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Al-Shabaab and increasing civilian harm in Somalia

In 2019, Somalia witnessed a 14% rise in civilian casualties from explosive violence compared to 2018. Such an increase has led Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) to review the last four years of explosive violence in Somalia, and to contemplate what this may signify for the decade ahead.

Between 2015 and 2016, there was an 83% rise in rates of civilian harm in Somalia from explosive weapons. For Somalia’s citizens, the proceeding three years proved the deadliest of all the 2010s: some 45% of all civilian casualties in that decade occurred between 2017 and 2019.

Such a rise in civilian harm is almost solely down to the increase in non-state actor violence. The dominant terrorist organisation in Somalia is al-Shabaab and all credible evidence points to the group being behind most civilian casualties in Somalia in recent years. Such harm defies reports of its supposed decline; indeed, if anything, al-Shabaab is demonstrating increasing potency of late.

The evidence that al-Shabaab is behind the rising civilian casualty rate in Somalia is substantial. In 2018 and 2019 alone, AOAV’s explosive violence data showed that al-Shabaab were responsible for 83% of all civilian casualties in Somalia. 94% of those were targeted by Improvised Explosive Devices; al-Shabaab is notorious for deploying explosive weapons in its attacks. Furthermore, the UN announced in October 2019 it had definitive evidence that al-Shabaab were creating ‘home-made’ explosives.

The worrying rise in civilian harm in Somalia and al-Shabaab’s persistent role in that trend are inarguable. What lies behind this pattern, however, is an equal cause for concern.

The possible correlation between US airstrikes and civilian casualty rates in Somalia

In March 2017, the Pentagon received approval from US President Donald Trump to extend its campaign against al-Shabaab militants in the Horn of Africa nation. This principally meant increasing the rate of airstrikes against the militants, with commanders no longer requiring high-level vetting to order strikes in conflict areas.

Experts such as Hussein Sheikh-Ali, a former Somali National Security Advisor, have warned that – at best – US policy against al-Shabaab is proving ineffective. At worst, they argue, it is inflaming tensions and provoking al-Shabaab to prove they can carry out further attacks.

Data collected by AOAV supports this potentially damning verdict on US intervention in Somalia. The 37% rise in the number of US airstrikes in 2017 recorded by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) was accompanied by a 91% increase in the number of overall civilian casualties recorded by AOAV in the same year. Admittedly, our data found that there was a 90% decrease in the number of civilian casualties in 2018 in Somalia despite US airstrikes rates being roughly consistent with 2017 figures.  But there a 38% increase in US airstrikes in 2019 was accompanied by a 14% rise in civilian harm.  This raises the question if there is a possible correlation between US airstrikes and civilian casualty rates in Somalia.

Mounting evidence also suggests that a number of civilian casualties have been caused directly by increasingly frequent US airstrikes. An investigation conducted by Amnesty International provides credible evidence that at least 14 civilians may have been killed and 8 injured in US airstrikes since April 2017. According to the BIJ, up to 60 civilians were killed in US air strikes between 2001 and 2016.

The resilience of al-Shabaab

The positive correlation between rising US airstrikes and civilian casualty rates in Somalia can be traced, as Sheikh-Ali argues, to air attacks provoking further violent responses from al-Shabaab. As Caitriona Dowd, assistant professor in Security Studies at Dublin City University, explains attacks against civilian targets “signal to other groups and the state their [al-Shabaab’s] significance and relevance.”

Bryce Reeder and John Smith of the Foreign Policy Analysis Journal (FPAJ) examined US airstrikes in Somalia from 2006 to 2016 and subsequent violent attacks against civilians on the ground to calculate that such attacks were 5.5 times more likely to occur during airstrike periods. This figure focusses solely on al-Shabaab attacks, and though the years of 2017 – 2019 are not included in Reeder and Smith’s analysis, AOAV data for these three years suggests this pattern is continuing.

What makes al-Shabaab able to conduct such responses, regardless of damage it sustains due to foreign intervention, is its adaptability. Despite sustaining heavy casualties in US airstrikes between 2017 and 2019, al-Shabaab’s organisational framework has adapted, enabling it to continue carrying out violent attacks.

AOAV findings suggest that at least 350 militants were killed by US airstrikes in 2019, and 360 were killed in 2019. Nevertheless, specific tactics employed by the group have enabled it to avoid organisational breakdown as a result. For example, militants now move in groups of no more than 4 and congregate only to carry out attacks. A decrease in militant numbers, explains the 20% decrease in attacks on ‘hard’ or military targets in proportion to attacks on ‘soft’ civilian targets, which ACLED has documented. The one-sided effectiveness of US airstrikes is evident here: while violence against armed actors has decreased, violent incidents involving al-Shabaab and civilian casualties have been largely consistent. There was an approximate average of 17 to 20 violent events a month in 2018, killing an estimated average of 40 to 50 civilians per month.

