On January 5, al-Shabaab attacked a Kenyan airstrip used by the U.S. military, killing three Americans. Eight days earlier, al-Shabaab militants claimed responsibility for a suicide truck bomb detonated in a busy intersection of Mogadishu, Somalia, killing more than 80 people. These attacks come more than two years after the United States declared that parts of Somalia as areas of “active hostilities,” which allowed for expanded targeting authority by the U.S. Africa Command. Since then, the number of U.S. counterterrorism strikes in Somalia has substantially increased, with 145 strikes under the Trump administration targeting both al-Shabaab and the Islamic State group, killing high-level commanders. These strikes have not successfully diminished al-Shabaab’s ability to carry out significant and symbolic attacks in Somalia and abroad. In fact, after enduring two years of U.S. airstrikes, the terrorist group seems emboldened.
One reason for al-Shabaab’s continued survival is the group’s ability to hone and implement a variety of tactics in its terror toolkit, carrying out an increasing number of sophisticated attacks in recent years. While al-Shabaab attacks usually have identifying features that serve as a signature, the attacks vary in size, scope, method and location, and are thus challenging to foresee and prevent. One such signature is the use of soft targets in Kenya, such as hotels, malls, and mixed-use office complexes. These attacks often turn into prolonged sieges, highlighting the limited response capability of local security forces. Suicide attacks and the use of improvised explosive devices within Somalia have also been a characteristic al-Shabaab tactic since 2008, when the group pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and adopted al-Qaeda’s signature tactics. United Nations experts determined that al-Shabaab militants have been manufacturing their own roadside bombs since at least 2017. Their IED use has reached its highest rate to date.
Al-Shabaab hasn’t rested on these well-established tactics, however. Several attacks highlight the group’s ability to push the boundaries of their typical modus operandi. An October 2017 Mogadishu attack, when two suicide truck bombs killed nearly 600 people, demonstrated the catastrophic extent of the group’s reach. Though al-Shabaab never took responsibility for this attack, arguably because they had not anticipated the extent of the destruction and believed claiming responsibility would irrevocably damage their reputation, the Somali government concluded that it bore the fingerprint of the group.
Further, the group has demonstrated a capacity to infiltrate sensitive and secure locations. For instance, the bold attack of Kenya’s Manda Bay Airfield this week marks the first time the group has attacked U.S. forces in Kenya. The targeting of U.S. forces is likely a direct retaliation for increased U.S. airstrikes in Somalia, and is a significant and symbolic success for the group. Last August, al-Shabaab was similarly able to infiltrate a secure location when a blind, female employee of the Benadir Regional Administration, part of Somalia’s municipal government, detonated a suicide bomb inside the regional headquarters, killing the mayor of Mogadishu and several others.
Al-Shabaab remains a powerful and visible group, not only through these high-profile attacks, but also through a network of population control tactics beyond the reach of any airstrike. For example, al-Shabaab continues to garner revenue through extensive taxation and racketeering schemes across southern and central Somalia, and provides some basic services to areas where the government cannot. The breakdown in dialogue between the federal government and federal member states continues to impede the government’s reach, rendering al-Shabaab a powerful and present alternative in some areas.
Somalia is at a critical moment for both its security and democracy. The December 2020 date for Somali forces to assume responsibility for the fight against al-Shabaab from the peacekeepers of the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) is quickly approaching. Upcoming universal suffrage elections will be the first in Somalia since 1969. In this context, the threat from al-Shabaab continues to threaten the heart of Somali and regional security, despite the efforts of the United States, African Union and the Somali government. Further, several of al-Shabaab’s recent attacks highlight an increasing sophistication and experimentation in tactics that underscore the group’s continued effectiveness. Al-Shabaab today combines decades of experience in adopting and adapting new tactics along with a bold willingness to experiment with risky, high-visibility attacks. Despite significant U.S. efforts, these terrorists are far from diminished.