A Somali national army soldier stands in formation after receiving his certificate of completion at a logistics course graduation ceremony. (Photo by MC2 Evan Parker)

‘Soft-Power’ Counterterrorism: Turkey’s Military Presence in Somalia and Tactical and Operational Implications for Al-Shabaab

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The Turkey-Somalia partnership grew amid Somalia’s devastating humanitarian crisis in 2011. The then formed Turkey-Somalia partnership forged under the banner of humanitarian initiative eventually morphed into a nation-building project, which involved supporting Somalia in building roads, hospitals, educational institutions, and providing other forms of economic support. While Turkey remains on an economic development and nation-building trajectory in Somalia, it has also heavily invested in strengthening Somali military capacities to confront the threat of terrorism in the country. To demonstrate, through trainings held both in Turkey and Somalia, Turkey has to date trained close to 1,500 Somali soldiers out of its 10,000 commitment, working in tandem with the central Somali government to reduce Somali military dependence on the African Union (AU) troops and sustain combat efficiency in the long run. In addition, Turkey is building and training the nation’s air force, deemed a crucial military component in the fight against al Shabaab and other terrorist organizations. [i]

Manifested primarily in the form of military training offered to Somali troops, Turkey’s military presence in Somalia has by some accounts led to operational and strategic shifts on the part of al Shabaab. Such shifts were in part implemented to overcome power asymmetries and better confront government and government-protected targets since Turkey’s increased military profile in the country. Prior to Turkey’s involvement, al-Shabaab attacks were mostly directed at the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), the U.S. military, and other international forces in Somalia. Given Turkey’s focus on training and equipping Somali military force since opening its large military training facility in Mogadishu, Somalia, the group has shifted its operations and tactics to focus on large-scale attacks not only against civilians but also against Turkish aid workers, doctors, engineers, and facilities.[ii]

Turkish campaign of discrediting al Shabaab movement and authority in Somalia emerged in response to some of al-Shabaab’s most horrific and destructive terrorist attacks in the nation’s history. Turkey’s strategy of joining international efforts in condemning Al-Shabaab and supporting the Somali government unconditionally in their fight against the group—coupled with the prospect of battling a well-equipped and trained Somali military by the Turkish government—have significantly affected al Shabaab’s operational course. Perceived as a direct enemy, al Shabaab began targeting Turkey’s interests and Turkish development projects in Somalia. Aside from targeted efforts to undermine al-Shabaab by providing the Somali government with the resources and the technical support they need to defeat al Shabaab, the prevalent argument by many in Somalia is that Turkey has also assumed the moral lead in becoming the most credible Muslim country standing up against extremism and terrorism in the country.

Central to Somalia’s internal security are international partners’ efforts aimed at training Somali military and providing for the country’s overall security and counter-terrorism strategy. For instance, the U.S. is also providing military training for the Somali army, albeit commitment to counter-terrorism operations remains limited to providing air support and tactical guidance on the battlefield with the Somali soldiers. It is estimated that the U.S. government has trained less than 2,000 Somali soldiers but continues to keep on its payroll roughly 6,000 Somali soldiers of the Somali National Army (SNA). [iii]

Perceptions of the Somali local and diaspora population on Turkey’s influence in Somalia

On March 2020, the authors conducted focus groups and interviews with a group of ten Somali-Americans, namely in San Diego, CA (n=3), Minneapolis, MN (n=3), Columbus, OH (n=2), and Seattle, WA (n=2). All the participants were demographically homogenous (e.g. all male, ages 18-60). The Somali diaspora in the U.S. are major contributors in Somalia’s recovery through participating in the economy, remittances, humanitarian assistance, and security reforms. This group of participants are a mixture of former Somali government employees, pre-and post-civil war, and the youth who are actively engaged in Somali affairs and inspire to return to Somalia at some point. The aim was to elicit their perceptions and viewpoints on Turkey’s increased presence and influence in Somalia and the Horn of Africa in general. Participant responses were evaluated against recent author research and interviews with politicians, policy experts, and security professionals in Mogadishu, Somalia. [iv]

The imperative for Turkey’s military presence in Somalia is often explained through the lens of phased and likely future withdrawal of the AU and AMISOM peacekeeping mission from the country. Along with perceptions of increased and improved sense of security, participants underscored Turkey’s political commitment, experience, and sensitivity in handling Somali domestic politics. These perceptions were supported by highlighting Turkey’s efforts to expand its political-military sway beyond Mogadishu and to empower the SAN and the Somali Federal Government (SDF) to establish monopoly throughout the country. [v]

