How the Counterinsurgency Strategies of Ethiopia, the United States and the AMISOM have Triggered the Growth of Al-Shabaab?

Submitted Assignment, 2019

17 Pages, Grade: 70



Somali/Somalia is considered as a “failed state” by the international community, for it does not have functioning state institutions since the fall of Siad Barre regime in 1991. The constant political and humanitarian crises in Somalia have deeper roots in history (Hesse, 2015).

The territories where Somali people lived were colonized by French (north, today’s Djibouti), British (today’s Somaliland) and Italian (southern parts of today’s Somali) states. While the imperial powers shared lands in Africa in 18th and 19th centuries, none of them considered exactly what is happening on the soil and which ethnic groups were living where. The borders that were drawn on maps have created enormous problems in the future that no one would ever imagined before. The different agendas and interests of imperial states have initiated conflicts among tribes (or clans), such as British was involved in extracting resources, while Italians were improving cultivation in southern parts. These different kinds of exploitation by imperial powers caused disputes about land and water resources among Somali clans (Thomas, 2016).

One of the astounding examples of land dispute in the region is Ogaden, which comprises ethnic Somali and Muslim population. The conflict over Ogaden can be traced back until the mid-19th century, when Ethiopia adjected it into its territory. Afterwards Ogaden passed in other hands between Somali and Ethiopia several times under colonial administrations of Italy and Britain and caused a war between Somali and Ethiopia in 1977-78. Today Ogaden officially belongs to Ethiopia, however, there is insurgency movements and unrest among people in the region (Bamfo, 2010).

Gaining independence from the colonial powers in 1st July 1960 did not give Somali a brighter future. Following democratic elections in 1964, 1967 and 1969, the country has witnessed a military coup in October 1969, which allowed Siad Barre to govern Somali until 1991 (Ingiriis, 2017). The fall of Barre regime has created a power vacuum, which was tried to be filled by several armed groups.

The power struggle between non-state actors in Somali was not left alone by foreign actors, such as the United States and Ethiopia. Among many others, the actions of these two states paved the way for the incredible growth of one of today’s most dangerous and deadliest terrorist groups, Al-Shabaab. The group claims that they are fighting against foreign invaders in their country and they aim to establish an Islamic state (Hussein, 2017).

In the following chapters of this essay; the background of the insurgencies in Somali, counterinsurgency (COIN) responses from Ethiopia and the United States, and the reaction of insurgents will be summarized.


- Somalia After Independence, 1969 Coup d’état and Siad Barre Regime

Somalian state had many structural problems after gaining independence from colonial powers (British in the north and Italian in the south) and unification of post-colonial north and south. The systems such as education, taxation, governing, trainings in the military were all different than each other in the north and south, one in British style and the other Italian. Somalia tried to merge these two systems and eliminate the discrepancies between the regions; however, it did not work well as thought (Dualeh, 1994). There were many politicians from both regions who opposed the unification of two counties because of this huge divergency. Also, the majority and the influence in politics were in the hands of southern, which created opposition in the north against united Somalia. Doraad and Hawiye clans from south were the dominant groups in power between 1960 and 1969. The clan culture and structure are quite powerful and effective in Somalia, although politicians and religious authorities have tried to create more powerful Islamic identity among all Somalis and dissolve all clan-based discriminations and problems, it has never really worked (Ndegwa, 2018). Northern clans felt left out after the unification, and they were losing money and resources because of the structural changes made in favor of southern people; such as the changes in taxation system (Dualeh, 1994).

In the 60s after independence, Somalia had two parliamentary elections, respectively in 1964 and 1969, and between those they had presidential elections in 1967. Abdirashid Sharmake was elected as president, however, he could only serve two years as president since he was assassinated on 15th October 1969 by one of his guards. Right after Sharmake’s funeral, the military took control of the administration in the country. The military regime, under Siad Barre’s control, has abolished the government, the constitution and supreme court, banned the political parties (Hussein, 2017).

Sharmake’s assassination was never thoroughly investigated. Since the government of Somalia had close ties with the West until 1969 and afterwards Barre regime had embraced socialism as a mere ideology of Somalian state, conspiracies about Sharmake’s death were mainly as follows: attack was planned and realized by support of Soviet Union (Ingiriis, 2017). One of the incidents that can work for these conspiracies would be that the military got fully armed and alarmed after president’s death, which would be in normal circumstances impossible because the Somalian army had to lock up their arms every night until they get orders from generals. Basically, after the funeral of president, Barre and his comrades did not have to find ways to arm the soldiers and make the coup, the army was already armed and ready, and this made it easier for top generals in the army to declare the military government (Dualeh, 1994).

