January 30, 2018 Al Thomas & Benjamin Palka

The Federal Republic of Somalia, located on the horn of Africa, is a clear U.S. national security interest. One of the most impoverished countries in the world[1], Somalia is regrettably infamous for pirate attacks, instability, and refugees. The country continues to be entangled in internal strife: the recognized Somali government seeks to bring order throughout their country, while the Islamist terror group al-Shabaab (AS) brings chaos and violence to the entire region. AS claims responsibility for recent terror attacks[2], and U.S. media outlets have reported on the alarming recruitment of Americans[3]. In March, the Trump administration authorized a Pentagon request to escalate U.S. military force against AS[4], but the terror group is still active.

Why is Somalia important for U.S. National Security? 

The United States established formal diplomatic ties with the Federal Republic of Somalia in 1960, shortly after Somalia became independent of British and Italian administrative control. Since then, the U.S. and Somalia have had a long political and military relationship. There are certain terror organizations that exist in Somalia who are known threats to the U.S. homeland and other U.S interests, particularly on the horn of Africa. The Somali government considers itself at war with al-Shabaab (AS) and other radical religious fundamentalists. The U.S. has invested in helping to stabilize Somalia in order to prevent groups like AS from having a base of operations from which to threaten U.S. citizens, U.S. interests, and project attacks into the U.S. homeland. Notably, the Bab el-Mandeb strait is of great geographic importance in the region as it strategically connects the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. For expediency in shipping and transportation, naval traffic must pass through the strait. The presence of AS and other terrorist groups creates a major security risk for naval travel and transport. In sum, a weak Somalia means that there is increasing opportunity for threats and attacks against our friends, allies, and the U.S. homeland.

Who is al-Shabaab?

Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, commonly known as al-Shabaab (AS), can be translated as “The Youth.” They are a Salafi-jihadist Wahhabi fundamentalist group with a military strength estimated in several thousands. The group is an offshoot of the defeated Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a network of Sharia courts that sought to rival the internationally recognized Transitional Federal Government of Somalia. The group is suspected of having close links to other likeminded terror groups such as al-Qaeda. AS seeks to overthrow the Somalian government and establish an Islamic emirate within the country based on a rigid interpretation of Sharia law. To accomplish these goals, AS conducts acts of terror against fellow Somalians and neighboring African countries. The group specifically has targeted personnel serving with the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), an African Union peacekeeping mission to Somalia. Well known publicized recent attacks include the April 2015 Garissa University College (Kenya) attack where AS targeted Christian students and murdered nearly 150[5], and the October 2017 Mogadishu Truck Bombing (Somalia) where over 500 people were murdered and more than 300 were injured. Since 2008, AS has been designated as a foreign terrorist organization[6] by the U.S. State Department and refuses to address their grievances through other political means.

What would an Islamic fundamentalist state in Somalia look like?  

The state would be governed by a specific theological interpretation of the Qur’an and an uncompromising interpretation of Sharia law. The terror group’s strongly held theological position, generally described as a brand of Salafi and Wahhabi Islam supports “takfir,” a concept which allows the excommunication of unbelievers. Other faith adherents, especially other Islamic sects would suffer hardship, violent persecution, and death. al-Shabaab’s flavor of radical fundamentalist Islam would be the social and religious law of the land. Everything from grooming, attire, behaviors, education and all other aspects of life would be controlled and dictated by the newly established religious authorities’ socio-political, cultural and economic interpretations and applications of the Qur’an.

Who is the key leader of al-Shabaab?

Ahmed Umar, aka Abu Ubaida, Ahmed Diriye is considered the Emir ("general" or "prince") of the organization since a U.S. drone strike killed the former Emir in late 2014. The International Business Times reports that Umar, in his 40’s, was formerly part of al-Shabaab’s intelligence service Amniyat purposed to expose rivals and informers. During his time here, it is widely believed he helped implement an internal purge carried out in 2013 to eliminate opponents.

Who funds al-Shabaab?

Billboards displaying advertisements for international money transfer companies. AU/UN IST PHOTO / STUART PRICE.

Billboards displaying advertisements for international money transfer companies. AU/UN IST PHOTO / STUART PRICE.

