Somalia's strategic importance in the Horn of Africa has sparked a fierce competition for influence in recent years among outside actors like the U.S., Turkey, China, and the Gulf states. These players watched from the sidelines as Somalia's political situation spiraled downward from 2017 to 2022 under President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, known as Farmaajo, ultimately resulting in violence in the lead-up to and impasse around the presidential elections. Farmaajo’s presidency caused frustration and donor fatigue among foreign powers, although they did little to address the issue beyond making empty threats. Meanwhile, the lack of coordination among Somalia's own leadership allowed Farmaajo to dismantle two decades of federalism and state-building, resulting in chaos and insecurity as the terrorist group al-Shabaab took advantage of the resulting political vacuum. With the future of Somalia's politics uncertain, donors finally forced an election on May 15, 2022, and much to everyone's surprise, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who had previously served as president from 2012-17, prevailed, defeating Farmaajo and ending his bid to hold onto power.
After the election, Sheikh's government found itself in the midst of a clan rebellion against al-Shabaab. It seized the opportunity to launch a "total war" against the militant group, attacking it on three fronts: militarily, ideologically, and financially. This approach proved more effective than that of its predecessors, delivering positive results within just six months. Despite the success, however, the campaign against al-Shabaab ran into setbacks over the government’s inability to hold onto the liberated areas, effectively stabilize them, and establish local administration. This gave the terrorist group a chance to adapt and regroup, resulting in a surge in attacks in both urban and rural areas due to gaps in security reforms.
Rather than addressing these critical security gaps, Sheikh chose to prioritize nation-building over state-building, diverting scarce resources needed to stabilize areas liberated from al-Shabaab. These areas require police stations, judicial systems, and mobile health clinics to provide basic governance and services after more than 15 years in the terrorist group’s shadow. Sadly, the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) lacks a comprehensive short- and long-term stabilization strategy for addressing this issue, leading to high levels of unemployment, hunger, malnutrition, and extreme poverty in the liberated areas.
Sheikh's pursuit of nation-building is driven by three main motives. Firstly, the pressing need to unite the country under the "one-Somalia" policy, championed by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee, and incorporate Somaliland into the fold. Secondly, the need for safety and stability to ensure democratization and the holding of free and fair elections based on the principle of one person, one vote. Last but not least, the need to shift from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to Somalia-led security, in line with President Joe Biden's "partner-led, U.S.-enabled" policy, while maintaining relentless pressure on al-Shabaab, which in turn requires the lifting of the long-standing U.N. arms embargo, originally imposed in 1992.
Instead of pushing for the professionalization and reform of Somalia's security sector, the Biden administration has enabled President Sheikh's nation-building project under the banner of the "one-Somalia" policy. This has put a heavy burden on the U.S., which is now supporting Somalia's unrealistic goals with military aid, despite the government's poor track record when it comes to weapons monitoring and its fragmented, tribalized military. This short-sighted policy has emboldened the irredentist agenda of the Darod clan, leading to an outbreak of violence in previously stable Somaliland between state security forces and the militia of the local Dhulbahante clan over control of the city of Laascaanood, in Somaliland’s Sool region. As a result, Laascaanood has become an al-Shabaab safe haven, posing a potential threat to Ethiopia's hinterland. The ongoing humanitarian crisis triggered by the Laascaanood conflict has only further destabilized Somaliland.
The need for security reform and the Laascaanood crisis
In 2022, the Biden administration held meetings with Sheikh to emphasize the need for sweeping security reforms. Of particular concern was the presence of Farmaajo loyalists who allegedly receive backing from Qatar and al-Shabaab informants within the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA). These individuals have not only obstructed the "total war" tactics used against al-Shabaab but have also exacerbated governance challenges in newly liberated areas across the Galmudug and Hirshabelle regions. The Biden administration urged Sheikh to remove these individuals and enact necessary changes to align with the partner-led, U.S.-enabled strategies to address security gaps and improve stabilization efforts.
