Despite continued AMISOM operations and an increase in US airstrikes throughout 2019, Al Shabaab remains a major threat to Somali society and President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo’s government in 2020. As the country gears up for its first national election with universal suffrage since the outbreak of civil war in 1992, the ability to provide safety and effective governance are key to ensuring the legitimacy of the government. Unless cooperation among Somalia’s federal member states increases and the threat from Al Shabaab is more effectively neutralized, Somalia is likely to see continued obstacles to its recovery from collapse. Given aggressive attempts at influence by external actors, increased cooperation is far from likely and conflict could worsen during the coming year.
Somalia’s security partners in the fight against Al Shabaab made major efforts to degrade the group throughout the year. The US dramatically ramped up its engagement in Somalia, striking Al Shabaab targets at unprecedented rates. ACLED records 72 air or drone strikes conducted by American forces last year, marking a 24% increase from 2018 (58 strikes) and a nearly 200% increase when compared to strikes in 2016 (24 strikes). The US escalation is part of an effort to weaken Al Shabaab prior to the upcoming handover of security operations from AMISOM to the Somali armed forces. At least 1,000 AMISOM troops have already withdrawn, and Somali forces are scheduled to take the lead in the campaign against Al Shabaab in 2021 (UN, 31 May 2019).
Al Shabaab has remained resilient to increased military pressure, however, proving itself capable of both “geographic expansion and high lethality attacks.” The militant group intensified operations toward the end of 2019, including a bomb attack on a checkpoint in Mogadishu that killed 81 people (News24, 30 December 2019). Al Shabaab has also demonstrated its continued ability to launch sophisticated attacks on well-guarded targets, such as in a recent cross-border attack on the Manda Bay airfield in Kenya that resulted in the death of an American service member and two defense contractors (AFRICOM, 5 January 2020).
In addition to attacks on military and government targets, Al Shabaab remains the largest threat to civilians in the country, frequently targeting non-military sites and unarmed civil servants with assassinations and improvised explosives. According to ACLED data, Al Shabaab is responsible for 44% of reported fatalities that occur during events in which civilians are directly targeted in Somalia. Clan-based actors are responsible for 16% of reported fatalities linked to civilian targeting events, while state and police forces are responsible for 13%. The remaining fatalities occur at the hands of unidentified actors or external forces, such as AMISOM or the US military.
What to watch for in 2020:
The recent uptick in Al Shabaab operations against targets in both Somalia and Kenya is likely to continue into 2020, posing a major security challenge for the Somali national government and its partners as they seek legitimacy by providing safety and security. Failure to defeat increasingly sophisticated attacks on targets inside Mogadishu suggests that Somali military forces are not ready for an AMISOM withdrawal. Complicating the matter is a lack of effective cooperation between the central government and federal states, which has become “an obstacle to achieving important national priorities” (AP, 21 November 2019).
Somalia, along with other Gulf of Aden littoral states, has also become one of the “most vivid examples of potential destabilization brought by the Gulf rivalry” between Qatar and the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) (New York Times, 22 July 2019). While Qatar and its ally Turkey are important supporters of President Farmajo’s federal government, the UAE has pursued relations with Somaliland, effectively undermining the federal government’s authority (Global Risk Insights, 1 February 2019). Serious violence has yet to occur as a result of these relationships, but the political strain jeopardizes the future of an already fragile state.
Somalia is scheduled to hold universal suffrage national elections in 2020 or early 2021, which will be the first since the outbreak of the civil war in 1992. Al Shabaab is likely to renew attempts at de-legitimizing the Somali government through frequent attacks, and Somalia’s Gulf allies are equally likely to ramp up efforts at securing political sway ahead of the general election. The events of this year will have a tremendous impact on the future of the country, raising the stakes for all involved.