Back in February the commander of the Somalia National Army, General Abdullahi Ali Anod, announced that elements of an elite Somali Commando unit had conducted several counter-terror raids in or near a handful of villages surrounding the capital city of Mogadishu suspected of being strongholds of the al-Qaeda-linked terror group, Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujhaideen (HSM).
The SNA commander detailed what was reported as several intense and lengthy fire-fights with sizeable groups of al-Shabaab militants which according to SNA reports resulted in the “deaths of many militants’ fighters” and in the end the SNA commandos successfully routed the insurgents from all of the targeted villages.
The Somali special counter-terror unit involved in these series of raid is known as The Danab –or “The Lightening.” A U.S. Special Forces trained unit which is apart of the SNA. The Danab is similar to the CIA-backed and trained Somali National Intelligence and Security Agency’s (NISA) special operations division called The Gashaan –or “The Shield.”
The Danab are a competent fighting force and have been on the offensive against al-Shabaab since early spring of 2017. However, there was something in the SNA generals briefing that was missed by most Westerners, there was an unknown number of elite U.S. Special Operations soldiers with them.
And it wasn’t the first time.
Somalia’s president Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo that same week while marking his first year in office and his declaration of “all out war” on al-Shabaab celebrated this recent offensive as a major victory and assured the Somali people that this was the death knell for the Somali based Islamist group who has been wrecking havoc for nearly a decade across the beleaguered country.
The Somali people applauded and praised Farmaajo for staying true to his word. Even Somalia’s biggest ally in the fight, The United States, took the time to pass out congratulatory handshakes and back-slaps.
But Donald Buldoc, the former general in charge of U.S. Special Operations in Africa has a much different opinion. Buldoc, a former U.S. Army Green Beret himself, says the offensive isn’t likely to do much and warns that America’s strategy in Africa is rudderless–and has been for some time.
President Farmaajo returned to Somalia after years of living in Buffalo, New York–was the candidate least associated with bribery and corruption and easily won over the people of Somalia and Farmaajo and became the 9th President of Somalia taking office in early February 2017.
He won his bid from the presidency with a sort of “Make Somalia Great Again” campaign. He had promised to put an end to the endemic drought and famine that has plagued Somalia and the East African region for several years. He also promised to eradicate the al-Qaeda-linked Somali terrorist group based in Somalia known as al-Shabaab.
During his inauguration speech one year ago, Farmaajo declared that, with assistance from U.S. and NATO allies, the removal of Al Qaeda linked al -Shabaab and other terrorist groups from Somalia was first priority. “To those who work with al Qaeda, al Shabaab and IS (Islamic State), your time is finished.”
This came right on the heels of the inauguration of the newly elected President Donald Trump. One of the Trump Administrations earliest foreign policy moves was to declare Somalia an ‘active conflict zone’ and put Somali nationals on its travel ban list.
Trump also approved a significant escalation of the U.S. military’s existing counter-terrorism mission in Somalia Trumps new approach ncluded a huge increase in drone strike operations against al-Shabaab and granted U.S. Special Operations teams operating within Somalia as “direct-combat advisors” to the fledgling Somali National Army broad authority to actively engage al-Shabaab during joint U.S. -Somali raids on suspected al-Shabaab strongholds.
Since 9/11 American troops have quietly operated across east Africa, with a particular interest in Somalia. The U.S. government backed an Ethiopian invasion of Somalia and has also supported peacekeepers assigned to the African Union Mission in Somalia–better known as AMISOM. Advisers have been on the ground training local troops and conducting occasional counter terror operations for years.
After the Trump administration rolled out its new guidelines, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) along with its Special Operations Command-Africa (SOCAF) were given new marching orders under what is known as Operation Enduring Freedom- Horn of Africa (OEF-HOA).
And began increasing direct action joint U.S. and Somali special operation raids along with drone strike operations against known al-Shabaab encampments and leadership ten fold. Taking the U.S. involvement in a semi-clandestine “train, advise, assist” role into a low intensity conflict under the auspices of the Global War on Terror.
In just 10 months AFRICOM has conducted well over 30 plus drone strikes in Somalia and claimed that the joint U.S. and Somali counter-terror operation has killed or captured close to 22 mid-to-high level al-Shabaab leadership. Which certainly seems like these constant strikes would have the terror group on its back heel sent running into their strongholds to nurse their bloody wounds.
However, al-Shabaab has consistently answered these strikes with their own. Conducting hit-and-run guerrilla attacks against the United Nations led African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeeping outposts or driving massive car-bombs known as vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIED) into the capital city of Mogadishu to affect maximum carnage against the civilian population killing hundreds.
And it seems as if al-Shabaab may not be the only group suspected of putting civilians in the cross-hairs either. After a joint U.S. -Somali Special Operations raid in late summer of 2017 accusations began to emerge that Somali commandos along with their American counter-parts may have killed several unarmed villagers and then tried to cover it up.
AFRICOM commander, General Thomas Waldhauser thinks that the current operations in Somalia are working according to plan and that the terror group al-Shabaab is well along the path of eradication. AFRICOM estimates that there are at least 3,000 to 6,000 active al-Shabaab members still operating within Somalia itself
The Fusion Cell reached out to AFRICOM public affairs spokesperson, Robyn Mack for comment on the current U.S. strategy within Somalia and was provided this statement,
“As Gen. Waldhauser has said, all the work we do by, with and through AMISOM and our Somali partners, whether dealing with the threats they face or training them to improve their capabilities is geared toward one goal. And that is establishing a secure enough environment for the broader diplomacy efforts related to national reconciliation and the building of a viable, capable and representative government in Somalia.”