During Farmaajo's presidency, al-Shabaab infiltrated NISA with spies. Former NISA director Fahad Yasin was found to have aided and abetted the terrorist group, causing mayhem and election delays that almost destabilized the government. The Biden administration's efforts to sanction the culprit were hampered by the CIA, which prioritized its counter-terrorism interests over justice.
The situation today seems no better. Diplomatic sources have accused the current NISA director, Mahad Salad, of meddling in high-level security investigations involving money laundering and terrorism for al-Shabaab. An intelligence source confirmed that Salad held two secret meetings with al-Shabaab’s most wanted man, Mahad Karate, without Sheikh's approval. The Biden administration confronted Sheikh during the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington in December 2022, asking him to fire Salad and implement security reforms, but the president was non-committal. U.S. dissatisfaction with the Sheikh government's inability to carry out essential security reforms resulted in a more than six month delay in obtaining a visa for Hussein Sheikh-Ali, who serves as the president’s national security advisor, until January 2023.
The Sheikh administration's inability to manage the Laascaanood crisis has only added fuel to the fire. Its response has been lackluster and contradictory. At first it advised the Dhulbahante militia to resolve its disputes with Somaliland officials peacefully. However, corrupt clan elders and their armed supporters had an ulterior motive, which al-Shabaab seized upon as an opportunity. They declared the regions of Sool, Sanaag, and Ceyn to fall under the FGS instead of the de facto control of Somaliland. The Sheikh administration found itself caught in a political dilemma, and in a reckless move, it gave into the demands of Darod politicians, endorsing the declaration without assessing the potential risks. The Somaliland authorities vehemently rejected the proclamation and were met with hostility by clan militias, resulting in violent confrontations and the displacement of tens of thousands of Somaliland citizens within their borders and into neighboring Ethiopia.
The conflict in Laascaanood is being fueled by the spread of misinformation and fabricated videos by both the Dhulbahnate militia and al-Shabaab media, with the flight of civilians creating a "CNN effect" that has prompted international action. The EU special representative for the Horn of Africa, Annette Weber, released an impartial statement highlighting two key issues: unaddressed grievances within the community and political instability arising from Somaliland's disputed status as an unrecognized de facto state. The State Department’s statement, by contrast, accused the Somaliland authorities of impeding democracy by delaying elections, demanding that they hold them promptly while also calling for the army to withdraw or face sanctions.
The Sheikh administration subsequently appointed a Somalia-Somaliland envoy to initiate negotiations to resolve the Laascaanood crisis. However, at the same time, the government neglected to hold accountable members of the Somalia National Army (SNA) who participated in the conflict and are still on its payroll, thus impeding peace efforts. It is believed that nearly 2,000 former SNA troops from the Harti and Marehan clans of Darod — including the Haramcad, Duufaan, and Gorgor military and police units trained by Turkey — are contributing to destabilizing Somaliland with assistance from al-Shabaab and ISIS militants. That they are still on the payroll should not come as a surprise given that an estimated 70% of FGS civil service staff are ghost employees that receive salaries without performing any work.
The outgoing U.S. ambassador to Somalia, Larry André, has been a strong advocate for the "one-Somalia" policy, which reinforces Darod irridentism. He gave President Sheikh's Somali-Somaliland envoy the cold shoulder and only took his phone call, while having dinner with Mukhtar Robow, an al-Shabaab co-founder turned minister of religion, at an iftar hosted by the U.S. embassy in Mogadishu. Actions such as these are detrimental to the U.S. "partner-led" approach and could create a pretext to undermine the Somaliland Partnership Act mandated by Congress, which requires regular assessment reports on U.S. security cooperation with Somaliland due on June 1.
Members of Sheikh's administration have acknowledged that his failure to implement crucial security reforms has frustrated U.S. officials, and the Biden administration now faces the dilemma of how to mitigate the consequences of its failing "partner-led, U.S.-enabled" approach. Assistant Secretary of State Phee convened an emergency meeting on Feb. 28 with key stakeholders, including the Somalia government, the U.K., Qatar, Turkey, and the UAE, to ensure continued support for stabilization efforts, including weapons and ammunition management, and to create a path for the U.N. Security Council to lift the arms embargo. The stakeholders also called for de-escalation and peaceful dialogue to end the fighting in Laascaanood. However, none of the key outside stakeholders trusts the Sheikh government and considers it a reliable partner.
