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Who is al-Shabaab, the militant group the US is fighting in Somalia?

American forces have been battling them for years, but it’s escalated in recent months.
Nicholas Slayton Avatar
al-Shabab fighters walk through Mogadishu, Somalia in 2012. (Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP via Getty Images) FILE: Al-Shabab fighters walk through Mogadishu, Somalia in 2012. (Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP via Getty Images)

With the 20-year War in Afghanistan over, Somalia has become the next major front in the United States’ ongoing Global War on Terror. 

Since the start of 2023, the U.S. military has conducted at least a half-dozen operations in Somalia, mostly against the militant group al-Shabaab, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization. Those operations have come in the form of air strikes in support of ground forces deployed to fight the group by the internationally-recognized Somali government in Mogadishu. Most recently, al-Shabaab was also the adversary in the U.S. military’s largest battle in the country since the fateful “Black Hawk Down” mission in 1993, an assault on a combined U.S.-Somali force at the isolated Baldogle Military Airfield. 

So how did al-Shabaab become such a major enemy of the United States more than two decades into the Global War on Terror? 

What is al-Shabaab?

In its current form, Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, “Movement of Jihadi Youth,” — better known as al-Shabaab — is a Salafi-jihadist insurgent group based in Somalia. It previously controlled the capital of Mogadishu but now holds roughly a fifth of the country under its control, with fighters in Somalia as well as in Kenya and Ethiopia. The organization is made up of several thousand fighters, although the exact headcount is unclear.

Where did al-Shabaab come from?

Al-Shabaab did not emerge from a vacuum, but it did develop out of Somalia’s decades of instability. 

Somalia has been struggling with chaos for decades. In October 1993, the U.S. military initiated Operation Gothic Serpent, an attempt to capture allies of warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. The mission went, to put it lightly, awry, resulting in the Battle of Mogadishu and the Black Hawk Down incident which killed 19 U.S. service members. The fallout from Gothic Serpent resulted in the U.S. pulling troops out of Somalia in 1994.

In the aftermath of that mission, Somalia fell deeper into chaos, with attempts at creating a central transitional government failing to enact lasting stability. The country was dominated by disparate warlords, some with American and CIA support. At the same time, a local religious force emerged trying to instill its own form of order: the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which formed in 2000 and was made up of religious courts that offered some form of authority. The ICU aimed at stopping the warlord-led violence and establishing a rule of law, albeit a religious one based on sharia law. In June 2006, the ICU managed to oust the CIA-backed warlords and take control of Mogadishu, putting it under one authority for the first time in 15 years.

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That rule was short-lived: six months later, Ethiopia led an invasion of Somalia with American support, nominally to support the Transitional Federal Government. The offensive was supported by the African Union’s mission to Somalia, as well as the United States and other Western nations. The ICU was quickly ousted from the capital and pursued by the coalition, falling apart both from outside attacks and internal divisions. One ICU leader, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, ended up signing a peace and political deal with the federal government in 2008, and was elected president of the TFG the following year. This put him at odds with the remaining ICU factions, which had become an enemy of the transitional government.

Al-Shabaab started out as a subgroup of the ICU, but emerged as its own entity during the war with Ethiopia and TFG, which lasted into 2009. The group is Salafist, a strain of Islam, and is led by Ahmad Diriye. During the latter part of the war with Ethiopia, the now-independent al-Shabaab took much of Mogadishu.

Despite its Salafist jihadi ideology, the group is mainly nationalist and focused on fighting for control of the country. However, it has carried out attacks outside of Somalia, including in Ethiopia and Kenya. al-Shabaab was responsible for the 2013 Westgate shopping mall attack in Nairobi, where four gunmen killed dozens of people. In addition, al-Shabaab has carried out attacks in neighboring Uganda.

Why is the U.S. involved in Somalia?

The U.S. military pulled its forces out of Somalia after the Battle of Mogadishu. However, the U.S. would not get heavily involved until the fight against the ICU picked up later in the decade. The U.S. supported the alliance of warlords that the ICU defeated in 2006, and then shifted support to the transitional government. 

The U.S. military’s legal authority to target al-Shabaab stems from the 2001 Authorization of the Use of Military Force, the same one that authorized the U.S. to hunt down al-Qaeda and “associated” forces. In 2008, the Bush administration designated the group a Foreign Terrorist Organization and began carrying out airstrikes. In 2012, al-Shabaab’s leaders pledged loyalty to al-Qaeda.

