Given their shared interests, US military, development, humanitarian, and diplomatic support of Somalia serves both country's goals—and helps to stabilize the Horn of Africa.
Mention of Somalia typically evokes images from the violent anarchy and famine of the 1990s, the piracy plague off Somalia’s 2,000-mile coast roughly between 2005 and 2015, or high-profile terrorist attacks over the past 17 years (perpetrated by al Qaeda’s East Africa affiliate, al-Shabaab). Today, those images are mostly obsolete. A contemporary view of Mogadishu features extensive new construction and the rubble and bombed-out shells of buildings are long gone. Building cranes dominate Mogadishu’s skyline along with an exquisite Turkish-built mosque. Investment funds pour in mostly from successful ethnic Somali communities established around the world.
Somalia’s revival is underway—although much remains to be done. Somalis, with support from their friends in the region and beyond, including the United States, are on a trajectory to become net contributors of peace and prosperity to the Horn of Africa—an outcome that will benefit the people of Somalia, the region, and ultimately the world.
I served as US Ambassador to Somalia from January 2022 to May 2023, where I led the highly effective diplomacy/development/defense team in Mogadishu and in our Nairobi office. We coordinated with Somalia’s government, and with Somalia’s other international partners, both multilateral (the United Nations, the African Union, the European Union, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund), and bilateral (Kenya, Uganda, Djibouti, Ethiopia, United Kingdom, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and others). My embassy colleagues and I traveled throughout the country, consulting with Somalia’s government and civil society leaders about how best to advance the country's revival. While assessed security threats continue to restrict movement of American diplomats and require extensive protection measures, we managed to meet our Somali contacts at their offices, at local restaurants, and at various events both in Mogadishu and in provincial capitals. The recurring themes of our discussions centered on Somalia’s own efforts to promote peace, prosperity, and good governance.
When I arrived in January 2022, the national mood was tense and pessimistic. The president of Somalia at the time, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, was widely criticized for overstaying his constitutional mandate. Political violence was on the rise; Al-Shabaab had the momentum. Finally, that May, after many delays, the presidential election was held under Somalia’s indirect voting system. President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, voted out of power in 2017, had been voted back in. Since then, the focus of Somalia’s government has been on implementing Hassan Sheikh’s campaign slogan: “Somalia at peace with itself and the world.” The national mood shifted to cautiously optimistic—despite the severe challenges of a terrorist insurgency and a terrible drought.
More than one-third of the territory formerly controlled by al-Shabaab was liberated by local and national Somali forces with support from their regional and international allies, including the United States.
At that moment of historic opportunity, our interagency team collaborated with Somalia’s government on three shared goals:
Increased security for the United States and Somalia.
Respond to Somalia's humanitarian needs, and promote inclusive, resilient economic growth.
Advance Somalia's revival through effective state and federal governance.
Increased Security for the United States and Somalia
The Trump administration withdrew US troops from Somalia in January 2021, shortly before President Biden’s inauguration, during a time of rising political tension. I met with Hassan Sheikh Mohamud the morning after he was elected to Somalia’s presidency to express congratulations on behalf of President Biden, and to offer the return of the United States military. The US special forces contingent would number about 450 soldiers; about 2% of all foreign troops present in Somalia to support the Somalian government. International security partners aiding the Somalia National Army included five African nations operating under the African Union, several European nations under the European Union, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. US forces coordinated with Somalia’s other international security partners.
The fight to extend Somali government sovereignty throughout the national territory—and to free Somali communities from the violent extortion and extreme abuses of the al-Shabaab terrorist insurgency, is Somali-led and Somali-fought. US forces serve in an advisory and training capacity but they do not accompany Somali forces on the battlefield. A private US company funded by the State Department trains and accompanies Somali troops. US forces also coordinate defensive air strikes upon request of Somali leaders when Somali forces are in dire need. My team and I facilitated communication between the US military and the Somali leadership, and with the public, when these strikes occurred. Other international partners also provide air support to the Somali military.