Drawing from personal experiences in Somalia, some participants were better placed to view the lack of Somali federal government control over armed and militia groups organized along clan lines, whom they regarded as largely manipulated and enticed into violence by means of both internal and external forces and factors, respectively.[vi] In crediting Turkey’s efforts to address the security situation on the ground and, by extension, fill the void in the federal government’s lack of capacity to provide adequate protection, some of the participants noted:

“The Turkish government helps regional governments as well as they are providing critical support to Somalis everywhere. However, Turkey understand[s] the importance of Mogadishu and the significance the capital has. If Mogadishu is peaceful and developed, the rest of the country will follow” (O.H. 3/18/2020, Columbus, Ohio).

Participants also reflected on Turkey’s shifting of military resources in the Horn of Africa and its expanded capacity to further project power in the region. The question of the establishment of a military base, largest of its kind outside Turkey, was linked to Somali-Turkey security, diplomatic, economic, and trade interests, and not necessarily to Turkey’s military domination. On the issue of security, specifically, participants portrayed Turkey’s military base as serving a training function for Somali security forces, a rather “soft power” approach to confronting security challenges currently facing Somalia, namely al Shabaab and the Islamic State in Somalia (ISS), while not discounting Turkey’s prerogative, as an important geopolitical actor, to expand its political clout and military involvement in the region, specifically:

“Many countries have military bases in Somalia but they are there to harm Somalia rather help Somalia. Turkey is the only country that uses its military base to support and help make Somalia safer” (K.M. 3/18/2020, Minneapolis, Minnesota).

Similar viewpoint was highlighted in several other respondents’ comments:

“Turkey’s military support for Somalia is very important; it’s the only way we will defeat Al-Shabaab when we have a real legitimate Somali military. African Union [AU] troops are just in Somalia to get paychecks but Turkish training and military support its rooted in self-sufficiency for Somalis” (M.A. 3/18/2020, San Diego, CA).

“I really don’t like the militarization of Somalia, from the U.S. to African Union, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya and more including Turkey. However, I understand that Turkey has been instrumental partner which captured the hearts and minds [of] Somalis but in general we should be calling for less outside military” (S.A. 3/18/2020, Seattle, Washington).

Many of the arguments in support of Turkey’s presence were discussed in the framework of developing Somali domestic capabilities not only to prepare and respond to security threats in the country, but also to facilitate partner, both domestic and international, engagement on security related issues. The current support was also expressed as a matter of economic necessity, chiefly against the backdrop of Somalia’s struggling economy and the crippling of government capacities. This particular area highlights both the complexities inherent in counterterrorism doctrine and Turkey’s economic and development paradigm as a key to “winning [Somali] hearts and minds” and improving security in Somalia in a counter-terrorism context.

Aside from stressing Turkey’s reconstruction and development efforts as a core component of its counter-terrorism strategy in Somalia, respondent viewpoints set the stage for wider discussions on peace and resolution efforts to affect local perceptions of what the majority of respondents described as failed internationally-mandated policies in the country and further efforts to hinder local support for terrorist groups like al Shabaab and ISS. Deemed progressive in this respect, Turkey is portrayed as best positioned to rectify past international failed policies, leverage international support and input from community representatives, provide economic alternatives to potential al Shabaab, ISS, etc. potential recruits, and meet the demands of Somali communities that are historically sympathetic (vulnerable) to violent extremist and terrorist groups.

Case in point:

“Before the government collapse, our partners in Somalia were the Soviet Union on one side and the United States on the other side. When we kicked the soviets out ironically the U.S. turned its back on U.S. like the Soviets during our war against Ethiopia. That’s the day Somalia lost international partners. Today Turkey, our partner, is most reliable because they are action oriented” (O.H. 3/18/2020, Columbus, Ohio).

“Turkey has supported Somalia with real substantial efforts that uplifts Somalia from a failed state. All the projects they undertake has a real positive impact for ordinary Somalis. Nation building is something that is more than just giveaways, its building infrastructures that are sustainable and Turkey is mastering nation building with its successful projects in Somalia” (A.H. 3/18/2020, Minneapolis, Minnesota).               

