Intervention in Somalia: A Misguided Model for Success in Mali

Photo by UNAMID/Flickr |
This article was featured in GSSR Vol. 1 Issue 1 |
By Kate Mrkvicka |

In March 2012, the government of Mali was overthrown in a military coup. Seizing on the instability and power vacuum, insurgent groups, including al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), took over control of vast swaths of territory in the north of the country. The recent unrest in Mali has attracted the attention of Western governments, who worry that regional instability will continue to empower and embolden jihadist groups based in the region. In mid-October, the United Nations (UN) adopted a resolution promising to assist the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) with security and military planning in the event of an intervention in Mali.[1] U.S. government officials have stated that they too are considering involvement in a military, political, or humanitarian intervention in Mali, and have touted efforts to defeat al-Shabaab and restore stability in Somalia as a potential model for success in Mali.[2]

Given the desire of the United States and other Western nations to find a strategy that allows them to work to prevent the spread of Mali’s instability while maintaining a light footprint, it is unsurprising that Somalia has been raised as a model for future involvement. It is true that Mali is similar to Somalia in several key respects, but this fact should deter rather than encourage policymakers to turn to Somalia as a model for intervention in Mali. Although the security situation in Somalia has improved drastically in the past year, long-term stability in Somalia is far from assured. Modeling a potential intervention in Mali after Somalia is premature and ultimately perilous if policymakers fail to understand how foreign intervention in Somalia served to worsen, rather than ameliorate, certain aspects of the security environment there.

On the surface, many elements of the turmoil in Mali mirror the situation in Somalia following the overthrow of Siad Barre in 1991. Mali, like Somalia, is crippled by a weak military and plagued by food insecurity. As in Somalia, Mali’s government was overthrown in a military coup, allowing armed groups to seize control of large swaths of territory. In both cases, jihadist groups emerged in the absence of a functioning central government.[3] The recent behavior of AQIM and other jihadist groups in Mali is similar to al-Shabaab’s activities in Somalia before it was considerably weakened by increased pressure from African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) forces. Both groups have espoused a strict interpretation of Shari’a, and targeted individuals who refuse to comply with their dictates.[4]

The entry of Kenyan Defense Forces in October 2011 augmented the efforts of AMISOM and TFG forces to rout al-Shabaab from its traditional strongholds in the southern regions of Somalia. The departure of al-Shabaab from Mogadishu and other key cities has in turn led to greater political stability and allowed for significant progress in state-building on the part of the Somali government. In September 2012, Hassan Sheikh Mohamed was elected president in Somalia’s first presidential elections since 1991.

Although TFG and AMISOM forces have largely been successful in driving al-Shabaab from its longstanding havens in southern Somalia, the group remains capable of harassing the Somali government and its other opponents through asymmetric means, namely ambushes, bombings, and assassinations. In April, two Somali government officials and four others were killed in an al-Shabaab-orchestrated suicide bombing of the national theater in Mogadishu.[5] In another telling example of al-Shabaab’s persistence in targeting Somali officials, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud survived an assassination attempt only two days after assuming his post in September.[6]

There are many factors contributing to the continued inability of the Somali government to defeat al-Shabaab and break out of its continued state failure. Somalia’s longstanding status as a failed state impacted the government’s attempts to counter al-Shabaab at every level. The TFG, the fourteenth attempt at establishing a legitimate government in Somalia, was based in Kenya for the first three years of its existence due to the level of control the insurgency commanded over the country. Upon its return to Mogadishu in 2007, the TFG failed to decisively establish its control over the capital. Al-Shabaab’s recent departure from most of its permanent bases in Mogadishu, hailed by some observers as a victory for the TFG and AMISOM, did not cripple al-Shabaab’s ability to perpetrate attacks in Mogadishu. Furthermore, AMISOM and the TFG failed to fill the security vacuum created by al-Shabaab’s withdrawal, which left Mogadishu a contested and volatile city for months after al-Shabaab’s departure.