The Somali authorities have also had successes in reducing al-Shabaab financing from their violent extortion rackets, and countering their recruitment narratives.
The United States military in Somalia is greatly respected and frequently consulted by top Somali leaders. The US-trained Danab Brigade of the Somalia National Army enjoys widespread acclaim for its effectiveness on the battlefield and its respectful treatment of Somali citizens. Turkey trains the well-respected Gorgor advanced infantry, which often fights alongside Danaab. US special forces advisors consistently told me that Somali forces eagerly engage the enemy. That dynamic, they often added, was missing in other arenas where they had trained national forces.
A few months after Hassan Sheikh’s election, communities in Somalia’s Hiran region, long under al-Shabaab control, launched an insurgency against their oppressors. After local militia made initial gains, al-Shabaab marshaled forces against them. The leadership of the Hiran communities asked for support from the Somalia National Army, which responded immediately. That was the beginning of a sustained offensive against the terrorist insurgency.
More than one-third of the territory formerly controlled by al-Shabaab was liberated by local and national Somali forces with support from their regional and international allies, including the United States. In that first campaign, in addition to US support, Turkey, Uganda, and the United Nations directly contributed to the effort, while the European Union funded the greatest share of the costs. Al-Shabaab will occasionally deploy its most fanatical units to commit high profile terror attacks to signal to Somalia and the world that they remain a dire threat. But there is far greater safety in large areas of central Somalia that were once dominated by al-Shabaab. We also see resilient communities striving to achieve normalcy and reestablishing ties with other communities now that the roads are free of al-Shabaab extortion checkpoints.
In areas where al-Shabaab forces fled, members of communities they had long misruled spoke of terrible atrocities, including forcibly taking children to serve as soldiers and war brides, and indiscriminate killing to instill fearful compliance. Al-Shabaab’s violent extortion continued even as Somalia’s most severe and longest drought devastated Somali families. Having nothing left to lose, Somalis revolted against their tormentors. Their government’s forces then came to their aid.
Despite some setbacks, Somali forces have kept up the pressure on al-Shabaab. The Somali authorities have also had successes in reducing al-Shabaab financing from their violent extortion rackets, and countering their recruitment narratives. The Somali authorities briefed us (and other international partners) on their careful plan to end the conflict. It involved a combination of security measures and political outreach to separate rank-and-file members from the most hardcore elements and leadership. We know that only a minority of al-Shabaab members are fiercely committed to violent extremist ideology. Others, such as conscripts, are reachable with messages that encourage defections.
Meanwhile, the African Union has begun the staged withdrawal of its 18,500 soldiers, turning over their security responsibilities to the rapidly growing Somali National Army. Since their arrival in Somalia in 2007, the African forces (currently contributed by Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti, and Burundi) have greatly extended government-controlled territory, including the hard-fought liberation of Mogadishu in 2011. The United States assists the African Union forces in various ways and their top financial supporter is the European Union.
The demise of al-Shabaab would improve the lives of Somalis suffering from their depredations, and would accelerate Somalia’s revival, benefiting the entire region. Al-Shabaab’s demise would also enhance the security of the United States. Al-Shabaab has attacked United States facilities in East Africa, killed Americans, and, as an al-Qaeda affiliate, aspires to attack the US homeland. Al-Shabaab bases its power on an ability to conduct force-on-force attacks, terror attacks on civilians, and violent extortion rings. Cutting back on any one of these tentacles produces only a temporary respite; experience shows that al-Shabaab’s severed tentacles grow back and a comprehensive solution is required, which the Somali government is pursuing. I witnessed the demise of another extremely violent insurgency: the rebel group Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone in 2002. That conflict was called a “forever war” until it wasn’t.
