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The United States, Somalia, and the Deadlock of “Counter-Terrorism"

Jason C. Mueller, PhD

November 28, 2022

On October 29, 2022 a pair of car bombs exploded outside of Somalia’s education ministry in the capital city of Mogadishu, killing at least 100 while injuring over 300. Approximately five years earlier, in the same location, a truck bomb exploded, killing approximately 500 while injuring 300. The militant group believed to be responsible for both bombings: al-Shabaab (Arabic: “The Youth”). Al-Shabaab has been waging a 15+ year insurgency against the feeble Somali government, it’s regional allies, and the United States.

For the past 15 years, the same tit-for-tat occurs: al-Shaabaab attacks, the Somali government vows to crush al-shabaab, and allies worldwide expressed support for the Somali government. Meanwhile, al-shabaab continues waging an insurgency against the Somali government and its allies and Somali citizens, undeterred. At many points over the prior 15 years, al-Shabaab has managed to occupy and govern more strategic territory than the government of Somalia itself. Furthermore, during this time, the US has worked closely with the Somali and neighboring state militaries to wage a largely covert war of so-called counter-terrorism.

The prior two decades of US, Ethiopian, and Kenyan military excursions have almost always exacerbated the degree of violence in the region. Whether we are talking about the US CIA providing hundreds of thousand of dollars to a failed putsch by ‘secular warlords’ to stop a coalition of largely popular Islamists from gaining power in 2006, the US-supported Ethiopian invasion and occupation of Somalia from 2006-2009, the Kenyan invasion of Somalia in 2011, the US’ decade-long drone-strike campaign in the region, or various other initiatives…all seem to fail at the task of “countering terrorism.”

Now, allow me to pause the story on Somalia for an adjacent but important commentary. When people ask the philosopher Slavoj Žižek how to go about solving the world's social problems, they are often unsatisfied with his response. His reply usually explains how the job of the philosopher – or critical thinker more broadly – is not necessary to provide direct answers, insomuch as it is to reconsider questions from a fresh perspective. As he mentions in one interview, “We cannot provide answers…maybe even more important than providing answers is to change the questions, to show how the way we formulate a problem can be part of the problem.”

The point made by Žižek is that revisiting our taken-for-granted assumptions about ‘problem-solving’ might help unveil hidden ideological assumptions embedded within them. The outcome of this moment for critical (self)reflection may end up creating a new space for theorizing and answering the issues we hope to address.

Now, let us return to US-Somali relations and the deadlock of current “counter-terrorism” policies. As a commentary in the Long War Journal recently declared, “since resuming military activity inside Somalia earlier this year, the Biden Administration has ramped up the pace of airstrikes in the Horn of Africa.” And, as another recent commentary at Responsible Statecraft stated, “it’s been a long time since the United States was not bombing Somalia.” Given that the US and Somali governments’ entire premise for waging a protracted and costly war of counter-terrorism is to prevent terrorism, it is a major failure on that metric alone.

Perhaps it is time for us to revisit the issue of political violence in the region and unveil some of the unspoken assumptions of the current counter-terrorism efforts. The unspoken logic of pouring time and resources into this 15-year failed effort assumes military-based solutions will solve social problems. There is rarely an effort made among public officials to contextualize the drivers of inequality and upheaval in the region. This is especially true in the US, which recently waged other large counter-terrorism/counter-insurgency efforts around the globe with little to show for it.

In March 2022, the US State Department declared their “commit[ment] to helping Somalia’s government strengthen democratic institutions, improve stability and security, and deliver services for the Somali people.” After al-Shabaab attacked the Hayat Hotel In August 2022, the US embassy vowed “continued support for Somalia to hold murderers accountable & build when others destroy.” Likewise, after the recent attack outside of the education ministry, the Biden Administration’s National Security Advisor released a statement declaring, “The United States remains committed to supporting the Federal Government of Somalia in its fight to prevent such callous terrorist acts.” Similar statements were made 15+ years ago when the US government was ramping up to wage a proxy war in the region.

