For the past three decades, Somalia has not had a functioning government capable of administering its national territory. The country’s troubled modern history has led foreign-policy analysts in the West to depict it as the archetype of a “failed state.” Since an abortive US military mission to Somalia in the early 1990s, it has most often featured on the Anglophone news agenda as a haven for terrorist attacks in neighboring countries or the source of piratical raids on international shipping routes.
Much of this coverage gives readers the impression that Somalia’s problems are self-generated and that the rest of the world has been trying to save it. In reality, there is a protracted history of outside interference in Somali affairs that has worsened its long crisis. From the Cold War to the “war on terror,” the United States has used Somalia as a battleground for its geopolitical schemes, with profoundly destructive consequences for Somalis.
From Independence to Siad Barre’s Rule
A union of British and Italian colonies that were joined at independence in 1960, Somalia is strategically located on the Horn of Africa, which oversees Middle Eastern natural gas and oil routes. Although most of the country’s inhabitants are ethnic Somalis who share a language, culture, and religion, they have been divided by clan rivalry. Ethnic minorities have suffered from political, economic, and social discrimination.
Somalia’s internal conflicts have been mirrored in regional tensions. Colonial boundaries, retained at independence, placed millions of ethnic Somalis in neighboring Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti. Campaigns to unite all ethnic Somalis in one nation have led to multiple border conflicts and regional wars.
Somalia’s early attempts at democracy ended in 1969, when its second president was assassinated and Major General Mohamed Siad Barre seized power. The next year, he announced that Somalia would pursue a scientific socialist agenda, beginning with a massive public works program.
In the early 1970s, Somalia made significant strides in mass literacy, primary education, public health, and economic development, particularly in the rural areas. However, Siad Barre also suspended the constitution, banned political parties, and assassinated rivals. Like its predecessors, his government was rife with clan patronage.
A Cold War Battleground
Wary of Somalia’s socialist orientation, the United States had suspended economic aid, and the Soviet Union became the country’s main source of military and economic assistance. By 1976, Somalia boasted a 22,000-strong army, one of the largest in sub-Saharan Africa. Cuban technicians trained Somali troops, while Soviet and East German agents strengthened Somalia’s repressive National Security Service.
However, by 1977, the relationship with the Eastern Bloc had begun to fray. Moscow pursued another alliance on the Horn with a new military regime in Ethiopia after the revolution that ousted Haile Selassie. The Kremlin claimed that this government had stronger Marxist credentials than the Somali one.
Hoping to promote socialist unity throughout the Horn, Moscow urged Somalia to relinquish its claims to Ethiopian territory. Instead, Somalia invaded Ethiopia, and the Soviet Union threw its full support behind the latter.
The United States, meanwhile, hoped to use Somalia to thwart Soviet encroachment in the Horn. But it worried that open support would damage its relations with other African countries, which viewed Somalia as the aggressor nation in the conflict. Washington therefore offered little overt assistance. Instead, the CIA hired an arms dealer that supplied US-made weapons, and other agencies coordinated a flow of weapons through third parties.
This support proved to be insufficient. Without a significant source of external aid, Mogadishu was unable to sustain the war. In March 1978, it was forced to withdraw from Ethiopian territory. After Somalia’s departure, the United States reverted to a stance of public support for Siad Barre’s regime. By 1986, Mogadishu was one of the largest recipients of US military aid in sub-Saharan Africa.
US aid notwithstanding, Somalia was in dire straits by the mid-1980s. The cost of the Ethiopian war had combined with corruption and mismanagement to run the economy into the ground, dissipating the developmental achievements of the previous decade. Onerous taxes stimulated rural unrest, which was brutally suppressed.
Siad Barre imprisoned or killed his critics or drafted them into the Somali army, while collectively punishing their clan members and encouraging clan rivalry to disrupt his opponents. Members of Siad Barre’s own clan and their allies increasingly dominated his regime. By 1989, clans that had suffered from harassment or discrimination had united in their opposition to Siad Barre’s rule, as had Islamists, whom the dictatorship had also repressed.
In the north, the government had resettled a large number of war refugees on Isaaq clan land, and its policies threatened Isaaq economic interests. The Ethiopian-backed Somali National Movement instigated an insurgency in the region. In response, Somali military planes, piloted by white South African and former Rhodesian mercenaries, bombed the northern city of Hargeisa. Tens of thousands of Isaaq clan members were killed.