Public data is widely available concerning the financing of al-Shabaab. According to a Global ECCO article related to al-Shabaab funding[7], financing included: state sponsors, charities, private donations, individuals in the Somali diaspora, other terrorist groups, piracy, and businesses. Funds typically were transferred through hawala, an informal remittance system; through banking channels; and by a courier. Somalia government officials and a UN monitoring group have routinely claimed that armed shipments and funds originate from rival countries such as Yemen and Eritrea and other regional governments. The Council on Foreign Relations states “the governments of Eritrea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Qatar, and Yemen have been cited as financiers—although most officially deny these claims[8]." The Counter Extremism Project[9] lists publicly on their website: Somali diaspora, locals, sponsors, proselytizing, racketeering, mobile money transfers, gold investments, extortion, "jihad contributions," partnership with businesses, humanitarian agencies, and other non-governmental organizations.

What are the components of al-Shabaab military strength?

al-Shabaab more than likely is organized with multiple cells answering to a variety of figureheads[10]. There are varying opinions but generally it is agreed that they have a supreme commander called Amir. The Amir is assisted by a ten-member shura council, and military commanders that may be regionally or functionally aligned based on capability and experiences. Under this chain of command is a body comprised of Junior Amir’s who are in charge of different areas such as politics, media, and military. Militarily, AS has multiple components that seem to be independent of one another but committed to the same vision and goals of the organization. They have militia, religious police, and an intelligence service (Amniyaat, which gathers intelligence used for attacking and quickly destroying targets)

Does al-Shabaab have a Special Forces equivalent?

Not as we understand Special Forces (warfighters that are specially selected, highly trained, and uniquely equipped). However, they do have capabilities to understand the environment where they operate in and to succeed in conducting devastating attacks even into the most secure areas of Somalia.

What would be some reasons people voluntary join al-Shabaab?

It is likely that most low to mid-level al-Shabaab militants do not actually believe that a fundamentalist and autocratic religious system would create an effective nation or region. al-Shabaab ideology is more of a fairy tale that certain leaders perpetuate for selfish or theological reasons. There are ample opportunities for Somali’s to participate in elections to create desired changes to the government. Without taking advantage of voting and established governance, there is no long-term future for al-Shabaab. Their best course of action is to seek political reconciliation and become part of the future of Somalia. They could create the change they desire by electing their own officials to represent their political agenda. 

Is al-Shabaab behind the infamous Somali pirate attacks?

Combined Maritime Forces Photo/Released by U.S. Navy

Combined Maritime Forces Photo/Released by U.S. Navy

There are open source reports that link al-Shabaab funding and coordination with some pirate activity north of Mogadishu in the vicinity of Puntland. According to a CNN report[11], the U.S. and U.N. have recently investigated at least two pirate kingpins for providing material support for either al-Shabab or ISIS. Research indicates that both the pirate and terrorists groups use one another to get money, weapons, and supplies to conquer territory or hijack sea ships. While AS and Somali pirates are distinct groups, the emerging connection between them is a growing national security risk.

Has al-Shabaab committed war crimes?

War crimes are actions that violate international law governing military conflict between parties. Acts considered to constitute war crimes[12] are things such as atrocities against persons or property; the murder or ill treatment of prisoners of war; enlisting children under the age of 15 into armed forces; killing of hostages; wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages; rape, sexual slavery; and devastation not justified by military necessity. al-Shabaab is actively seeking to undermine the recognized Somali government and their methods seem to clearly constitute war crimes. For example: enlisting child soldiers[13]; arbitrary arrests, detentions, and summary killings[14]; and indiscriminately targeting and killing civilians, including children by the hundreds[15]. By definition of their actions, committing war crimes and atrocities is fundamental to accomplishing their mission.

What is the U.S. is doing in response to al-Shabaab?

A United States military official shakes hands with the Commander of the AMISOM Ugandan Contingent Brig. General Kayanja Muhanga. This followed the donation of combat vehicles on 25th/Sep/2017, in Mogadishu, Somalia. AMISOM Photo/Allan Atulinda

A United States military official shakes hands with the Commander of the AMISOM Ugandan Contingent Brig. General Kayanja Muhanga. This followed the donation of combat vehicles on 25th/Sep/2017, in Mogadishu, Somalia. AMISOM Photo/Allan Atulinda

The U.S. remains actively present in Somalia. An AFRICOM spokesperson stated there are about 100 U.S. personnel in Somalia[16], most of whom are Special Operations Forces that train Somali and African Union forces over several months. In March, the Trump administration granted new authorities to U.S. Africa Command to conduct unilateral offensive counterterrorism against al-Shabaab[17]. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported that in November of this year, U.S. drone strikes were five times greater than in the previous month[18]. Recent AFRICOM Press Releases[19] indicate that at least four strike operations were conducted by the U.S. against al-Shabaab in order to protect the U.S., its partners and interests, and deny safe haven to terrorist groups. Increased warfare comes at a price, however. According to an ABC News article[20], the U.S. lost a Navy SEAL in May 2017 during an advise-and-assist mission in Somalia against al-Shabaab militants.