None of these points should minimize the fact that al-Shabaab is a reactionary militant group with absolutely no interest in sublating the contradictions of global capitalism to achieve a socialist utopia. They are not expunged from responsibility for their violent acts. However, ongoing counter-terrorism policies continue failimh. Why is this? What motives do the US and allies have for decades-long interventionism in Somalia if their aims are not merely benevolent peacebuilding?

A June 2022 essay in International Banker hypothesized “commercial factors have influenced the US’ return to Somalia, with oil production in the country having come sharply into focus this year.” In the same essay, the Chief Executive of a US company named Coastline Explorations is quoted as saying, “Somalia has the longest coastline in Africa and the longest in warm water that is undrilled by the oil and gas community.” It is worth reminding the reader that the global energy sector is eager to seek hydrocarbons in a region where corporations have been forced to “put their investments on ice” since the 1980s – when Somalia began descending into civil war.

So, is all hope lost? Is Somalia destined to be the playground for capitalist proxy wars and terrorist insurgencies for the indefinite future? Will thousands of more Somali citizens die, getting caught between protracted State and non-State actor political violence? Or is there an alternative?

The Federation of Somali Trade Unions (FESTU) has operated against nearly all odds, facing threats and challenges from emergent lumpen-developmentalist capitalist class in Somalia, predatory governmental forces, and al-Shabaab insurgents. Their list of issues to address are exhaustive, and their vision of class struggle is expansive and inclusive to issues of social reproduction and justice beyond the workplace. On May Day 2022 FESTU offered the following statement: “Working women and men of Somalia, we need to address the underlying causes of slave wages and exploitations as a united front with urgency. No one is spared, and none but ourselves will liberate us. Victory on these demands is possible if we are resolute.”

This essay does not provide clear answers for how to solve the problems outlined above. It encourages us to reevaluate how we define and operationalize a program that is designed to prevent political violence while promoting human flourishing. The current assumptions and actions have failed. The ruling Somali political bloc will not ‘defeat’ al-Shabaab in any meaningful way any time soon. Neither will US military or CIA-based covert warfare tactics. Neither will interventions from neighboring countries.

Likewise, al-Shabaab will not ‘defeat’ the Somali government and its backers, who have the monopoly on ‘legitimate violence,’ and who show no signs of changing track. Despite the efforts of Core capital to penetrate the region in pursuit of gas, oil, and more, the insurgency will probably continue thwarting natural resource extraction in the region.

With some time to reflect, other questions may also emerge. For example, what obligations and responsibilities might the US government have to the population of a country that they have waged covert war on for the prior two decades? In addition to decades of political violence, Somalia faces recurrent and deadly drought-induced famines that place millions at risk of starvation and death. These events are linked to broader negative changes in the global climate, which capitalist States like the US have played a major role in facilitating.

We must theorize ways to repair the harm done to the people of Somalia by understanding the totality of “of nature, capital, and power.” In other words, don’t “think small” about fragments of particular experiences in Somalia, as if they’re unrelated to larger world-scale tendencies. But don’t “think big” in a way that downplays specifics of suffering in Somalia, in favor of an abstract theory of universalizing global capitalism. Instead, think dialectically. This means our investigation of concrete circumstances in Somalia might illustrate a universal tendency of world-scale accumulation and predation. Taking such an approach lands us back with the thought of Slavoj Žižek, an ardent proponent of theorizing concrete universality.

We should look for social forces within Somalia – those forces already struggling to overcome the antagonistic dynamics present within society – and help theorize their relationship to larger trends of global class struggle. Perhaps we can learn from them, with them, and construct an internationalist platform that can overcome the dynamics of imperialist realism. Our chances of overcoming the contradictions of capitalism, political violence, and stagnating lumpen development in the world system will increase if we pause, reflect, and continue asking questions about the deadlock of current “counter-terrorism” policy.


Jason C. Mueller holds a PhD in Sociology. His prior research spans a wide range of issues, from the drivers of political violence in Somalia, to the capitalist realism of “OK Boomer” memes. You can find his prior publications in Critical Sociology, Peace Review, The Sociological Review Magazine, and other interdisciplinary outlets.

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