Mack went on to re-iterate AFRICOM and the United States commitment to Somalia and President Farmaajo’s plan to destroy al-Shabaab by finishing with,
“The U.S. Africa Command and U.S. military, in close collaboration with the U.S. Mission to Somalia and U.S. Agency for International Development, are working with President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s administration across the “3 Ds”: development, diplomacy and defense. ISIS and al-Shabaab pose a direct threat to Americans, both at home and abroad, our allies, and interests worldwide. We support the Federal Government of Somalia, its forces, and partners, and will continue to degrade the functional networks of ISIS and al-Shabaab within Somalia.”
Yet, recently retired commander of Special Operations Command -Africa (SOCAF), Brigadier General Donald Buldoc gave The Fusion Cell a much darker assessment. He warns the al-Shabaab, and other African terror groups across the continent, aren’t going to be defeated anytime soon.
“Not with (the United States’) current strategy. Al-Shabaab and other violent extremist organizations (VEO) maintain a robust presence across East Africa;” he says; “However, East Africa is likely to become even more unstable, owing to regional and political instability. Somalis have provided leaders, fighters, a reliable cadre of fighters for the AS (al-Shabaab) and the Islamic State.”
While the Trump administrations more aggressive engagement parameters which allowed a more active participation in ground combat by U.S. Special Operations has been praised by some. Buldoc argues that it merely entangles U.S. troops in a complicated conflict “Gray Zone” with no clear end-game seen by U.S. special operators on the ground.
“We (United States) should not be the kinetic solution, but our senior military general officers lack any military strategy and default to the kinetic solution for the instant gratification and the sensational reporting this achieves. They have no long-term plan that will achieve stability and are unable to quantify anything outside of a capture and kill operation. This why after 20 plus years in Somalia, 15 years in Iraq, and 17 years in Afghanistan we are no closer to a solution. Our service members at the tactical level continue to do great work. Good tactics does not fix bad strategy.”
Buldoc went on to grimly predict what some East African analysts and experts fear, that Africa has all but solidified itself to be the United States next battlefront of the Global War on Terror and the U.S., and Somalia for that matter, are set up to dive head long into another quagmire like the “Forever War” of Afghanistan.
Africa is in many ways the original front in the War on Terror. Osama Bin Laden spent years living in Sudan directing Al Qaeda operations. Bin Laden claimed to have had a hand in the downing of American helicopters during the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, though the actual influence of Al Qaeda is deeply disputed. While in Sudan the terror group planned the the first U.S. World Trade Center attack in Sudan as well as a bloody strike on the U.S. Embassy in Kenya in 1998.
In response the Clinton administration authorized a controversial strike against a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory U.S. officials claimed was secretly producing chemical weapons for terrorists. Eventually Sudanese President Omar Bashir expelled Bin Laden and his followers from the country. They promptly relocated to Afghanistan.
“The question about Africa is not “if” terrorism will take root, rather how much terrorism will entrench on the continent, and how much the world is willing to risk by allowing it to occur.” Buldoc continued;
“Africa is often overlooked in the global terrorism narrative;” Buldoc said. “However, socio-cultural vulnerabilities, the activities of competing violent extremist organizations (VEOs), and conflict prone environments suggests the region will become a key horizon for global terrorism – if it is not already. This sentiment is already being vocalized in diplomatic channels.”
Buldoc recalls a meeting with the Deputy Foreign Minister for Iraq during a trip to the United Kingdom where after discussing the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq, the Minister believed that next war zone of terror was clearly Africa saying,
“Even if international coalition could manage to push them (the Islamic State) out of Iraq then the next stage will be Africa and Syria.”
“Given the increasing interconnectedness of al-Shabaab and other Africa based VEOs to regional and global counterparts, the looming threat in Africa is simply not just an African problem.” Buldoc says. “Terrorism – coupled with foreign fighter flows, and the illegal trafficking of people, weapons, and narcotics is contributing to destabilization in Africa, but also poses a threat to Europe, the Middle East, and North and South America.”
Buldoc went on to explain that in order to thwart al-Shabaab and other African terrorism players in general is the African Union needs to take the lead in tackling the explosion African terrorism within East Africa and throughout the continent.
Meanwhile, Buldoc argues that the international community, and the United States in particular needs to relook and rethink its current supporting roles within Africa. “Current approaches are not working, and the lack of a comprehensive approach will only support VEO objectives and goals.”
Buldoc also points out that, one quarter of the U.S. State Department Specially Designated Terrorist Organizations currently operate on the African continent. More alarmingly, since 2013, the State Department has listed 14 new terrorist organizations — roughly 70% operate in Africa, underscoring the burgeoning threat.
“We are on a time line of about 10 to 15 years to get this just about right. Failure to do so will have significant impact on the stability in Africa and negatively impact Europe, the greater Middle East, South America, North America, and coastal security in the Mediterranean Sea, Gulf of Guinea, and East Africa.” Buldoc says.
Over the years we have witnessed the devastation at the hands of an extremist ideology. This violence will pale in comparison to the devastation brought on by day to day survival and competition for resources in an unstable environment. This is why Africa matters now. An unstable Africa is not in the best interest of global stability.”
Feature image courtesy of: DVIDS