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An Analysis of American Involvement in the Horn of Africa

By Noah Harney

East Africa is a place of astounding beauty; the Great Rift Valley of Kenya and the Semien Mountain Range of Ethiopia are unique natural wonders. The people of Eastern Africa are similarly diverse; the many different ethnic tribes have different traditions, practices, and cultures. However, in modern history, the region has been plagued by war and terrorism. Civil war in Somalia and Al-Shabaab terrorist activity throughout the entire region severely endangers the prosperity of East Africa.

Although East Africa has historically had problems with ethnic conflicts and poverty, terrorism in the Horn of Africa took a real foothold in 1998 when al-Qaida bombed the United States Embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, killing more than 240 people. al-Qaida, a relatively unknown group at the time, claimed responsibility stating that the attack was motivated by the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. It was the first major terrorist attack in Africa and would be a precursor to the 2001 September 11th attacks. Many experts consider these two attacks as the start of the War on Terror as the United States began retaliation 13 days later by launching missile strikes on terrorist targets in Afghanistan and Sudan. Over the next ten years, following US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, al-Qaida shifted their focus out of Africa, but a new al-Qaida affiliated group, al-Shabaab, quickly took hold and became the prominent terrorist group in East Africa. The extremist group splintered from an Islamic political party during the Somali Civil War, but after quickly expanding and consolidating power in parts of Somali, the group expanded their influence throughout East Africa.

The Somali Republic was established in 1960 after British and Italian Somaliland were decolonized and unified. The Republic was short-lived as it was ridden with tribal conflicts and corruption which would cause its destruction. In 1969, after the President was murdered by one of his own bodyguards, General Siad Barre took control in a swift military coup d’état. Barre quickly established a harsh regime; he banned political parties, arrested opponents, and even suspended the former constitution. His regime lasted until 1991 when he was overthrown by the rebels of the United Somali Congress, but in the aftermath of Barre’s fall from power, Somalia was unable to establish any unified government. Instead, the country experienced an intense power vacuum which saw deadly violence between ethnic clans and militias. The civil war and related famine were disastrous and after months of violence the UN decided to intervene in 1992. A coalition led by the United States called UNOSOM entered Somalia with the aim of allowing humanitarian aid and to establish stability. Some militias, most notably that of General Mohamed Farah Aidid, saw the UN presence as a threat to power and reacted with hostility. Violence peaked during the Battle of Mogadishu in October 1993, which saw heavy causalities as a United States Special Forces Mission went array while trying to capture leaders of Aideed’s militia. 19 American soldiers died as well as 9 other UN peacekeepers. The conflict was, at that time, the deadliest battle for American soldiers since the end of the Vietnam War. The failed mission drew heavy criticism in the United States and forced President Bill Clinton to stop all military actions against Aidid’s militia. The Battle of Mogadishu and continued hostility towards peacekeepers forced the UN to withdraw completely from Somalia in 1995.

(left) My father siting on a shipment of grain inside a Canadian Airforce C-130 during a UNHCR mission to Mogadishu, late 1993. (right) My father on a 1994 aid mission to the city of Baidoa, visits the hospital to see the civilian damages and to assess the necessity of humanitarian support.

Chaos and inter-clan violence would continue unchecked by international organizations. In 2000 an internationally backed transitional government (TFG) was created in Kenya, but it wasn’t until 2006 when the government would return to Somalia. There was a second battle for Mogadishu in 2006 between the US backed Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism (ARPCT) and the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). The ARPCT has often been criticized as a coalition of Warlords which were backed by the United States to avoid the ascendency of an Islamic government. However, the proxy war failed and the ICU moved to consolidate the majority of Southern Somalia. This forced the transitional government to seek shelter in the city of Baidoa under the protection of Ethiopian soldiers. In 2007 the Ethiopian military launched an assault in Somalia and helped to take back the capital. The Second Battle of Mogadishu finally allowed the transitional government to take power in the capital. The Islamic Courts Union collapsed but the most extreme branch, Al-Shabaab continued to attack the TFG. Al-Shabaab attacks as well as a general distrust between the population and the national government, often seen as an Ethiopian puppet, prolonged conflict. Near the end of 2007, an African Union peacekeeping force (AMISOM) was deployed to Mogadishu to protect the TFG. In the following years Al-Shabaab continued to gain traction and even captured large swaths of land in southern and central Somalia. Since 2012 increased US airstrikes and more successful AMISOM and local militia missions have reduced their holdings. Despite their territorial losses, Al-Shabaab continued to grow stronger as they progressively became better intertwined in local communities. The endemic poverty and political instability have made Somalia an environment cohesive with terrorist recruitment. Al-Shabaab continues to flex its influence in the region and to this day remains the largest threat to stability in not only Somalia, but greater East Africa.

