive strategy to achieve any modicum of sustained success. The siloed nature of different plans from different organizations preordained a certain level of failure. Any military successes would be unsustainable as they did not have coordinated flanking efforts. The siloed nature of these admirable, and within their singular context sometimes successful initiatives, stopped a win in one area from translating to sustained progress for the whole of Somalia.  Real success can be achieved only through a coherent strategy that leverages political, economic, and diplomatic efforts under the safety umbrella created with a light military footprint.  

Just as in Afghanistan, the main threat actor (al-Shabaab) in Somalia derives its support from its ability to deliver basic resources and services that a central government can’t, even if it does so in an archaic and brutal way.  This provisioning has allowed the threat actor to weave itself into the fabric of a clan-based society that it knows much better than do the international forces fighting against it.  International efforts need to fill the same void that al-Shabaab fills.  Military operations need to secure and sustain those efforts, not simply exist on their own.

The international community’s fluctuating priorities outside Somalia create erratic levels of interest and therefore erratic levels of support for the mission in Somalia.  Priorities will always be weighed and resources allocated accordingly, but pulling back from Somalia to engage with other, more visible theaters and missions shows a lack of foresight into what could happen if the Somalian situation does not improve.  One major reason for this lack of sustained interest in Somalia is a lack of sustained success, which again stems from the international community’s misunderstanding of fundamentals on the ground: a catch-22 of sorts.  Since the debacle of Operation Gothic Serpent in 1993, international stakeholders have struggled to regain an accurate view of Somalia and its inhabitants, and thereby regain the vantage point from which to improve the situation.  

These miscalculated viewpoints have led to a lack of commitment in the country, fostering the belief that the situation is completely untenable and unsolvable, and creating the misconception that Somalians are the enemy and not the victims of a failed state, a terrible and opportunistic terror organization, and an indifferent international community unwilling to do what is necessary to make lasting change.  The incorrect international characterization of the Somalian situation has been further highlighted by recent developments in Mogadishu: internal tensions in the government have created a rift between the president and the prime minister, both accusing the other of separate transgressions.  Internal divisions have again hamstrung governmental progress as the international community stands idly by.  

The long-term commitment required by the complex difficulties in Somalia does not whet the international community’s appetite to engage, and the current international security landscape will push the US and EU even further away from the situation. The aftermath of Afghanistan is still fresh in the minds of policymakers. Similarities between that situation in Afghanistan, and the Somalian situation are easy to point at, even if they are not as prevalent as they might first appear.  A rising China has diverted much of America’s focus to global strategic competition, and Russia’s antagonistic behavior on the borders of Ukraine has captured the EU’s gaze.  Even though the correct behavior in Somalia could lend itself to improving both the US and the EU’s stance in global strategic competition, leadership in either both Washington and Brussels seem too preoccupied to give the necessary attention to this decades-old issue.

The global strategic implications of a continuously deteriorating Somalia are outside the scope of this piece.  The implications for Africa, however,  do fall within the scope.  The “ink spot” strategy is a counter-insurgency maneuvering principle that stresses controlling key areas and then seeing the effects of the success in those key areas spread outwards as the ink does when dropped on a sheet of paper.  While normally used in the counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism spaces, the inkspots now seen expanding in Africa are from the pen of jihadist extremism.  Instead of establishing areas of peace and progress, extremist groups are pulling more areas into violence.  These undesirable “ink spots” have appeared all over Africa.  

The Malian and French struggle against jihadists in the Sahel is well documented and holds some similarities to the situation in Somalia.  The Boko Haram threat in Northeastern Nigeria and the Lake Chad basin has displaced millions and consistently threatens Africa’s most populous nation and the continent’s largest economy.  American soldiers were killed in Niger in 2017, and Chad’s president, who was a linchpin in the struggle against extremism, was killed during his involvement in a military operation against rebels earlier this year. Al-Shabaab has demonstrated the ability to plan and execute operations in Kenya, and extremists have now proved their ability to take and hold ground in Mozambique.  

In neighboring Ethiopia, the country whose invasion of Somalia in 2006 accelerated the rise of al-Shabaab, the conflict between the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front and the regime in Addis Ababa has destabilized the largest economy in the region.  The proliferation of the number of fights across the continent is cause for great concern.  They threaten all beneficial initiatives that are so critical for these young countries.  The withdrawal of the West from these struggles also presents an opportunity for Russia and China to enhance their relationships with respective governments, as Beijing and Moscow emphasize shared outcomes with shared values. 

Continued detachment from Somalia right now could lead to a compounded increase in al-Shabaab’s control, which would lead to an even more difficult situation for Somalia and the region.  Accelerated destabilization in the region writ large will inhibit local stakeholders from affecting the situation.  The struggle to improve life for Somalians, who have been the victims of repeated violence and famine for decades, is something that the USA and the EU cannot turn away from.  It’s a complicated situation that will not be solved quickly or without setbacks, but investment in finding a solution not only will help Somalians live the lives they deserve, but will also improve an increasingly tenuous security situation throughout the region.

About the Author

Toby is a fellow at Lobo Institute and a graduate from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, where he received a Masters in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies with a specialization in Financial Crime Management.

Professionally, he has held multiple positions at the intersection of technology and security. These include working in threat analysis for the Fifa Women’s World Cup in France as a contractor for the State Department OSAC, tying the profits of digital ad fraud back to criminal networks for Fortune 500 clients for the Cyber Threat Intelligence Network, and analysis for a seed round financial due diligence product focusing on non-financial risk.

He currently works as a cybersecurity consultant: creating, optimizing, and implementing holistic risk management strategies for clients looking to improve security across the modern enterprise architecture. He also advises a pre-seed startup in Canada that is creating a product and process to give wildlife rangers, customs officials, environmental surveyors, and others the ability to quickly and accurately test animal DNA in the field.

He is interested in the intersection of private sector innovation and security, the constantly changing nature of digital threats and threat actors, and the stabilizing effect intelligently deployed FDI can have on conflict zones.

The views and opinions expressed in this paper are the views of the author and not necessarily the views of Lobo Institute. For more information on the institute or to get on the mailing list for our papers and LoboCasts, please go to Lobo Institute