Crunch Time in Somalia

Stepping up: new members of the Somali National Army's Danab Brigade at a graduation ceremony in August 2023. Image: US Air Force / Wikimedia Commons

With timelines for the elimination of the al-Shabaab insurgency repeatedly pushed back, Somalia’s government risks losing any progress it has made in the absence of a wider political settlement.

Somalia faces a ‘crucial’ – arguably existential – year as political and security deadlines start to converge. Referencing advances made in mid-2022, President Hassan Sheikh Mohammed (HSM) declared plans in August 2023 to liberate the country from the militant group al-Shabaab within five months. Speaking at RUSI in November, he revised the timeframe to late 2024, a date subsequently amended again to April 2025. But with a phased drawdown of the African Union’s Transitional Mission (ATMIS) set to conclude in December, the feasibility of these latest claims seems tenuous. The same issues haunting a decades-long process of state-building have sapped momentum from the current offensive, with elite conflict undermining confidence in the federal government’s (FGS) ability to deliver, and state-level elections and constitutional disputes exacerbating political divisions. These problems were further complicated when, on New Year’s Day, Somaliland’s breakaway administration announced a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Ethiopia, the fallout of which continues to preoccupy Mogadishu.

Against this backdrop, faltering progress raises important questions. Clan-led, locally organised resistance to al-Shabaab had previously been cited as the missing ingredient in counterinsurgency efforts. The diminishing returns of recent years may now test such assumptions, (re)exposing the need for a coherent settlement if military advances are to become a sustainable basis for consolidated governance. With only six months left on ATMIS’s mandate, international attention drawn to emergencies in other parts of the world, and political turmoil in Mogadishu, HSM’s strategic aspirations are at risk of floundering only two years into his second term.

Spent Optimism

HSM began his second stint at the helm in May 2022. Early indications suggested that reconciliation would be a priority, repairing ties with external donors and Somalia’s various federal member states (FMSs) after the controversial tenure of his predecessor, President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (‘Farmaajo’). Dealing with al-Shabaab was seen as a subsidiary of these wider efforts, reflected in HSM’s tacit acknowledgement of the need for a negotiated solution. However, the initial focus on political unanimity quickly gave way to military exigency as, in June 2022, Hawiye clan-members – weary of jihadist extortion, aid appropriation, and forced conscription – launched an extraordinary campaign of resistance across Galgaduud and Hiraan. Keen to leverage local resentment, the federal government in Mogadishu started to provide support – including weapons and ammunition – laying the groundwork for a fresh offensive in August. Under a rubric of ‘total war’, the new president threw his full weight behind the push, supplementing kinetic operations with a concerted effort to counter al-Shabaab’s ideology and revenue streams, both by clamping down on companies paying the group’s taxes and by systematically targeting false bank and money-transfer accounts. 

With air support provided by Turkey and the US, accompanied by the logistical backing of ATMIS, these approaches yielded remarkable gains. Reinforced by the Somali National Army (SNA), Hawiye militiamen – referred to as ‘Macawiisley’ for the sarongs that many wear – took control of settlements across Central Somalia, with more than 215 locations reportedly ‘liberated’. By November 2022, international commentators were suggesting that the offensive could bring an end to al-Shabaab altogether.

The successes were billed as a turning point in Somalia’s bid to defeat the group, a shift to relying on local anti-Shabaab sentiment rather than foreign forces. However, any optimism was relatively short lived. Attempts to galvanise clan support beyond areas where the resistance had first started proved difficult, and militants began to conduct high-casualty retaliatory attacks. Most concerningly, it was clear that the SNA and Macawiisley were struggling to keep hold of newly reclaimed territories and protect civilians, leaving communities susceptible to al-Shabaab blackmail and taxation. Clans suffered significant losses and various elders sought to reconcile with the group, agreeing ‘peace deals’ in exchange for safety. Momentum began to slow in early 2023, and the offensive was effectively put on hold.

There is no indication that the government has learned from previous mistakes, including hasty and uncoordinated military movements, political infighting and a failure to deliver services to those in newly ‘liberated’ areas

Discussions subsequently turned to a second phase, referred to as Operation Black Lion. With ‘frontline states’ (Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti) pledging additional military support, it had been suggested that operations would expand into southern Somalia, where al-Shabaab are comparatively well entrenched and enjoy broader support. In March 2023, HSM announced the offensive’s resumption. However, the focus remained on Galgaduud and Hiraan, largely due to the initial failure to consolidate early gains. To date, there has been little-to-no progress in Jubaland or South-West State, where political divisions and local demographics present significant obstacles. The proposed involvement of frontline states has all but been forgotten.

Seeking to galvanise the support of clans and resurrect the offensive, the president spent considerable time on the frontline, visiting Mahas in Hiiraan and Adan Yabal in Middle Shabelle, and basing himself out of Galmudug’s Dhusamareb for three months. But operations in late 2023 were not nearly as successful as those in the second half of 2022. In August, the government experienced significant setbacks. Militants routed the SNA in Osweyne, Galmudug, and troops were withdrawn from several other locations, including El Dheer, Gal’ad, Budbud and Masagaway. The defence minister was criticised for exposing an inexperienced unit at Osweyne, and concerns were raised around the impact of endemic corruption on the army’s combat capabilities. Some sources also claim that regional leaders like Ahmed Mohamed Islam (Madobe) in Jubaland hesitated before joining the offensive, in part because of a lack of belief in the government’s ability to reinforce local efforts.

