President Obama has cited the battle against al-Shabab militants in Somalia as a model of success for his relatively low-investment, light-footprint approach to counterterrorism.
By some measures, it has paid dividends. U.S. drones have killed several of the Islamist group’s leaders, including two top planners in just the past month, a senior administration official said Friday. African Union troops backed by the United States have forced al-Shabab fighters to flee huge swaths of territory.
But this week’s massacre of 148 people at Garissa University College, the deadliest terrorist attack on Kenyan soil in two decades, demonstrates the limits of the administration’s approach and the difficulty of producing lasting victories over resilient enemies.
Only last fall, Obama was touting his counterterrorism strategy in the region as one that “we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”
The collapse of the American-backed government in Yemen forced the Pentagon last month to pull its Special Operations forces from the country. The chaos in Yemen and the absence of an effective partner has essentially halted U.S. counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda’s affiliate there.
In Somalia and neighboring Kenya, the record is less clear. Despite this week’s killings, senior administration officials characterized their campaign against al-Shabab as highly effective. The organization, a onetime youth militia that began affiliating with al-Qaeda in the mid-2000s, once controlled virtually all of southern Somalia but has lost more than 75 percent of its territory in recent years.
Its grip on Kismayo, where it controlled the lucrative port, had been broken, robbing it of a key source of revenue. These days, the group’s finances have been drained.
This week’s vicious killings in Kenya, carried out by only a small team of masked gunmen, were cited by White House officials as further evidence of the group’s inevitable demise.
“They are desperate,” said the senior administration official, who was authorized to speak only on the condition of anonymity. “And as much as we hate to think about it, this is what desperate groups do. They try to have smaller teams go out and [conduct] higher-impact operations.”
But analysts who follow al-Shabab’s activities said the recent attacks demonstrate how difficult it is to destroy militant groups in places such as Somalia, where decades of war and famine have created vast, chaotic and largely ungovernable areas. After troops from a coalition of countries acting under the banner of the African Union dislodged al-Shabab from the area it controlled, ill-disciplined militia forces filled the vacuum. Kenya’s participation in the African Union mission has made it a target for reprisal attacks.
“There’s no question that there was not an effective plan to win the peace after winning the war,” said Kenneth Menkhaus, an expert on Somalia and a professor at Davidson College. “Now, who’s to blame for that is another matter.”
Some have criticized the international community for its failure to deliver the money and support the fledgling Somali government needed to function, Menkhaus said. Other experts contended that the government’s corruption and incompetence had caused potential backers in the West to pull their support.
Al-Shabab’s brutal rule gave way to chaos and crime. Clan-based militia forces, which took over territory vacated by al-Shabab, began taking land from villagers. “They made things worse,” Menkhaus said. “The area became less secure after al-Shabab left. The reality is that there is only so much you can do if the government is pocketing all the money and not following through.”
White House officials have counseled patience, noting that the reconstituted Somali government is not even three years old. “This is still a relatively new project,” said the senior administration official.
The White House’s approach reflects Obama’s firm belief that outside military forces can’t compel change in troubled parts of the world. “For a society to function long term, the people themselves have to make decisions about how they are going to live together,” Obama said last August in an interview with the New York Times.
The United States can offer advice, aid and support, “but we can’t do it for them,” Obama added.
That philosophy has guided Obama’s relatively light-footprint approach in places as diverse as Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia.
Instead of deploying large formations of American ground troops, as he did in Afghanistan during the first years of his presidency, Obama has increasingly relied on small Special Operations teams to advise local troops and conduct targeted raids. In Somalia, the United States maintains a small military coordination cell that advises Somali and African Union forces, which have received about $1 billion in training, equipment and assistance since 2007.
In the early days of the Obama administration, senior officials in the White House and Pentagon debated whether to launch airstrikes against al-Shabab training camps. Some administration officials were skeptical that the group intended to strike U.S. or European targets.
Since 2011, as al-Shabab’s affiliation with al-Qaeda deepened, the president has periodically authorized strikes against senior al-Shabab leaders who U.S. intelligence officials have said are planning attacks on U.S. soil. “There have been a series of them that have definitely degraded [al-Shabab] in Somalia,” said the senior administration official.
The White House has supplemented the military training and targeted strikes with modest aid programs and efforts to undermine the appeal of extremist groups.
In a country as large and troubled as Somalia, stability and effective governance inevitably will be slow in coming. There are only about 22,000 African Union troops in the country, which has a coastline roughly as long as the U.S. Eastern Seaboard. “People look at a map and they don’t realize the tyranny of distance and size there,” said the senior administration official. “These rebuilding efforts take time.”
Some critics said that the international community’s insufficient response had allowed al-Shabab to survive. “Al-Shabab is not defeated, it has just changed,” said J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council. Instead of trying to hold territory, like an army or militia, it functions today almost entirely as a regional terrorist group.
“Arguably, their terror attacks have gone up as they lost territory,” Pham said.
White House officials said such an assessment overstates the group’s strength. “This is a group that in its heyday attracted lots of foreigners, to include Westerners,” said the senior administration official. The group’s ability to rally foreign recruits has been badly damaged, the official said.
“We saw the attack in Garissa earlier this week,” he said. “But we haven’t seen the group . . . become the threat that many people feared. It is still our assessment that al-Shabab doesn’t pose a direct threat to the U.S. and the West.”