The preoccupation of the TFG with maintaining even nominal control of the areas in which it operated, coupled with its struggle to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the international community, left it little time to address the root causes of the societal discontent that has fueled the insurgency. Since its inception, the TFG struggled to earn legitimacy in the eyes of the Somali populace, which criticized the government for showing favoritism towards certain clans.[7] Somali officials tended to label opponents and rivals as extremists without identifiable proof, which furthered the perception held by the Somali population that the TFG was mainly an instrument to serve the interests of its officials.[8]

The TFG struggled to perform the most basic state functions, including taxation, policing, and the provision of social services. These failures were compounded by the severe levels of poverty and hunger in Somalia, which only worsened during the famine in 2011. The lack of a functioning central government in Somalia since 1991 created grievances that made the rhetoric advanced by al-Shabaab more appealing to the Somali populace. The TFG’s chronic dysfunction made the alternative political arrangement presented by al-Shabaab appealing, even if the majority of the Somali population did not share al-Shabaab’s religious fervor.

Because of its weakened condition, the TFG was forced to depend on the U.S., neighboring states, and international organizations for many security functions. The involvement of each of these entities in Somalia’s security situation resulted in overlapping areas of responsibility in some cases, as well as areas of critical need that were not addressed by any party.  Furthermore, the presence of  foreign actors in Somalia caused resentment to grow among the Somali population, the majority of whom felt the TFG was a construct of outside nations rather than a government representative of and responsible to the Somali people.

Meanwhile, the inability of the TFG to maintain a presence, much less to project power, outside of the capital provided al-Shabaab with wide swaths of territory, particularly in southern Somalia, in which to operate freely. Particularly troubling are Somalia’s chronically porous borders, which allowed violence to spill over into neighboring states and made it easier for skilled and motivated foreign fighters to enter Somalia to join al-Shabaab. Similar issues have emerged in Mali; already, several of Mali’s neighbors have begun reinforcing their borders to stem the flow of weapons and fighters into and out of Mali.

Along with these domestic political factors, another factor warrants closer examination before attempting to duplicate the ‘Somali model’ in Mali: the unintended effects of foreign involvement. Although outside intervention in Somalia was necessary for the TFG to maintain its fragile grip on power, it also galvanized al-Shabaab and other violent Islamist movements in Somalia. The presence of outside forces in Somalia, particularly because Ethiopian and AMISOM troops are Christian-dominated forces, transformed al-Shabaab’s campaign in Somalia from a localized conflict with religious overtones into a principle battlefield of the global jihad.

Foreign intervention in the Somali conflict, first in the form of the Ethiopian invasion in 2006, and then in the form of the deployment of AMISOM in 2007, attracted the attention of al-Qa’ida (AQ). Well before the merger of al-Shabaab and AQ in February 2012, AQ sought opportunities to incorporate the Somali conflict into its greater narrative of global jihad. Although links between the two groups had long existed, al-Qa’ida had relatively little interaction with al-Shabaab in the first two years of the latter’s existence, likely because of al-Shabaab’s initially limited focus on expelling Ethiopian forces from Somalia.[9] In 2007, Ayman al-Zawahiri, then second-in-command of al-Qa’ida, released a statement in which he equated the conflict in Somalia to the jihad being waged in both Afghanistan and Iraq:

Similarly to what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq where the strongest world power has been defeated in the face of mujahid groups that long for paradise, its slaves will face similar defeat on the land of Muslim, mujahid Somalia, God willing. Therefore, employ ambushes, mines, raids, and martyrdom-seeking campaigns so as to devour them exactly as lions devour their preys.[10]

In late 2008, al-Qa’ida operative Saleh Nabhan, who was later killed in an airstrike in 2009, appeared in a propaganda video produced by al-Shabaab. In the video, Nabhan pledged his loyalty to Osama bin Laden and called for Muslim youth to come to Somalia to join the jihad.[11] As al-Shabaab’s alignment with al-Qa’ida increased, its rhetoric adopted themes that mirror al-Qa’ida’s: global jihad and the establishment of a caliphate in Somalia.