Somalia’s security gap
The security gap in Somalia is complicated by the lack of a well-trained military equipped for counter-insurgency. According to interviews with former military intelligence officials, local Macawisley clan forces face an acute shortage of telecommunication and navigation equipment. Danab and Turkish-trained special forces suffer from limited geographical knowledge, making it difficult for them to prepare or defend vulnerable areas. Shockingly, only 10% of SNA soldiers have map reading skills, a number that rises to 20% among Turkish-trained and U.S.-trained Danab forces. With the government initiating phase II of its war against al-Shabaab, there is an urgent need to prioritize investing in the security sector to effectively combat terrorist groups and establish lasting peace. This will first require that local forces be equipped with top-notch telecommunication and navigational gear and be properly trained on map reading and intelligence gathering.
National Security Advisor Sheikh-Ali and NISA Director Salad rejected a comprehensive security plan proposed by the Biden administration for the Benadir region, home to Mogadishu, which would have empowered local special forces to take ownership of security and wipe out al-Shabaab. Instead, they recommended flooding Mogadishu with hybrid security forces consisting of inexperienced and newly recruited NISA agents and Eritrea-trained Somalia soldiers. The result was disastrous: The forces failed to improve security or reduce the frequency of al-Shabaab attacks and instead killed innocent bystanders and commuters at illegal checkpoints. The government had to replace them with special Somali troops trained in Uganda, which has led to a significant reduction in violence and improved security in the capital. Nevertheless, many citizens remain apprehensive about whether this trend will continue or if it is just a temporary reprieve.
To address the security challenges, Somalia needs a leader with the political will and power to enforce the law and bring criminals to justice. Unfortunately, President Sheikh has fallen short on this front and his inaction has only fueled corruption and criminality, further destabilizing Somalia. This can be attributed to four critical factors:
This prompts the question: How is it possible to achieve nation-building with all these shortcomings, including failing to strengthen the weak state of Somalia?
Nation building through Islamism vs. partner-led, US-enabled policy
Sheikh appears to have his priorities skewed in emphasizing nation-building over state-building. Aligned with al-Islah, he advocates for a concept he calls "civil Islamism," an ideology that shuns secularism and clan-based affiliations in favor of a unified identity centered around religion, language, and culture — much like the approach of the Muslim Brotherhood. Sheikh's ultimate goal is to reshape Somalia’s political structure and rewrite its history in a way that pleases both Islamist and nationalist groups, all through the lens of political Islamism. Worryingly, he has sought advice from Dr. Baadiyow, a well-known promoter of Muslim Brotherhood ideals and "civil Islamist" politics with extremist views, advocating that all Somali-speaking people in the region unite under one flag and form a caliphate.
Despite Sheikh's intentions, his nation-building agenda could potentially lead Somalia astray. His emphasis on establishing a new 17,000-strong military force, rather than augmenting the existing Danab forces, has caused apprehension that he might be taking a page out of Farmaajo's playbook with the aim of retaining power beyond his term instead of combatting al-Shabaab. Furthermore, Sheikh's national security advisor, Hussein, is known to be anti-Western and would prefer to see Somalia pivot toward China and away from the security reforms and stabilization measures needed.