What threat level is al-Shabaab right now to the U.S.?

AS is a recognized terror organization that has recruited and killed Americans. Evidence points to their intent on killing more Americans, our allies, and friends in the region. They are at the very least, a medium-priority threat[21]. A failed Somalia national government is a serious danger to the U.S. homeland because it allows for growth of a known U.S enemy that is intent on creating spectacular attacks against U.S interests on the horn of Africa and the U.S. homeland.

What can the average American do?

We need to hold our elected officials accountable to articulate the current conditions and threat priority of the ongoing situation in Somalia. We need to support fully our regional partners, allies, and the international community to work closely with the elected Somalia government. This will help ensure their viability and responsiveness to the dangerous security situation in Somalia. We should have reasonable timelines to see security and order in Somalia. A stable Somalia is directly linked to a more secure U.S. homeland.

What is the most pressing need for the government of Somalia?

Certain members of Somali national leadership have requested strategic advisors across all levels of Somali national government to help coordinate and integrate plans domestically and with international stake holders. Particularly, Somali’s want to immediately increase their security capacity in the military and law enforcement communities. They would like additional training for security forces and logistics support. The Somalis would require realistic levels of training and logistic sustainment for any support received. They are seeking more conventional force capacity to counter the increasing number of spectacular attacks they are facing and to be able to take the fight to al-Shabaab by securing and holding key areas. They believe this would set the conditions for more effective governance.

What should the U.S. do in response to al-Shabaab?

There is a U.S. national policy question on what is a U.S interest in Somalia particularly as it pertains to violent extremist organizations or counter terror operations. The international community has supported AMISOM since 2007 with an initial 6 month mandate to help stabilize the Somali government and create space for political, social and economic development. However, recent al-Shabaab attacks in and around Mogadishu and the influx of other terror organizations into the country have demonstrated the strategic limits of a kinetic tactical strategy with questionable strategic effects over a now ten year AMISOM mission. It is unclear what the overall U.S. strategic goals and end state is for Somalia. There does not appear to be meaningful support and investment into the government of Somalia to help build institutions and security capacity to allow for the Somali’s to effectively govern in a very challenging and complex environment.



Al Thomas is the President of Thomas Solutions Incorporated. He graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point and earned his Master of Business Administration from Webster University. Al is a Retired Army Special Forces LTC with 20 years of Active Duty Service. He received advanced Special Operations Training and has experience training foreign and U.S. Forces. He has in-depth skill as a leader and was a subject matter expert in defense intelligence at the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Al provides proven leadership in supporting strategic requirements for senior leaders in defense.  



Mr. Dave Clark is a graduate of the University of Nebraska (Omaha) (BS) and North Carolina State University (MEd). He is also a graduate of the US Army Infantry School (OCS and Airborne), the Command and General Staff College, the National War College, the JFK Special Warfare School, and the Defense Language Institute. Other professional development includes the Senior Officials in National Security (SONS) Program, Harvard University, the Federal Executive Institute, the National Security Studies Program, Syracuse University, the Government Executive Program, Northwestern University, the Intelligence Community Senior Leadership Program, and the Intelligence Fellows program.


Ben Palka graduated from the State University College at Buffalo State with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication and earned a Master of Theology from Southeastern Baptist. Benjamin has worked overseas and domestically in communication, community development, recruitment, religious education, business, and research. He is interested in the intersection of statecraft, theology, and interpersonal communication. He has proven experience providing ideological and theological analyses and assessments.






[2] Recent attacks include an April 2015 Garissa University College (Kenya) attack where AS targeted Christian students and murdered nearly 150, and the October 2017 Mogadishu Truck Bombing (Somalia) where over 500 people were murdered and more than 300 were injured. For more information see: and

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