Under the administration of President Barack Obama, the U.S. government designated the entire organization as an associated force, giving the U.S. more legal authority to widen its operations against al-Shabaab. That was in 2016, after the administration had already carried out several escalating attacks against the group.

The Trump administration widened that, leading to a major spike in drone strikes in the country. It was during this administration that U.S. involvement in Somalia surged, with the largest amount of operations taking place in 2019. At least 900 people were killed by U.S. strikes between 2016-2019. The conflict-tracking outlet Airwars noted that many ground operations are not reported, nor are CIA drone strikes. Trump also eased rules related to strikes, giving commanders greater leeway in initiating airstrikes. 

At the same time, al-Shabaab had a resurgence of its own. By 2017 it had regrouped enough to start fighting. In 2019 it began a series of suicide bomb attacks on Mogadishu. On Sept. 30, 2019 it launched a major attack on a U.S.-guarded airfield in southern Somalia. It turned into the largest American ground fight in the country in more than 25 years, with soldiers repelling the attack. A few months later, an al-Shabaab attack at Manda Bay, Kenya, killed one American soldier and two contractors before being forced to retreat. 

The United States has had military advisers on the ground since 2007, working with African Union forces instead of the Somali government. That was kept secret until late 2013, when the Obama administration announced the cooperation and sent more troops into the country that fall.

The Somali government, which the United States is backing, has its own special unit, the Danab, or “Lightning,” Battalion. It was set up in 2014 and trained through State Department funding, contracted out to the Bancroft Global Development private military corporation. Direct U.S. military involvement has since taken place, using the 127e program, which lets special operations fund local nations’ forces in pursuit of counterterrorism goals. The CIA also has a presence in Mogadishu, training Somali intelligence operatives in counterterrorism and helping run a prison for al-Shabaab members. 

According to the think tank New America, the United States has carried out more than 250 strikes — air and ground, with the vast majority against al-Shabaab — since 2003. The U.S. has stressed its efforts to avoid civilian casualties; “[t]he Federal Government of Somalia and U.S. Africa Command take great measures to prevent civilian casualties” is a repeated phrase in releases on operations. However over the years of U.S. involvement approximately 100 civilians have been killed in the strikes, per outlets such as Airwars and New America. Other strikes have been designated “collective self-defense,” in support of allied Somali or African Union troops. 

A 2017 raid by Somali troops and directly involving U.S. special operations forces in Bariire killed 10 civilians, including at least one child. The Somali government initially denied any civilians were killed.

Why has the United States’ military escalated its fight against al-Shabaab?

The United States continued military operations in Somalia for more than a decade, with no apparent sign of an end. Then in the last months of his term, President Donald Trump ordered all troops out of Somalia. All 700 service members left, with many going to nearby countries in East Africa and the Middle East; the U.S. said that counter terrorism missions would continue despite this. In May 2022, President Joe Biden reversed that, announcing he was sending roughly 500 service members back to the country. AFRICOM said that the troops would “advise and assist.” Then-Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said at the time that “[o]ur forces are not now, nor will they be directly engaged in combat operations.” When Biden made the announcement, the U.S. had already been carrying out drone strikes in the country since 2021. 

Since then, the fight has escalated. In 2022 , former Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was reelected back to power, and pledged a new offensive against al-Shabaab. 

In 2022, then-AFRICOM head Gen. Stephen Townsend told Voice of America News that al-Shabaab had “grown bigger, stronger and bolder” and was the biggest threat on the African continent. The U.S. carried out 15 airstrikes in 2022, four more than in 2021, and so far into 2023 it has conducted at least six strikes against al-Shabaab. American special operations forces also carried out a raid in January that killed an ISIS leader, Bilal al-Sudani.

The United States has approximately 500 troops in the country advising and assisting Somali and African Union troops. This does not account for special operations forces in the country.

The Biden administration has maintained the Trump-era policy on giving commanders more authority for strikes. As scholar Samar al-Bulushi noted, commanders only have to receive consent from the State Department, not the White House. There are more written rules to protect civilians, although it should be noted that 20 years since the U.S. first carried out an operation in the country as part of the War on Terror, there is no active declaration of war. 

In January, the United States contributed $9 million in new weapons to the Somali national government. The Danab battalion numbered approximately 1,500 in November 2022 but there are ongoing efforts to grow it. 

Most recently, an American airstrike killed seven al-Shabaab fighters in the country’s northeast on Feb. 21, per AFRICOM. Given increased American involvement and no signs of any settlement, the United States’ fight against al-Shabaab is likely to continue.

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