The perceived occupation of the traditionally Muslim territories of Somalia by entities the movement labeled infidels was a boon for al-Shabaab’s propaganda efforts. The invasion by Ethiopian forces in 2006 further galvanized both al-Shabaab and the Somali population as a whole. Following the invasion, al-Shabaab immediately called for new recruits from inside and outside Somalia to join their ranks and expel the Ethiopians. The group’s recruiting appeals appear to have been successful: in early 2006, al-Shabaab had only approximately 400 fighters at its disposal; after the Ethiopian invasion in late 2006, its fighting cadre had grown to approximately 2,000 fighters.[12]

Lauding the new Somali government as the long-sought solution to Somalia’s political free-fall, and casting the efforts of AMISOM and the international community to bring stability to Somalia as a fait accompli is short-sighted, particularly given the previous fourteen failed attempts to establish a viable government in Somalia. Somalia will only thrive if, and when, a permanent and legitimate political solution can be reached, which requires either a government capable of integrating all clan- and religious-based entities, or a government powerful enough to tamp down future extremism. Any solution that stops short of these objectives will leave the door open for insurgency and violence to return.

AMISOM and the TFG’s efforts against al-Shabaab, although admirable, have yet to prove successful in eradicating the group completely, as evidenced by al-Shabaab’s continued execution of attacks against government targets. Similarly, though the newly-constituted Somali government formed in August shows signs of greater inclusiveness and accountability to the Somali population, it is too early to determine whether it represents a viable permanent political solution or merely the latest iteration of attempts to save Somalia from continued state failure. Some measure of international involvement may be necessary to restore order and prevent the spread of violence in Mali. Rather than turning impulsively to Somalia for a blueprint for future intervention in Mali, U.S. policymakers should be mindful of the fragility of Somalia’s stability, and should incorporate into their calculus the potential for intervention to exacerbate the conflict.

Kate Mrkvicka is an analyst for the U.S. government and an M.A. candidate in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. The views expressed in this article represent the author’s views alone and not those of the U.S. government.

[1] John Vandiver, “Analysts Say Somalia Progress Might Not Translate to Mali,” Stars and Stripes, 19 Oct. 2012, (accessed 19 Nov. 2012).
[2] Anne Gearan and Craig Whitlock, “U.S. Looks to Effort in Somalia as Model for Mali Solution,” The Washington Post, 11 Oct. 2012, (accessed 27 Nov. 2012).
[3]Alexis Arieff and Kelly Johnson, “Crisis in Mali,” Congressional Research Service, 16 Aug. 2012, 1.
[4] Ibid., 2.
[5] Feisal Omar, “Islamist Rebels Bomb Somali Theater, Killing Six,” Reuters, 4 April 2012, (accessed 15 Nov. 2012).
[6] “Somalian President Moved to Secure Compound after Assassination Attempt,” The Telegraph, 14 Sept. 2012, (accessed 10 Nov. 2012).
[7] Medhane Tedasse, “Somalia: Bailing Out the TFG,” Inter Africa Group, Center for Dialogue on Humanitarian, Peace and Development Issues in the Horn of Africa, Dec. 2009, 4.
[8] “Counter-Terrorism in Somalia: Losing Hearts and Minds?” International Crisis Group, Africa Report Number 95, 11 July 2005, 19.
[9] Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio, “Shabaab Formally Joins al Qaeda,” TheLong War Journal, 9 Feb. 2012, (accessed 5 Nov. 2012).
[10] Ayman Al-Zawahiri, “Rise up and Support Your Brothers in Somalia,” 5 Jan. 2007.
[11] Nick Grace, “Shabaab reaches out to al Qaeda senior leaders, announces death of al Sudani,” The Long War Journal, 2 Sept. 2008, (accessed 3 Nov. 2012).
[12] Markus Virgil Hoehne, “Counter-terrorism in Somalia: How external interference helped to produce militant Islamism,”Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle/Saale, Germany, 17 Dec. 2009, 12.

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