Meanwhile, US airstrikes have done little to loosen al-Shabaab’s grip over southern and central rural areas of Somalia. In these regions, the group has infiltrated local government administrations and is imposing levies on sales of agricultural produce to help fund its operations. Indeed, The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) has identified that many of the attacks in 2018 occurred due to problems with tax collection. The terrorist organisation has simultaneously maintained its reach into urban centres such as Mogadishu despite being ousted from such areas as early as 2010, due to its intelligence network al-Amniyat. Members of the network are never told who other members are and remain hidden in government territory so that they are immune to airstrikes and other state-led attacks.

This set of changes, undertaken by al-Shabaab in order to survive increasingly combative US engagement since 2017, demonstrate the limited effect air intervention has on an organisation that is so ingrained into the socio-political framework of a society. The changes also provide insight into the inverse correlation between al-Shabaab attack rates and numbers of Somali civilian casualties in recent years.

Declining al-Shabaab attack rates and rising rates of civilian harm  

In 2018, al-Shabaab militants conducted 54 violent attacks, harming 687 people; in 2019, they carried out just 39 but caused 791 civilian casualties. This was mainly due to declining numbers of IED attacks, which dropped by 23% between 2018 and 2019, but which claimed 14% more civilian casualties in the latter year than in the former. As AOAV researchers have previously argued, this suggests a potential shift towards more selective attacks that have greater consequences.

The same researchers discovered that a greater proportion of al-Shabaab attacks are now occurring in urban areas, which is in alignment with the strategic changes it has been forced to undergo due to US airstrikes. The group’s increasing reliance on its intelligence network which lies in urban centres may provide answers to the increasing harm done by fewer attacks. Al-Amniyat is known to specialise in suicide attacks, which represent the largest sub-type of IED attacks (excluding those listed as ‘unclear’; due to the nature of such attacks, many are) in AOAV’s data set for the previous two years. In 2018, 25 suicide attacks killed 356 people; in 2019, 16 killed 649.

Despite a lack of detailed data for 2017, it is apparent that al-Shabaab may have accelerated its shift towards higher-casualty civilian attacks in the year when US airstrikes intensified. The group’s promise to increase its activity in retaliation to US actions, proceeded by the infamous October 2017 truck bombing, which caused at least 587 casualties, is evidence of this.

64 violent events (excluding US airstrikes) took place in Somalia in 2017. These caused 1,584 civilian casualties (note that this figure has been produced factoring in the confirmed, minimum, number of civilian casualties of US airstrikes in 2017, which currently stands at 0. The BIJ speculates that up to 15 people may have lost their lives in US air attacks that year, but the only confirmed killing of civilians admitted by the United States Africa Command occurred in April 2018).

Though we cannot say definitively what proportion of those 64 attacks were carried out by al-Shabaab, just one of their attacks caused over a third of all civilian casualties for that year. The only other year in which the number of civilian casualties in Somalia has come close to the above total figure was in 2011, when 1,326 people were harmed. Ominously, this was the same year Kenya invaded Somalia to drive al-Shabaab away from its borders. It is evident that, when presented with foreign threats that place strains on its resources, the terrorist group can rely on its resilient organisational infrastructure to plan selective attacks that claim scores of victims.

The historical relationship between foreign interventions and civilian casualty rates in Somalia testifies to the dire need for nations such as the US to re-evaluate their foreign policy around violent non-state actors such as al-Shabaab. The Trump administration has shown no sign of relenting its air campaign against al-Shabaab, and in 2019 al-Shabaab attacks have mirrored those carried out in the preceding two years. From consistent numbers of car-bomb attacks to hotel attacks in urban centres and an intersection truck-bombing in Mogadishu which caused at least 230 casualties, the terrorist group enters the new decade as an increasingly dangerous threat to Somalia’s civilian population.

The rise of civilian harm in Somalia over the past three to four years speaks to the difficulty foreign powers have in using violent methods to attack a group whose violence has far fewer constraints than their own. As an organisation, al-Shabaab remains ingrained within Somali society, with airstrikes lacking the nuance and political weight to allow US officials to even contemplate the eradication of the terrorist group’s intelligence network or rural government administrations. The familiar spiral of strikes and retaliatory violence is likely to continue into the 2020s – and it is almost certainly Somalia’s citizens who will continue to pay the price for it.