Al-Shabaab have been responsible for numerous high-profile and deadly attacks which have rattled the region. Al-Shabaab attacks both government and civilian targets with no reservations. In 2014 they attacked Villa Somalia, the presidential palace in Mogadishu, leaving 14 dead. In 2016 they attacked a UNISOM base killing over 140 soldiers. Outside of Somalia they were also responsible for the siege of the Westgate Mall in Nairobi killing 68 in a four-day standoff in 2013, the murder of over 150 students at Garissa College in Eastern Kenya in 2015.The most recent major attack was an early 2019 shooting at a five-star hotel in Nairobi which was claimed to be retribution for President Trump’s increase in drone strikes in Somalia as well as his move to relocate the American embassy in Israel from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem. The deadliest attack carried out in Somalia occurred in October 2017 when two trucks filled with explosives blew up in downtown Mogadishu killing 512 people, the vast majority of which were civilians. Al-Shabaab has not claimed responsibility for the attack but the international community attributes it to the al-Qaida linked group. Although in recent years Al-Shabaab has been in decline in terms of territory held, they have shown their continued ability to carry out gruesome attacks on civilian and military targets throughout the region.

Kenya, due to its geographical proximity to Somalia and its political ties, has been most affected by the neighboring instability. As a strong ally of the United States and the West, it has been the prime target of Al-Shabaab. The United States operates Camp Simba military base in Kenya which is used for reconnaissance, drone, and special forces mission into Somalia. It also is used to train Kenyan and other AMISOM troops to fight Al-Shabaab. Kenya also has been the recipient of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Somalia; in fact, the worlds three largest refugee camps are all located in Kenya near the Somali border. Kenya has been targeted for their close relations with the West and their involvement in the AMISOM mission. This is evident from the targets of past Al-Shabaab attacks. The Westgate mall in Nairobi is an upscale retail center with a movie theater, international brands, and a casino. The mall symbolizes the wealth and prosperity associated with western influence; the sleek building contraposes sharply with the surrounding dirt streets of Nairobi. Luxury hotels, frequented by government officials and wealthy foreigners, have also been targeted. Despite the atrocities committed against them, the Kenyan people are steadfast in their support of AMISOM mission.

Four Luo men stand for a picture in Migori, Kenya. The man of the left is wearing t-shirt featuring Barack Obama, whose own father was born and raised nearby and was part of the same ethnic clan.

Two schoolchildren pose after asking me to take their picture, Nyanza Province, Kenya, 2018

As President Biden takes office, he will have key decisions to make about US involvement in the region. Two recent events have reminded the US government of the complicated role the country plays. In early November of 2019, a veteran CIA agent and former US Navy Seal was killed in action in Southern Somali during a raid against an Al-Shabaab bomb maker. And on January 5th Al-Shabaab executed an early morning raid on the US base at Manda Bay in Northeast Kenya, near the Somali border. The surprise attack caused the death of 3 American special forces soldiers and the destruction of an American spy plane. The military was ill prepared for the attack, and the Pentagon immediately sent additional forces to fortify the camp as well as transferring Green Berets from Germany to Djibouti, the pentagon’s largest base in the region. It was a stark reminder of the threat of Al-Shabaab and the Pentagon drew much criticism about their activity in the East Africa. The solution in Somalia is not simple. If the United States and allied forces are able to defeat Al-Shabaab there are still many questions on the ability of the government to unite the various clans peacefully – a feat that no government has done successfully since the Barre’s regime fell in 1991.

Unfortunately for the West, the power that was best able to offer stability was Al-Shabaab; although very strict and violent, the Islamic extremists were able to quell ethnic tensions and create a generally fair legal system in the lands they held. They have committed numerous crimes against humanity, but in over 20 years of civil war they are the only group to have shown any glimpse of ability to manage the tensions between clans. The shortcomings of Western backed governments are evident and reinforce the questions asked about US planning in Somalia – what is the end goal and how will it be reached? Perhaps examples should be taken from Kenya, Rwanda, or other East African countries on how to balance ethnic differences, but unfortunately for the people of Somalia, there is no simple solution. The increased drone attacks and training of African soldiers has helped push back Al-Shabaab but not increase long term stability. President Biden will be forced to reconsider the United States’ stance as the deaths of American soldiers is not taken lightly and will likely elicit a response.


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