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US drone strikes in Somalia likely to rally local support for militants

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(Read caption) African Union peacekeepers from Uganda, wearing their campaign medals, prepare to leave Mogadishu, Somalia on July 1. Somalia's Defense Minister Abdulhakim Mohamoud Haji Faqi said US military forces landed in Somalia to retrieve the bodies of dead or wounded militants after a US drone strike targeted insurgents last week, and that he weants the US to carry out more strikes against Al Qaeda-linked militants.

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A lot of journalists and analysts have been abuzz over the recent drone strikes in SomaliaThe New York Times headline, “US Expands Its Drone War Into Somalia,” is typical. I think the narrative of a “new” US offensive in Somalia misses at least two critical points.

First, I see the drone strikes not as something brand new, but as a continuation of earlier US actions in Somalia, such as a helicopter raid in September 2009 (in fairness to the NYT, their article points this out – my disagreement is with the broader framing expressed in headlines). The idea of using drones in Somalia, moreover, has been under consideration since at least March 2010. The vehicle may have changed, but the underlying US objective of assassinating key figures linked with the rebel movement Al Shabab has not changed.

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Second, even if the drone strikes do represent a serious change in US policy, there is nothing to say that Somalis – including Somalis who are not members of Al Shabab – will not perceive the strikes as part of a larger, and unwelcome, pattern of foreign intervention. One Somali academic warns of a kind of blowback (h/t ZJ):

Dr. Omar Ahmed, an academic and Somali politician, told Somalia Report that airstrikes targeting al-Shabaab will only serve to increase the local support of the militants.

“There is no reason for the western countries to use airstrikes against al-Shabaab. It will only increase the generations supporting al-Shabaab,” he said. “For example, when the Americans killed Aden Eyrow, the capability of al-Shabaab was very low. From that day forward, the militia increased in size day-after-day. They recruited many youths, persuading them that infidels attacked their country and want to capture it.“

Whether one agrees with Dr. Ahmed or not, he points to long memories of outside intervention in Somalia, and also to the capacity of insurgent groups to use such intervention as a rallying cry. The Ethiopian occupation of Somalia from late 2006 to early 2009, after all, was a formative episode for al Shabab, and many see America’s hand behind the Ethiopian invasion. America also funds the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), a force comprised of mainly Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers. New interventions could trigger old resentments. Put even more simply, the drone strikes are a political as well as military act, and the political consequences are less predictable – and perhaps less favorable to US goals – than the military successes.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

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