By late 2023, a ‘Super El Niño’ brought operations to a standstill once again as the country grappled with flooding and its dire humanitarian consequences. By the time the rains subsided, HSM had become preoccupied with two other existential challenges to Somalia’s state-building process. First, an agreement between Hargeisa and Addis Ababa – which would reportedly provide Ethiopia with access to the sea in exchange for recognition of Somaliland’s independence – presents a significant challenge to Somalia’s sovereignty. Second, efforts to rush through major constitutional changes have been met by fierce opposition and renewed divisions between the federal government and FMS leaders (in April, Puntland declared it was cutting formal ties with Mogadishu and has since strengthened relations with Ethiopia).

As recently as 17 April 2024, the government still insisted that al-Shabaab would be defeated ‘by 2025’. Such repeated declarations are unrealistic and risk further undermining faith in the FGS. The reality is that there has been little evidence of any substantial gains in recent months, civilians continue to be displaced by violence, and morale among SNA troops remains low. Moreover, amid growing donor fatigue, there is no indication that the government has learned from previous mistakes, including hasty and uncoordinated military movements, political infighting and a failure to deliver services to those in newly ‘liberated’ areas.

Meanwhile, buoyed by an increase in local support following the deal between Addis and Hargeisa, al-Shabaab attacks continue apace across the country. The group stepped up the frequency of its operations over the recently concluded Ramadan period, particularly in Mogadishu, while also consolidating its control of adjacent areas across Middle and Lower Shabelle.

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Additionally, Mogadishu’s response to the MoU has entrenched fears for Somalia’s security once African Union forces depart. In early June, the National Security Advisor declared that Ethiopian troops would not be part of any post-ATMIS arrangement. The announcement came as a shock to many. The Ethiopians – both as part of ATMIS and present on a unilateral basis – play an essential role in efforts against al-Shabaab. While Mogadishu was perhaps seeking to capitalise on anti-Ethiopian sentiment in some parts of the country, the move has undermined fragile reparations between the FGS and the FMSs, particularly South-West State and Jubaland which rely on the Ethiopians to keep al-Shabaab at bay. It is unclear how Mogadishu will sustain any offensive operations without the support of Ethiopia.

Intractable Problems

Despite ‘more progress in [2022] than…in the previous five years’, any genuine appraisal of HSM’s military timeframes must therefore fall back on a familiar script of delays, inefficacy and missed opportunity. 

While the days of mass desertion have passed, and commendable improvements are being made, the SNA arguably remains less a national army than a ‘strategically deployed brand’, a ‘Fabergé’ confection of militiamen beset by graft, amateurism and a clan-centric disposition. The security sector development plan endorsed back in December may be encouraging, as is the lofty aspiration of training 40,000 law enforcement personnel across the regional and federal level. But after more than $1 billion in external assistance, there is no getting away from the fact that Somalia still resembles a fragmented, highly congested ‘security arena’. Delineating between army, police, militia and bandit continues to be difficult, with an ‘informal economy of clans, conflict [and] entrepreneurialism’ driving the pursuit of profit and power. As a result, institutional affiliations are often secondary to the rentier logic of a thriving political marketplace, one enabled (or actively encouraged) by poorly coordinated donor funding.

Against this backdrop, the challenge – as with Operation Badbaado I and II in 2019–21 and the Gulwade Plan of 2014 – is not so much the recapturing as the holding of territory. Yes, there is improvement: community sensitivities are increasingly baked into stabilisation programmes from the outset, and internationally backed schemes are pushing for quicker delivery, greater contextual specificity, and better expectation management. But after years of inefficiency, or outright criminality, there is scant public confidence in the reliability of federal troops. Instead, garrison operations have been regularly delegated to elite units like Somalia’s Danab Brigade or Turkish-trained Gorgor Commandos – counterterrorism outfits with little experience in, or resourcing for, local policing. This both hampers SNA force-generation (sapping manpower from any new offensive) and risks squandering much-needed technical expertise as specialist battalions are attritted by excessive demands. Unfortunately, the impending departure of African Union peacekeepers (and European financiers) will only further accentuate these difficulties. Speaking to the Economist in October, State Minister for Foreign Affairs Ali Mohamed Omar conceded: ‘we don’t have the [men necessary] to hold on to…positions that will be vacated by ATMIS’. Members of the security services expressed similar concerns: ‘we are not ready to face [al-Shabaab] alone’.