In the south, a Salafist study group, al-Itihaad al-Islamiya (Islamic Union), spearheaded Islamist opposition to Siad Barre. Most of the group’s members were students or faculty from Somali secondary schools and colleges or from the Somali National University. The massacre of 450 Islamist protesters in Mogadishu in July 1989 sparked the transformation of al-Itihaad from a nonviolent association calling people to the faith into a jihadist organization whose goal was to establish a single Islamic state, including populations in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti.
By this time, the Soviet Union was entering a deep crisis. With Moscow weakening politically and economically, the United States no longer needed a regional policeman in the Horn, and the alliance with Somalia faltered. After the 1989 Mogadishu massacre, Washington expressed newfound concern for Siad Barre’s human rights abuses and suspended its economic and military aid.
Without US support, the Siad Barre government was an easy target. In January 1991, warlords and their clan-based militias overthrew his regime. Conflict between competing warlords destroyed much of Mogadishu in 1991–92. The central government collapsed, and Somalia lapsed into chaos.
Southern Somalia fractured into fiefdoms ruled by rival warlords who clashed with a resurgent Islamist movement. State institutions disintegrated, and nongovernmental actors had to supply basic services, if they were provided at all. Islamist organizations in particular played critical roles in restoring order and reestablishing social services.
After the Cold War
As the fighting intensified in 1991, war-induced famine, compounded by drought, threatened much of the population. Massive population displacement, the theft of food and livestock by marauding soldiers and militia members, and crop failure rendered 4.5 million people at risk of starvation. Warlords confiscated food aid and manipulated food supplies to reward their supporters, punish their opponents, and finance the purchase of weapons. By late 1992, some 300,000 Somalis had died from starvation and war-related disease and violence, while two million people had fled their homes.
Concerned about instability in this strategic region, the United States, backed by the United Nations, launched a multinational military intervention in 1992. Its mission was to ensure the delivery of humanitarian relief. The following year, another UN mission permitted US-led forces to disarm and arrest Somali warlords and militia members.
Both the UN and Washington took actions that favored warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid over his opponents. Civilians were caught in the crossfire. Many were killed in US airstrikes, including elders, clan and religious leaders, intellectuals, and businessmen, who were meeting to consider a UN peace initiative.
The massacres elicited a furious backlash from the population. Violent retaliation was directed against all foreigners, causing numerous relief organizations to withdraw from Somalia. US troops, in turn, increasingly regarded Somali civilians as hostile actors.
Although the delivery of food aid had been the priority of the US military in early 1993, it was not the objective eight months later. From late August to early October, the US armed forces were bent on capturing or killing Aidid and his top lieutenants. The final raid took place in October 1993, when US Army Rangers and Delta Force troops attempted to capture key leaders of Aidid’s militia in Mogadishu.
Aidid’s forces shot down two Black Hawk helicopters, which crashed into children in the streets below. Angry crowds attacked the surviving soldiers and their rescuers. Eighteen American soldiers and hundreds of Somali men, women, and children were killed in the ensuing violence.
Somalia’s “War on Terror”
In 1994, having stirred up a hornets’ nest, the United States hastily withdrew from Somalia. However, the emergence of al-Qaeda elsewhere in East Africa sparked new US concerns. The bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, followed by the 9/11 attacks in 2001, led to increased US collaboration with Ethiopia, Somalia’s longtime nemesis.
Meanwhile, Somali Islamist groups had gained significant popular support by providing essential social services, including schools, medical care, and courts that brought some semblance of order to the war zone. Ignoring the reasons for the appeal of Islamism, Washington set out on a violent campaign to stamp it out.
In pursuit of this end, the United States banded together with Somali warlords and the Ethiopian government in 2004, helping outsiders impose a new government on the country — the fourteenth attempt to do so since Siad Barre’s ouster. A corrupt regime dominated by the clan of one warlord, it marginalized rival clans that controlled Mogadishu and purged the Parliament of opposition members. Surviving only with the protection of Ethiopian troops, the new government was unable to enter Mogadishu and controlled little territory outside its makeshift capital in Baidoa.
