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US airstrikes against the Islamic State in Somalia – Dr. Barend Prinsloo

November 14, 2017


US airstrikes against the Islamic State in Somalia

By Barend Prinsloo

Subject Head: Security Studies and Management, North-West University, South Africa

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 5 (2017), Number 23 (November 2017) 


In 2017, the United States (US) carried out 26 attacks in Somalia against extremist targets. Although most of them were directed at al-Shabaab, at least two airstrikes were for the first time against the Islamic State (IS). The first attack, consisting of two separate airstrikes, occurred on 3 November 2017 where at least six missiles struck the remote mountainous village of Buqa, roughly 60 kilometers from Qandala town in the northern state of Puntland. The second attack occurred on 12 November 2017, also in the Puntland area. [1] [2][3][4][5]  The US conducts airstrikes, typically drone strikes, in Somalia under the authority for self-defense and collective self-defense when American advisers accompany AMISOM and Somali government military forces. [6]


For more than a decade, al-Shabaab sought to rule Somalia through Islamic Shariah law. In 2015, some of its fighters started to join IS. Though some small pro-IS cells are in al-Shabaab’s southern Somalia stronghold, the prominent cell is situated in Puntland, a location known for arms trafficking and being relatively close to Yemen.[7] The United Nations confirms that at least one weapons shipment per month (emanating predominantly from Yemen) are being delivered to Puntland.

Known IS intermediaries between senior IS leaders in Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic are reportedly also situated in Yemen. IS leaders in Somalia receive orders as well as financing through hawala money transfers, from Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic. The most prominent IS arms and ammunition trafficker is Isse Mohamoud Yusuf “Yullux”[8], the cousin of Abdiqadir Mumin. Yullux is known to be located in Puntland. Mumin was designated as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” by the US and believed to control the IS faction in Somalia.[9] He was born in Puntland and lived in Sweden before moving to the UK in the 2000s, where he was granted British citizenship. Mumin switched allegiance from Al-Qaeda to IS in October 2015.[10] His whereabouts are unknown.

Under the guidance of Mumin, the IS presence expanded in the Bari region of north-east Puntland, grown in numbers, and attracted an increasingly broad range of recruits. In October 2016, IS briefly took control of the town of Qandala, on the north coast of Puntland, and carried out its first suicide attack, in Bosaso. [11] IS declared Qandala the seat of the “Islamic Caliphate in Somalia.” They beheaded a number of civilians and caused more than 20,000 residents to flee.[12] Possibly in response to the growing prominence of IS, Al-Shabaab imposed more violent punishments, including amputations, beheading and stoning, on those found guilty of spying, desertion or breaches of sharia law. Local forces, supported by the US, gained control of Qandala in December 2016 but the presence of IS remained prevalent in the surrounding countryside.[13]

Addressing this new threat and the growing power of al-Shabaab, the US has sent more troops to Somalia and established a new operational mandate[14][15]. In March 2017, The Trump administration gave the US military the authorization to conduct offensive counterterrorism airstrikes in Somalia if there is “a reasonable certainty” that no civilians will be hurt.[16] The airstrikes against IS may have targeted top leaders of the group[17]. Following the airstrikes the US issued a statement which concluded: (the) “U.S. forces will continue to use all authorized and appropriate measures to protect Americans and to disable terrorist threats. This includes partnering with AMISOM and Somali National Security Forces (SNSF); targeting terrorists, their training camps and safe havens throughout Somalia, the region and around the world.”[18]


It is reasonable to ask whether IS can survive as a non-territorial entity. The group has distinguished itself from other jihadi factions by virtue of its success in capturing and governing territory. IS claimed that its territorial strength (tamkin) showed it to be the legitimate Islamic state, promised by God in the Qur’an (24:55). [19] It was thus imperative to ensure that Qandala did not remain under the control of IS and explains why the US supported action to retake control of the city.

In addition, while IS’s overall capacity remains limited in Somalia, an influx of foreign fighters fleeing military pressure in Iraq, the Syrian Arab Republic and elsewhere could present a significant threat to the region. [20] The broader connection between IS  ‘provinces’ (wilayat) and ‘soldiers of the caliphate’ (including Somalia, Kenya, Indonesia, the Philippines, China and Bangladesh) presents a strategic threat to international peace and security.  It makes thus sense that US airstrikes would be aimed at leaders and intermediaries of IS aimed at breaking this strategic connection.

However, if the provinces of IS (including those operating in Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bahrain) are the caliphate’s future hope, a rivalry may emerge. The different titles (provinces vs soldiers of the caliphate) may spur a form of ‘outbidding’, a strategy deployed when ‘multiple organizations are engaged in a competition and use violence to increase their prestige’.[21]  The increased use of violence by al-Shabaab is a good example that IS should be rooted out wherever it sprouts.

Airstrikes, however, is a temporary solution. If Somalia is not to slide further into chaos, to be effective, the Somalian government must gain control of all the areas in Somalia it does not currently govern and reduce the ability of al-Shabaab and other extremist groups to plan and carry out further attacks. What would help a great deal is social cohesion and media pressure. The people must feel that the social compact between their leaders and the people is being upheld because without this compact, Somalia will never achieve stability.[22] In the end, it would be the local people who root out the extremists.
























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