U.S. Counterterrorism Operations in Somalia and the Horn of Africa, Post-2001 — Paul Delventhal

US Somalia

In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, the Horn of Africa received renewed interest from the United States as a potential front in what would become the Global War on Terror (GWOT). Somalia in particular was positioned as a focal point for American counter-terrorism operations as a result of the country’s prior connections to regional terrorist activities and its perceived status as a safe-haven for al-Qaeda members. The United States responded to the terrorist threat in East Africa by establishing Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) in 2003. U.S. counter-terrorism operations in Somalia and East Africa have been guided by a unique interagency GWOT strategy combining defense, diplomacy, and development. This approach has seen had positive results although, according to some, military operations continue to dominate U.S. activities.

U.S. counterterrorism strategy in the Horn is articulated at multiple levels. Within the broader context of the GWOT, objectives are shaped by the “Four D’s framework” in the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism: “defeat terrorists and their organizations; deny sponsorship, support and sanctuary to terrorists; diminish the underlying conditions that terrorists seek to exploit, and defend U.S. citizens and interests at home and abroad.” Although the Bush administration has established a clear counterterrorism strategy for the GWOT, individual requirements in the Horn of Africa are addressed in an ad hoc manner to allow flexibility and swift responses to events in the field. On an operational level, CJTF-HOA articulates its strategy as a combined “Three D” counterterrorism approach, emphasizing defense, development, and diplomacy. Scholars define major objectives in the Horn to include regional stabilization through humanitarian aid, capacity building, and support of foreign agencies; strengthening ties with allies in the Horn to facilitate the implementation of counterterrorism policy; and improving Washington’s ability to identify and collect intelligence on regional terrorist threats and responding to such threats when necessary. Framing each objective broadly has allowed DOD and DOS to act with fewer restrictions and to adjust tactical responses as needed.

Cooperation between the DOS and DOD has been sporadic and the 4D/3D approaches only haltingly integrated. However, integration has improved steadily and the presence of DOS and USAID representatives in the CJTF-HOA Command Element has aided in coordination. DOD and USAID personnel have facilitated the completion of hundreds of humanitarian projects throughout the Horn. Military-to-military training has helped secure borders which Somalia shares with Kenya and Ethiopia, while DOS has managed to improve U.S. diplomatic relations with allies in the Horn. However, CIA operations in the region have been criticized for operating autonomously and without consideration for long term U.S. interests or strategies.

The strengths of the U.S. response are rooted in the multiagency approach and articulation of a national counterterrorism strategy and a compatible regional strategy. At the presidential level, a broad counterterrorism plan is articulated in the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism and reflected in the 4D/3D strategy. The multiagency approach facilitates cooperation between the Departments of State and Defense, and USAID, and encourages even individual agency responses to be carried out in the context of broader U.S. objectives in the region. A critical weakness in the American strategy is that aid does not always reach the areas in most need. Another weakness is an over-reliance on military tools and responses. Also, interagency cooperation still suffers due to organizational rivalries and disparities in resources. Additionally, U.S. agencies active in the region have been hindered by a shortage of personnel with knowledge of local languages and cultures. Lastly, security issues have limited the activities of aid agencies, diplomatic missions, and human intelligence operatives in Somalia itself, demonstrating that U.S. government organizations have trouble operating in failed state environments.

Analysts and scholars have noted that U.S. involvement in the Horn of Africa has led to closer cooperation and coordination with allies in order to stabilize and increase the overall security of the region. U.S. operations have resulted in the elimination of extremists in Somalia (including members of al-Qaeda), thus denying terrorists a safe haven and transit point. However, American involvement in Somalia and Washington’s focus on kinetic military operations have become a rallying cry for global Jihadist movements, and triggered an increasingly negative view of the United States among Muslims in Somalia and Eastern Africa.

Rear Admiral Bob Moeller, head of the Department of Defense’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) transition team, noted in June 2007 that the CJTF-HOA model will be replicated across Africa with the formation of the new combatant command. Given this, it is important to consider the successes of CJTF-HOA, which should be duplicated, and the shortcomings hat should be addressed. Overall, the 4D/3D framework for U.S. operations in the Horn has encouraged cooperation between U.S. agencies. The approach is intentionally flexible to allow rapid response to changing conditions. This strategy appears effective in part due to the stabilization of the region: there has been a noticeable drop in HOA terrorist attacks and armed insurgencies since U.S. policy implementation. However, cooperation remains imperfect, resources unbalanced, and some accuse the CIA of working outside of the framework of the overall U.S. strategy for the Horn of Africa, undermining the good-will work done by other agencies.