David Cameron recently announced that he will be sending British troops to Somalia to assist with the efforts of African Union forces to eradicate al-Shabab in the country. While by no means a large force, estimated at some 70 military advisors, the decision has caused some public concern. Anxiety over the Prime Minister’s decision has, in small part, been stoked by the grim warning posted by the terrorist group of the treatment British soldiers can expect. For the time being, this announcement has been smuggled through the front-page headlines.
Cameron sees British involvement in the country as a means of taking more direct action against global problems, such as overseas terrorism and more pressingly, the migration crisis that engulfs Europe today. As stated in Britain’s Annual Report on National Security Strategy and Strategic Defense, to intervene in Somalia would be in keeping with Britain’s “objective” for Somalia — to make it more secure in order to reduce threats to Britain. There are reports that Britain has already been exerting military power in the area, with British Special Forces alleged to have been working in partnership with their international counterparts, disrupting al-Shabab with raids and leadership targeting operations. This alleged involvement has been unequivocally denied by the British government.
Experts and those with rudimentary knowledge of modern conflict will be wary. Many infamous conflicts involving major powers began with the presence of just advisors. Russia can recall Afghanistan in the 80s, and appears to be in the early stages of this cycle in Syria today. As it stands, it seems unlikely that Britain will increase its involvement in the country. However, question marks should still be raised as to whether Britain should seek to exercise a “greater role” in world affairs in this manner. Britain has already sought to cultivate a positive presence in Somalia, with UK Government Minister Grant Shapps announcing a green energy initiative in July, in an effort to regenerate Somaliland, in the north of the country.
Nominally, British troops will be providing logistical support and training for African Union forces already on the ground. The British Public, however, should be under no illusions. While 70 specialists and advisors will be inserted into the region, as David Cameron has emphasised, it is paramount that there will be the ‘right force protection.’ What this likely means, is that that British Military leaders and Cameron himself will not leave the overall safety of British troops to the forces of the African Union. So while it has not been explicitly stated to the public, there is likely to be a greater British military presence in Somalia than has been publicised in order to facilitate these security measures.
Those planning the protection of British forces in the country should not underestimate the task in hand. Al-Shabab controls large swathes of the region. It has frequently been able to mount attacks on Mogadishu. The group succeeded in murdering the nephew of Somalia’s president in the capital in October. At the beginning of this month, the luxury Sahafi Hotel suffered an attack by the terrorist group. Among the dead were journalists, a Somali general and the hotel owner himself. Somalia’s President, Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud, sought to play down fears that the attack represented a revitalisation of the terrorist group, but that it instead showed the final throws of a slowly decaying group.
It is true that hard-fought territorial gains have been made by African Union forces against al-Shabab. While President Mohamoud may claim that the group is struggling, al-Shabab has retained its ability to strike almost anywhere in the country. Furthermore, the prize of European soldiers should not be underestimated, nor should the lengths such groups will go to incite further involvement from participating countries.
Historically, Britain has seen involvement in Somalia during the days of colonial rule. Since then, the country has been torn apart by competing tribal factions. While a recognised national government exists in the present day, the importance of tribal ties should not be underestimated. Al-Shabab has largely been able to circumvent these powerful loyalties by extolling a potent brand of Islam. It has drawn upon the ideas and poems of the revolutionary Sayyid Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, or the so-called “mad mullah”, who waged a successful propaganda offensive in the early 20th Century, uniting Somalis together to drive out the British. The former leader of al-Shabab, Ahmed Abdi Godane – killed in a drone strike in September – himself a fine orator, was inspired by the work of the “mullah.” Without a doubt, the poetry of Sayyid Mohammed still resonates in Somalia today. The introduction of British troops would do no favours for the counter-information campaign being run by the African Union, in a country where the tradition of oral communication is still very important.
David Cameron should take a full view of the potential risk to British forces before signing off on this operation. He should consider whether risking British lives in an adversarial role, is really worth the propaganda boon for al-Shabab and the danger of escalating British involvement in such an event. Moreover, he should consider the adverse effect that British forces will have on the sensible efforts of the African Union to counter the message of al-Shabab. Cameron should take into account such measures to discredit al-Shabab and seek to take advantage of the clear evidence that the group is beginning to target its own members. Clearly, security can only be totally restored with “boots on the ground”, but in view of the level of risk that will face British forces in Somalia, British resources would surely be better served assisting undermining the malignant message being extolled by al-Shabab.
Hugh Coates is a recent graduate of Southampton University having studied History. He is particularly interested in American foreign affairs. His areas of specific knowledge include: covert operations and intelligence, particularly in the North African and Middle Eastern region.
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