Conclusion

The Turkish influence in Somalia and the Horn of Africa in general is often described as an attempt by the current Turkish government to project Ottoman era ambitions and reestablish Turkish influence throughout Africa. Others attribute Turkey’s ongoing efforts to its aspirations to exploit Africa’s, Somalia included, natural resources and rival  Saudi Arabia and the UAE.[vii] While such lines of contention may hold true, perhaps a good indication of Turkey’s current motivations in Africa also lie in its efforts to strengthen its political influence, political credibility, and political support of its foreign policy initiatives. Against the public perception of the faltering government capacities to meet economic demands and effectively secure the country, Turkey’s political-military engineering and buy-in in Somalia seems to have evolved rather organically, with some respondents exerting spontaneous expression of pride in Turkish involvement in the country:

“If you look at all the counties that train Somali military or police including the U.S., the U.K. the UAE and the United Nations and compare that with the Turkish trained forces, you will see the difference in quality, discipline, equipment, technical know-how and moral. If the Somali government has any military force that’s beneficial to Somalia, they are Turkish trained and equipped” (J.M. 3/18/2020, Minneapolis, Minnesota).

Arguably, popular acceptance of its military and nation-building efforts is likely to stand a long-term chance provided it continues to effectively sell the vision of broad strategic and geopolitical interests with Somalia.[viii] In describing Turkey’s strategy and engagement in Somalia, some authors have noted, “ Ankara’s approach in Somalia, underwritten by Erdogan’s appeal to Islamic solidarity and a more visible presence on the ground than traditional donor, have been widely lauded by Somali’s.” [ix] Despite the magnitude of its involvement in Somalia, Turkey continues to be criticized on the grounds that it needs to expand beyond building a strong Somali military and towards investing in the ideological fight against Al-Shabaab and other insurgent and terrorist groups in the country.

The instrumentality of the Somali diaspora in reconstructing and reforming the image of a failed Somali state has been visible for decades now. The Somali diaspora has proven critical in ensuring support for domestic functions of economic development and safety and security as well as mediating the attitudes of political elites in handling post-conflict reconstruction efforts, managing partisan and clan politics, and influencing public opinion in Somalia and beyond. Somali-American community, in particular, has constructed its diasporic identity vis-à-vis its ongoing relationship with the Somali homeland, serving as a crucial transnational player with direct agency on conflict resolution and political developments in the country. As also discussed in the article, Somali respondents seem welcoming of Turkey’s support, both economic and military, which they also perceive as proving positive results for Somalia. The influence of Somali diaspora is likely to remain a confounding factor in Somalia’s production and articulation of policy on any foreign engagements in Somalia.

 

Endnotes
[i] Abdirizak Ismail, SIPSS, March 20, 2020, Mogadishu, Somalia.
[ii] Aljazeera. (2020). “ Somalia: Turkish workers wounded in deadly al Shabab car bombing,” available at https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/01/somalia-turkish-workers-wounded-deadly-al-shabab-car-bombing-200118134453840.html
[iii] Abdirizak Ismail, SIPSS, March 20, 2020, Mogadishu, Somalia.
[iv] Author interviews, March 4-10, 2020, Mogadishu, Somalia.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Reuters. (2020). “ Erdogan says Somalia has invited Turkey to explore for oil in its seas: NTV,” available at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-somalia-oil/erdogan-says-somalia-has-invited-turkey-to-explore-for-oil-in-its-seas-ntv-idUSKBN1ZJ1DZ
[viii] The Conversation. (2020). “ Turkey in Africa: What a small but growing interest portends,” available at https://theconversation.com/turkey-in-africa-what-a-small-but-growing-interest-portends-130643
[ix] Vertin, Z. (2019). “ Turkey and the new scramble for Africa: Ottoman designs or unfounded fears,” available at  https://www.brookings.edu/research/turkey-and-the-new-scramble-for-africa-ottoman-designs-or-unfounded-fears/
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Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D., is a counter-terrorism researcher, lecturer and security analyst, with field research experience in the Middle East (Iraq, Syria, and Jordan), Western Europe, the Balkans, Kenya, and Central Asia. He is co-founder and director of recently initiated American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute (ACTRI), a U.S.-based research center predominantly focused on the domestic aspects of terrorism-related threats. Past positions include Research Director and Senior Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and positions and consultancies with domestic and international organizations. Homeland security, disengagement from terrorism, violent extremist and terrorist group media communication strategy and information security, messaging and counter-messaging, and the strengthening of resilience to violent extremism and terrorism through application of the rule of law represent some of the areas of research interest. Ardian obtained his PhD. in Public Policy and Administration, with a focus on Homeland Security Policy, from Walden University. He obtained his M.A. in Public Policy and Administration, from Northwestern University, and a B.A. in International Relations and Diplomacy from Dominican University.

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