Barre’s regime did not bring answers to clan-based problems in Somalia, such as nepotism, many issues got even worse under his control. He appointed many of his friends and family members to top positions in government offices. Other than nepotism, Barre’s regime was one of the clear examples of dictatorships in Africa. He oppressed all kinds of opposition, especially the ones from religious groups. During the first years of Barre’s presidency, he was supported by Soviet Union and trying to imply “scientific socialism” in Somalia. It was called scientific because the dominating religion in Somalia was (and still is) Islam, which was not very compatible with socialism. As Barre embraced socialist ideas, he continued to act in many ways against it (nepotism was criticized by his allies in Soviets) and worsened clan-based discrimination in Somalia (Dualeh, 1994). Also, several Islamist groups were opposed to him and criticizing his government, defending Islamic rule and traditions to solve country’s problems. At that time, these ideas were supported among Arab world. Because of severe oppression, arrests and execution of some Islamic leaders in Somalia, many of those groups started to continue their activities obscurely (Ndegwa, 2018).

Siad Barre was trained militarily under the fascist Italian commanders before Somali’s independence. This is considered as one of the factors that made Barre very despotic (Dualeh, 1994). He wanted to pursue the idea of “Greater Somalia” during his presidency, which aims to bring all ethnic Somalis under one flag (including Ogaden region in Ethiopia). Although Ethiopia was also an ally of Soviet’s, Barre did not abstain invading Ethiopian territory. Barre saw an opportunity in Ethiopia’s weak situation and bad economy under military junta (between 1977-87 Ethiopia was governed by military regime) and wanted to be the man who annexed Ogaden to Somalian borders. So-called Ogaden War started in August 1977 with Somali’s invasion in Ogaden (Jackson, 2010).

Somali troops were trained well under Soviet control; therefore, they could take control of Ogaden in 3 months. However, it was not what the big ally Soviets wanted, because initially the aim for Soviets in the west Africa region was establishment of a socialist states union to have control over this strategic region, also the oil sale to United States (Hussein, 2017). Therefore, the Union first tried to solve the problem by negotiations between two socialist states; Ethiopia and Somalia. Talks did not give positive results, but the Soviets did not want Ethiopia to lose territory. Because of that, the Soviet Union withdrew their support from Somalia and fully supported Ethiopian army, including bringing support troops from Yemen and Cuba (Hussein, 2017). This move pushed Somalian army back from Ogaden and forced Somalia to look for a new ally against Soviet Union: United States (Wood, 2018).

After Ogaden War and during the 1980s, the western aid to Somalia was in incredible amounts. The neoliberal policies of western states were implied in Somalia as well, to transfer it into a capitalist state, after its break-up with socialism. With the support of United States, World Bank and many other foreign aid organizations, some land reforms were made. For instance, they aimed to change the nomadic way of agriculture and register all farmers to some certain piece of land. These plans did not work well in Somalia and they ended up with corruption, exploitation of nomadic farmers and peasants, and unjust enrichment of urban elites and state officials (Besteman, 2017). The aid did not just help elites to get richer, it also helped the Barre regime to become even more autocratic and oppressive. The opposition was suppressed violently, especially in the northern regions of Somalia (Samatar, 1992).

The exclusion of any kind of opposition and impoverishment of people despite the tremendous rate of aid caused creation of armed opposition groups and separation movements within the Somali National Army. Some of these armed groups were Somali National Movement (SNM), Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF), United Somali Congress (USC) and Somali Patriotic Movement (SPM) (Hussein, 2017). The defeat in the Ogaden War triggered the segregations within the army. Therefore, Barre increased the level of nepotism, he appointed people from his clan and some other clans that he can trust to high positions in the army. The vicious circle of people losing trust to government and Barre surrounding himself by an army of loyal clan members have made the state of Somalia just an “ostensible” one. Barre’s regime started to lose control of some regions as early as 1988 and the country was already experiencing civil war (Robinson, 2016). By 1991, several armed groups were fighting over control of resources, many of them had arms but no military trainings and these clashes between armed tribes harmed Somalia a lot (Bamfo, 2010).