Despite Sheikh's intentions of rebuilding Somalia, concerns have been raised over his neglect of key areas, leaving many wondering whether the country is able to combat terrorism effectively. Research has shown that weak state leaders often see well-trained special forces like Danab as a threat to their political ambitions due to their strict discipline and lack of clan influence, which, by contrast, is pervasive within the SNA. As a result, Somalia faces a daunting challenge in choosing the right path to avoid becoming another cautionary tale of state failure. Security Force Assistance (SFA) providers must navigate a difficult situation: how to build capable security forces while maintaining national security against terrorism and ensuring that fragile states remain reliable partners. This situation has led to what is known as an "SFA trap." Sadly, Somalia's nation-building efforts have succumbed to this and become heavily reliant on military and humanitarian aid from the U.S., making it difficult to sustain for an extended period. If Somalia is to effectively combat terrorist groups like al-Shabaab and achieve lasting peace, investing in the security sector must be a top priority. However, prioritizing the growth of an army made up of multiple forces trained by different countries could undermine the partner-led, U.S.-enabled approach and erode the trust that the Biden administration has in the ability of Sheikh's government to combat al-Shabaab.
The broader geopolitical landscape
The Gulf states are another important source of support for Mogadishu, although intra-regional dynamics complicate matters as the UAE and Qatar remain at odds over Somalia. After cutting aid in 2018, the UAE is now repairing ties with Mogadishu under President Sheikh and is currently funding efforts to build up the Somali army. It remains wary, however, about Sheikh's hybrid Muslim Brotherhood regime and Qatar and Turkey's deep connection to the government. Ties with Qatar were particularly close under Sheikh’s predecessor, Farmaajo, and the new president travelled to Doha in mid-May for talks with the Qatari emir and other top officials. According to interviews with Somali government officials, securing Doha’s support is likely to be contingent on Sheikh’s acceptance of its terms, including severing ties with the UAE.
In sharp contrast, the Russians and Chinese have no qualms about rapidly extending assistance, including military aid. Beijing has steadily increased its involvement in the Horn of Africa in recent years, setting up its first foreign military base in Djibouti in 2017 and creating a special envoy role for the region in 2022. In the latest sign of China’s growing interest in the region, President Xi Jinping met with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki in Beijing on May 15. Russia has made similar moves in the region, securing Eritrea’s support for its war in Ukraine and pursuing efforts to establish a naval base on the Red Sea in Sudan.
For its part, the Biden administration may be hard-pressed to muster any enthusiasm for the arduous task of nation-building in Somalia, particularly under Sheikh’s leadership. As multipolar geopolitical competition pushes social and democratic human rights to the backburner, aid is likely to come with few, if any, strings attached. Moreover, Biden's hands may be tied with the upcoming U.S. elections and the pressing Ukraine conflict, leaving him reliant on Gulf state partners who may not always see eye-to-eye with American interests in Somalia.
Challenges ahead in Sheikh’s war on al-Shabaab
Security is a central focus for Sheikh's government as it prepares to launch phase II of its war on al-Shabaab. Addressing the security crisis will be difficult, however, for three main reasons:
The Biden administration’s policy of partner-led, U.S.-enabled operations is unlikely to succeed in Somalia due to its weak state structure and inadequate governance. Instead, a more effective approach would involve hands-on capacity building that fosters self-sustainability among capable partners through military and economic empowerment. This would create reliable partnerships with predictable outcomes, committed to democratization and sustainable development while eliminating bad governance and helping to ensure stability. The challenge posed by ethnic tensions in a post-civil war conflict environment requires realistic, sustainable political solutions like Balkanization, as well as democratic principles anchored in robust capacity-building programs supplemented by close monitoring.
Amid the instability in Somalia, the specter of a proxy war looms on the horizon, threatening to plunge the nation into renewed turmoil. Neighboring Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Djibouti eye each other warily, while the Qatar-Turkey alliance vies for influence against the UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. These geopolitical machinations only serve to exacerbate tensions and complicate the fight against al-Shabaab. All the while President Sheikh walks a tightrope, pitting regional powers against Western allies, as well as Russia and China, in a bid for military and economic aid. But the risks are high and if things go wrong it could potentially lead to the unraveling of Somalia's fragile state. The Biden administration's policy of enabling weak states like Somalia to take the lead as partners, at the expense of competing regional powers in the Horn of Africa, seems set to fuel further instability.
Guled Ahmed is a non-resident scholar at MEI, a renewable energy and water infrastructure expert, and an entrepreneur. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
Photo by HASSAN ALI ELMI/AFP via Getty Images
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