Of course, these strategic and military issues stem from wider political problems. Rifts over land expropriation, displacement, the creation of ‘mono-clan’ districts and enclave cities, and enduring patterns of ‘ethno-hegemony’ have fed violence since the late 1980s. At the same time, long-standing rivalries between different tiers of government have left the Somali state akin to a ‘disassembled patchwork of public authorities and political entrepreneurs’, lacking any real capacity or inclination to standardise policy. In this context, al-Shabaab is the most pronounced but far from the only symptom of a more complex conflict ecosystem, one reducing various iterations of Western ‘state-building’ – often an embellished synonym for top-down technocracy – to propping up shell structures starved of any legitimacy or local relevance. Many criticised Farmaajo’s ‘security first, everything else afterwards’ approach for being too reductive, ignoring the socio-economic, political and humanitarian crises that drive militancy in the first place. But having prioritised temporary clan coalitions above broad-based reconciliation, HSM arguably fell into a similar trap by conflating anti-Shabaab sentimentality with FGS support. These dynamics are not the same.

Somalia’s powerbrokers and their international partners need deadlines fitted around a credible plan, and not the other way around

Unresolved tensions quickly waylaid progress across Hiiraan, for instance, as Governor Ali Jayte Osman (a prominent figure in Macawiisley regional networks) fell out with President Ali Gudlawe of Hirshabelle over revenue disbursements once al-Shabaab had been cleared, ‘souring’ the government’s ties to several sub-clans. As Daisy Muibu, a security expert, likewise describes, Hawiye-majority army units clashed with EU/UN-trained Darwish policemen over tax collection and checkpoint control in South-West State, reflecting the inherent fragility of recovery efforts as inter-communal rivalries, resource competition, and historical grievances impede cooperation between ostensibly ‘allied’ forces. The latest political disputes and constitutional changes have escalated this friction further. Complaints are mounting over delayed state elections, and sittings of the National Consultative Council a coordination body – remain ad hoc at best, and boycotted at worst. Following Puntland’s protest over the expansion of HSM’s executive powers and replacement of Somalia’s clan-based [s]electorate with universal suffrage, not only does the FGS’s proposed timeline for military victory look doubtful, but the country’s sovereign integrity also appears increasingly precarious.

The Same Tough Questions

The lifting of a decades-long arms embargo in December 2023 can help modernise the SNA, improving mechanisation, morale and mobility. Five additional Danab training centres will similarly scale up Somalia’s security capabilities, and debt relief could provide a financial lifeline for development and economic investment, especially if the World Bank can delay a transition from grants to loans. But in the absence of a convincing peace dividend, wider social contract, or robust policing, many residents may continue to see al-Shabaab governance as a safer, more expedient bet. Militant courts are regularly considered the preferred avenue for civil arbitration, even among some Somali officials, and the group’s taxmen continue to extort businesses, clan elders, civil servants and NGOs across FGS-held areas. In Kismayo alone, companies previously shelled out ‘between $300–$600 monthly depending on their size’, amounting to around $6 million a year. Though al-Shabaab’s reach was briefly tempered in the early months of the offensive, they seem to have rebounded in full force.

Challenging these perceptions requires a comprehensive political settlement, one that is unlikely to be delivered via federal fiat. This raises difficult questions. Some experts envisage a ‘type of Somali statehood that is much more horizontal, organised around alliances between major trading states which will have to bargain resources and power-sharing [among] themselves’. Others reject this premise entirely, with many donors and FGS leaders pushing for an increasingly centralised polity. Whatever the compromise, a workable arrangement needs genuine buy-in from a sufficient cross-section of Somali society, which in turn requires dialogue and deal-making. HSM’s priorities in the early months of his tenure were correct, as regional analysts like Aden Abdi and Alexander Ramsbotham argue: reconciliation cannot be dismissed as an ‘appendix or afterthought’. 

The absence of political consensus has immediate implications. The achievements of 2022 are considered by many to vindicate a locally owned, clan-led strategy, with Mogadishu empowering Darwish and Macawiisley forces – groups benefiting from legitimacy among their host communities – rather than relying exclusively on an unpopular, partisan and functionally lacklustre army. Despite numerous imperfections, such an approach can start to offer comparatively effective security provision, and appears to currently be the only realistic pathway for doing so. However, it is unlikely to succeed unless nested within a wider political framework, one that combines security with predictability, opportunity, sustainable social development, and peacebuilding. Without these ingredients, the experiment will likely yield diminishing returns, as clans see less and less reason to collaborate with federal authorities.

Of course, a negative feedback loop is not inevitable. Though lost momentum today risks reduced support tomorrow, progress is not just a product of military action. Gains require engagement and dialogue, coherence and political consensus which local and national stakeholders can see, believe and invest in. This takes time, money and political capital, and cannot simply be willed away or ignored in an effort to accommodate donor schedules. Nor can individual achievements – lifting the arms embargo, passing the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries completion point or gaining a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council – substitute for a clear strategy. Somalia’s powerbrokers and their international partners need deadlines fitted around a credible plan, and not the other way around; anything less could turn stagnation into outright regression.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Michael Jones

Research Fellow

Terrorism and Conflict

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Christopher Hockey

Senior Research Fellow

RUSI Nairobi

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Professor Stig Jarle Hansen

Senior Associate Fellow - Expert in Islamism in the Horn of Africa and the Al-Shabaab group

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Dr Mohamed Gaas

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