In 2006, Washington backed yet another warlord coalition to counter Islamist power and supported an Ethiopian invasion and occupation that lasted until 2009. Foreign intervention precipitated a domestic insurgency led by al-Shabaab, originally a youth militia organized to defend the Islamic courts, which quickly transformed into a violent jihadist organization that gained the support of al-Qaeda. By 2007, al-Shabaab had taken control of large swaths of central and southern Somalia, prompting the UN, the African Union, and neighboring countries to intervene.
The United States worked in the shadows, launching low-intensity warfare against al-Shabaab operatives, deploying both private contractors and Special Operations Forces to train and accompany Somali and African Union troops in combat operations. US drones and airstrikes killed key al-Shabaab leaders, who were rapidly replaced by others. As a result, al-Shabaab increasingly focused its attention on the West, targeting aid workers, journalists, and Somalis who worked with them.
Al-Shabaab’s Mutation and Survival
In 2012, outside forces once again imposed a new political dispensation, complete with constitution, parliament, and president. It was mediated by the UN, backed by the international community, and disavowed by large segments of Somali civil society, which had had little input into the process. Al-Shabaab was diminished but not defeated.
As it lost territory and revenues, the organization changed tactics, focusing increasingly on unprotected soft targets, including government offices, schools, hotels, and restaurants. When it was ousted from towns and cities and pushed to Somalia’s southern border, al-Shabaab attacked rural populations in Kenya’s North Eastern Province. Meanwhile, the presence of foreign troops battling al-Shabaab on Somali soil continued.
Today, al-Shabaab maintains its powerful foothold in Somalia in the absence of any functioning state apparatus. Although a new president was elected in May 2022 after a protracted political crisis during which the previous president had refused to hold elections, the central government still cannot provide basic services in the territories it holds.
There is no coherent national army, and the security forces, like the civilian government, are riven by clan-based factions who fight each other rather than al-Shabaab. Few Somalis believe that the new government will behave differently from its predecessors. They expect it to go on catering to corrupt elites rather than the majority of citizens and ignoring the grievances that ignited the insurgency
Meanwhile, the United States continues to wage a shadow war. In recent years, the nature of the US war has changed. The number of American feet on the ground has decreased. Instead of troops, the Barack Obama administration escalated the use of drones and airstrikes to kill al-Shabaab insurgents.
While this method diminished the number of US deaths, it slaughtered hundreds of Somali civilians. In 2013, Obama introduced restrictions intended to reduce civilian casualties, yet their impact was minimized by get-out-of-jail-free exemptions for cases of “self-defense.” The Donald Trump administration reversed this policy, reinstating more lenient guidelines for civilian deaths and intensifying attacks. Eventually, it withdrew most US forces in order to deploy them elsewhere.
A Persistent Presence
President Joe Biden’s May 2022 decision to increase the number of US Special Operations Forces has brought Washington’s policy full circle. The president announced that some five hundred US ground troops would return to Somalia to establish a “persistent presence.” The soldiers would train and assist Somali forces in counterterrorism operations, with the aim of killing a dozen extremist leaders deemed a direct threat to the United States, its interests, and its allies.
Justifying the move, Biden’s top general for Africa, Stephen Townsend, attested that al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the country had grown “bigger, stronger, and bolder” since the US departure in January 2021. After a decade and a half of US and African Union training, the Somali National Army was still unable to defend its territory.
How has foreign meddling shaped the Somalia of today? It has internationalized what had been a local conflict, strengthening violent extremist factions and precipitating al-Qaeda involvement. Far from containing the bloodshed, external intervention increased it, expanding the war to the extent that, by 2016, it included new players associated with the Islamic State.
Likewise, peace initiatives brokered by outside actors have repeatedly foundered. Large segments of Somali civil society — agricultural cooperatives, trade unions, women’s and youth groups — have been excluded from the bargaining table. Grassroots peacemaking and nation-building efforts have been ignored, and the interests of foreign governments and Somali elites have prevailed over those of ordinary citizens.
As a result, no negotiated settlement to the conflict has been able to garner popular support, and a succession of weak Somali governments have failed to provide services and security to its citizens. Refusing to address the grievances at the root of the conflict, the Biden administration, like every Democratic and Republican administration over the past century, has defaulted to the failed military policy of endless war. Somali civilians are paying the consequences.