- Fall of Barre Regime, Civil War, Somaliland’s Declaration of Independence, Islamic Courts Union (ICU), Ethiopian Invasions, Transitional Governments, Al-Shabaab, AMISOM

In January 1991, the consolidation of several armed groups called United Somali Congress (USC) ousted Siad Barre regime in Mogadishu (these groups were obscurely supported by Ethiopian government) (Bamfo, 2010). However, ideals and plans of creating a peaceful Somalia after Barre were not easy to be realized. Right after unseating Barre and his comrades, the alliance of USC started to resolve. One of the leaders of armed groups, Ali Mahdi’s self-declaration of “interim presidency” did not get approval by another strong leader; Aideed. Aideed and Ali Mahdi’s groups were separated into two in their power struggle over Mogadishu respectively: Somali National Alliance (SNA) and Somali Salvation Alliance (SSA). Until 1993, some military interventions by United Nations (UNOSOM) and United States (UNITAF) took place to finish these clashes, however, they did not give positive results. In 1993, supporters of Aideed shot a US airplane and killed soldiers in it. After this event (infamously known as “Black Hawk Down”), both the United Nations and the United States withdrew all their troops from Somalia until 1995 (Ndegwa, 2018). The Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden then announced that he helped with the supplies used for this attack against US airplanes, which only aided to the understanding of Somalia as a nest for terror cells by upcoming US governments (Wood, 2018).

Among the conflicts between everyone who holds weapons, another group called Somali National Movement (SNM) in the north did not join the alliances with southern clans and declared their own independent state in May 1991: Somaliland. They did not get any international recognition. Similarly, in 1998, in the northwest of Somali, Puntland region has announced its local autonomy. Different than Somaliland, Puntland considered itself as a part of Somalian state, but they had as well their own local government (Thomas, 2016).

Another very important part of the puzzle in Somalian context are the Islamic groups. Since the 1980s, more than ten (known) Islamic groups (mostly armed) were founded in Somalia. By the time, depending on the course of events, some of them have created allies, some started to fight against each other. The main triggering factors for the born of these groups can be mentioned as: oppressive policies of Siad Barre against religious groups, bad economic situation, and the trend in Muslim and Arab world that suggests using Islamic principles to solve the social and economic problems in Muslim societies (Ndegwa, 2018).

One of the prominent Islamic groups in Somalia history is Al-Ittihad Al-Islamiya (AIAI), which was founded initially in 1984 (Stanford University, 2019). The group emerged from the attempts of organizing the society and solving disputes among people by the help of Islamic Courts. They implied Sharia Law in these courts, and they were mainly active in southern parts of the country. They have also aimed to unify Somali people under one flag by using Islam as uniting power instead of tribal motives (Hussein, 2017). However, after the fall of Barre, like many other armed groups, AIAI also started to get armed and enhance its control over regions. They allied with Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), which is a separatist organization based in Ogaden region of Ethiopia, to support the ONLF in their anti-Ethiopian fight. AIAI carried out attacks in Ethiopia, especially to security points. Therefore, AIAI has become a threat for Ethiopia’s security, and it caused Ethiopia’s invasion in Somalia in 1997 to finish AIAI. After the attacks in Ethiopia, United States added AIAI in its “terrorist groups list” (Ndegwa, 2018).

Ethiopia’s counterinsurgency strategy for Somalia, basically the 1997’s military intervention and deactivating AIAI militias, did not bring an effective solution in the long term. The aim of Ethiopia was to stop the Islamic movements in its neighbor, Ethiopia was perceiving the Islam in Somalia as threatening because of its own Christian population. AIAI in Somalia was not functioning anymore after the Ethiopian invasion, but several groups have emerged from its remnants, such as Islamic Courts Union (ICU). This group arose from Sharia courts of AIAI, however, ICU’s main interest in the beginning was protecting the interests of businesspeople and create stable and safe zones in Somalia. Different from AIAI, the ICU did not fight militarily against Ethiopia or other foreign powers in the beginning of its time. Business milieu needed ICU’s support and security against warlords, since they did not want to pay taxes to several armed groups and they needed stability for their businesses (Ingiriis, 2017). With these aims, the ICU was working as the enforcing body of Sharia law in Somalia. Nevertheless, by the time the ICU got politicized more than expected. According to some Somalis, ICU was doing good in terms of bringing stability and peace in Somalia, although it brought many restrictions on social life in line with Sharia law (Thomas, 2016).


Excerpt out of 17 pages


How the Counterinsurgency Strategies of Ethiopia, the United States and the AMISOM have Triggered the Growth of Al-Shabaab?
University of Marburg  (Center for Conflict Studies)
Counter-Insurgency – Aufstandsbekämpfung – Schmutzige Kriege
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
counterinsurgency, somalia, united states, al shabaab, ethiopia, military, intervention, foreign
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Gülşah Gürsoy (Author), 2019, How the Counterinsurgency Strategies of Ethiopia, the United States and the AMISOM have Triggered the Growth of Al-Shabaab?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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