Analysts and officials have made frequent predictions about the decline and demise of al-Shabaab over the years. (1) However, the al-Qa'ida-allied terrorist group has not only survived but continues to thrive in much of Somalia. On September 30, 2019, al-Shabaab launched attacks on two high-profile targets. It attacked a military base that hosts U.S. Special Forces soldiers at Balegdole in Lower Shabelle (southern Somalia), and then its operatives also targeted an Italian armored convoy carrying military advisers in Mogadishu. Both attacks failed. Al-Shabaab did not succeed in penetrating the outer defenses of the military base nor did they did injure or kill any of the military advisers. (2) However, both attacks demonstrate al-Shabaab's ability to target extremely well-guarded sites and individuals.
Since 2006, when al-Shabaab began to coalesce as an organization, billions of dollars have been spent by the United States and the international community to fight the group. (3) The expenditure of vast sums of money and the eventual deployment of 22,000 soldiers by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), however, have failed to defeat the organization. (4)
The key to al-Shabaab's resiliency and its resurgence is two-fold. First, the failure of the Somali Federal Government to police and govern its territory consistently and effectively provides al-Shabaab with a high degree of operational freedom. (5) Second, al-Shabaab's ever-increasing organizational competence allows it to out-govern the government and other armed factions in many parts of Somalia. This competence extends well beyond its war-fighting capabilities. While important, these are not as critical as the group's ability to operate what is in effect a shadow government that is often more effective, efficient, and predictable than the Somali Federal Government. (6) It is the presence of this often efficient shadow government, far more than its armed operations or ideology that arguably allows al-Shabaab to maintain its influence across much of Somalia.
Notably, al-Shabaab has failed to establish an enduring foothold in the unrecognized Republic of Somaliland. There, the government of Somaliland exerts consistent control over most of the territory that it claims. Al-Shabaab has not launched a large-scale attack in Somaliland since 2008 when it struck the presidential palace, the Ethiopian consulate, and UNDP offices in Hargeisa, Somaliland's capital. (7) The reasons for al-Shabaab's failure, at least so far, to establish a foothold in Somaliland are due in large part to the Somaliland government's ability to disrupt al-Shabaab's attempts to insert itself and its operatives into communities where it could then establish its shadow government. (b) This ability is predicated on the Somaliland government's fostering of a virtuous circle. This virtuous circle begins with effective, locally derived governance that supports broad community buy-in. (8) This then provides the critical human intelligence (HUMINT) that allows the government to combat militancy. This capacity to combat militancy contributes to the security and governance that yields the broad support that allows the circle to perpetuate itself.
In Somalia, on the other hand, it is uneven, unpredictable, and often corrupt governance that gives al-Shabaab the space it requires to operate so effectively. (9) Al-Shabaab, much like the Taliban in Afghanistan, mixes brutality with efficiency and predictability to secure the support--often through fear and terror--required to survive and thrive in many parts of Somalia. The government of Somaliland understands this, and despite severe limitations on its national budget, it has largely managed to thwart al-Shabaab's efforts to expand its influence in the territory that it controls. However, Somaliland faces a growing list of challenges that include stalled governmental reforms, refugee and migrant inflows from Yemen and Ethiopia, climate change, and worryingly high youth unemployment. It is in Somaliland's relatively undeveloped and less well-governed border areas where its efforts to counter al-Shabaab are most in danger of being compromised and overwhelmed.
Battling Militancy with Governance
Somaliland, which declared its independence from Somalia in 1991, has spent nearly three decades building its capacity to govern. The former British protectorate was briefly independent in 1960 before it joined with what was Italian Somalia. Almost immediately after its union with Somalia, friction arose between Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, and Mogadishu over the centralization of power and other issues. These tensions only increased with the rise of Siad Barre, Somalia's president turned dictator. The Somali National Movement (SNM) was formed in 1981 with the goal of overthrowing Barre. The SNM was most active in northern Somalia where Barre launched a brutal war that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 civilians. (10)
After Barre was overthrown in 1991, the SNM was instrumental in Somaliland's decision to declare its independence. Many of the leaders of the SNM went on to play important roles in what was to become the government of Somaliland. The formation of the government of Somaliland was fraught in its early years as officials grappled with clan and inter-clan rivalries, the disarmament of militias, and the creation and formation of the structures of governance. However, by 2003, Somaliland had transitioned to a multi-party democracy that has subsequently held parliamentary elections and has elected three presidents. (11)
Somaliland has adopted a kind of hybrid government that is very much of its own making. Clan elders continue to play formal and informal roles in governance and are represented in Somaliland's upper house of parliament, the Guurti. It is this hybrid form of government and the fact that Somaliland has had to contend with little outside interference that have most contributed to its relative stability. (12) However, Somaliland, just like Somalia, has battled and continues to combat the pernicious threat of al-Shabaab and, more generally, militancy.
Between 2003 and 2004, jihadis murdered four foreign aid workers in Somaliland--an Italian nurse (2003), two British teachers (October 2003), and a Kenyan aid worker (March 2004). (13) The attacks prompted the government of Somaliland, with some assistance from the United Nations and United Kingdom, to create the Special Protection Unit (SPU), a police force tasked with protecting foreign organizations in its territory and those who work for them. At the same time, Somaliland began to build up its intelligence-gathering capabilities in response to the increased threats from militant groups. (14)
On October 29, 2008, suicide bombers launched coordinated attacks on three targets in Hargeisa and one in the neighboring semi-autonomous Puntland State of Somalia. In Hargeisa, the presidential palace, Ethiopian consulate, and UNDP offices were all bombed, leaving 25 dead. (15) While al-Shabaab never claimed credit for the attacks, U.S. authorities and officials in Somaliland blamed the group and al-Qa'ida for the attacks. (16)
For officials in Somaliland, the attacks were a wake-up call. It was after these attacks that the government began to focus more of its limited resources on local governance, counterterrorism, and community-driven intelligence initiatives. (17) Officials within the executive branch and the ministries of interior and defense recognized that they had been lulled into a false sense of security by the relative stability that Somaliland had enjoyed since 1997. Efforts to strengthen local and district governance and to build ties between these communities and the police and military were redoubled following the 2008 bombings. (18)
The link between effective, predictable, and reliable governance--especially at the local level--and counterterrorism efforts was recognized at the most senior levels of government. To that end, the government of President Dahir Riyale...