Humanitarian Response to Drought and War While Promoting Growth
The American people prevented famine in Somalia and funded more than $1 billion dollars since the 2021 onset of Somalia’s longest and most severe drought. While the technical criteria of famine were narrowly avoided, the drought caused mass human suffering, a significant increase in deaths, ruinous loss of livestock, and a tragic level of displacement with long term consequences. The US Agency for International Development and our implementing partners responded with great dedication and profound technical expertise. The US Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, and USAID Administrator Samantha Power, publicly urged other friends of the Somali people to step up at this crucial moment. Their efforts produced results, although less than needed. The American people picked up the slack.
As al-Shabaab flee Somali forces, they destroy vital infrastructure in communities they had controlled. They poison wells, blow up bore holes and generators, burn buildings, and destroy cell phone towers used to transfer urgently needed funds to the population. In the immediate aftermath, humanitarian response is required to support liberated communities. While I was there, our US embassy’s USAID team worked to quickly redirect funding to this urgent humanitarian need. They did so while remaining in the background, resourcing and advising local Somali authorities. For communities that had long suffered under oppressive al-Shabaab commissars, establishing positive relations with legitimate Somali authorities is key to stabilization. The government of Somalia urged other international partners to follow USAID’s example, which they have.
Markets once near empty have come back to life. Schools have reopened. Roads once dangerous are now clear for commerce, travel, and families to reunite.
As climate change has led to an increase in the frequency of droughts in Somalia, the viability of the traditional livelihood of raising livestock is undermined in much of the country. This produces higher rates of urban migration and unemployment. USAID responded to the request of the Somali government to build on previous job promotion efforts, including skills, education, and business development. USAID’s programs, some co-funded with the UK, are again producing positive results. Meanwhile, the Somali government is developing a strategy to enhance the “blue economy” in the rich waters of the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden off Somalia’s long coastline to counter the predicted devastating economic and humanitarian effects of future droughts.
Advancing Somalia’s Revival Through Effective Governance
This is a delicate matter. Nobody wants foreigners—even well-meaning, friendly foreigners—to muck around in their country’s governance. Somalia’s government is organized under the terms of the 2012 provisional federal constitution. The roles and responsibilities of the states and the federal government are still being negotiated. The wide variance in capabilities among Somalia’s states make settling on a federal framework more challenging. The United States assists in these negotiations as requested, mostly in resourcing and advocating basic democratic and effective governance principles. The United States, through USAID, also contributes investments in government services, especially education and health. Among successes in this sector, USAID funded a reconciliation conference in South-West State, bringing together rival factions to work out modalities for state elections. Similar successful efforts have improved governance and service delivery in other parts of Somalia.
US Support for Somalia’s Revival Serves the Interests of Both Countries—and the Region
The East African Community, one of the continent’s premiere regional organizations, is seriously considering Somalia’s membership application—a boon for the country and the region. Somalia’s African neighbors have invested blood and treasure in supporting Somalia’s revival. The US has done the same. In my 2023 farewell remarks to the Somali people, I expressed why I am hopeful about Somalia’s future: “Markets once near empty have come back to life. Schools have reopened. Roads once dangerous are now clear for commerce, travel, and families to reunite. Our security partnership allows communities once subjugated to oppression and extortion under violent extremism to live in peace and begin to build back toward prosperity. The bravery shown by soldiers and shopkeepers alike to liberate their communities has inspired me.”
The United States should continue its multi-pronged support of Somalia’s efforts to attain peace and prosperity along with the region’s other international partners. Progress can be messy and uneven, but the general direction is clear, and when Somalis achieve their nation’s full revival, we’ll celebrate alongside them and enjoy the benefits of a peaceful and prosperous country.
Ambassador Larry E. André Jr. (retired) teaches international public affairs at the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. His 38-year-long government career (Peace Corps, USAID, State) focused on Africa, including service as Ambassador to Mauritania, Djibouti, and Somalia. The opinions and characterizations in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the US government.
Cover photo: A view of Mogadishu, the capital city of Somalia, with the Indian Ocean in the background. Shutterstock/Abdulhafid.