US strategy against Islamic State to mirror counterterrorism efforts in Yemen, Somalia

President Barack Obama has announced that the United States will “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State (or Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL) with “a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.”

The strategy, presented in a speech to the nation on Sept. 10, will rely on local forces to do the bulk of the fighting while the US provides air strikes, intelligence and other support. This is America’s current plan of attack for al Qaeda’s regional branches in Yemen and Somalia.

“But I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil,” Obama said. The president made it clear that the strategy he envisions for confronting the Islamic State will center around US air power supporting “partner forces on the ground.”

But US troops, including special operations forces, as well as operatives from the CIA, have been spotted on the ground in Yemen and Somalia.

Obama describes the counterterrorism strategy in Yemen and Somalia as “one that we have successfully pursued … for years.” However, several years of cooperation with willing partner governments have yielded questionable results.

Strategy for Yemen far from successful, AQAP challenges state

While Obama describes US counterterrorism operations in Yemen and Somalia as a success, the reality is much different. Consider, first, the war in Yemen.

The US launched its first airstrike in Yemen in 2002, but al Qaeda’s efforts were focused mainly elsewhere in the years that followed. Al Qaeda attempted to launch an insurgency in Saudi Arabia in 2003. But the kingdom fought back, crushing al Qaeda’s efforts over the next three years. This forced al Qaeda to reorganize its efforts inside Yemen, which has a much weaker central government than Saudi Arabia.

A confluence of factors led to the successful rebirth of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) by early 2009. AQAP quickly became a force that could both challenge the Yemeni state for power and threaten the US homeland as well as American interests throughout the region.

The emir of AQAP today, Nasir al Wuhayshi, also serves as al Qaeda’s global general manager, giving him power across al Qaeda’s international terrorist network.

AQAP’s resurrection forced the US to become actively involved in Yemen, with a series of drone and other missile strikes that targeted AQAP and its leadership cadre. In addition, the US has provided intelligence, logistics, weapons, ammunition, and other support to the Yemeni military and security services.

By 2011, AQAP seized control of much of southern Yemen, and held it for more than a year despite an intensive US-led drone campaign. Yemeni troops prevented AQAP from openly controlling the provinces of Abyan and Shabwa by mid-2012, but the jihadist group shifted its fighters to other provinces and still controls large areas of central, southern, and eastern Yemen.

AQAP is now orchestrating a prolific insurgency that presents the Yemeni government with constant challenges.

In April, President Obama’s State Department released its Country Reports on Terrorism for 2013. The story the State Department tells for Yemen is far from a resounding success.

While the government of Yemen continues in “its fight against … AQAP,” State said, it is “struggling somewhat in this effort due to an ongoing political and security restructuring within the government itself.” Yemen “struggled to maintain momentum against a resilient” AQAP in 2013, the State Department’s report continued, noting that a “military and security restructuring process” remains “incomplete,” leaving “front-line units often poorly trained or poorly equipped to counter the threat posed by AQAP.”

As a result, the “Yemeni military did not undertake major counterterrorism operations through most of 2013.” Instead, State reported, the military “primarily assumed a defensive posture, while relying on small-scale operations, including air strikes and raids, in response to AQAP attacks.”

AQAP, meanwhile, was on the offensive in 2013. The group’s attacks have “increased in complexity and brazenness,” targeting “military and security installations across several governorates and ambushing checkpoints, in addition to assassinating and kidnapping military, security, and intelligence officials.”

In 2013, according to the State Department, “AQAP and AQAP-affiliated groups carried out hundreds of attacks throughout Yemen, including suicide bombings, car bombings, ambushes, kidnappings, and targeted assassinations by gunmen riding motorcycles.”

The situation has hardly improved throughout 2014. AQAP has openly challenged the state for control of the eastern province of Hadramout even as the US has continued counterterrorism operations.

Shabaab still an effective insurgency organization, with a regional reach

In Somalia, the US has been supporting African forces in their fight against Shabaab and its predecessor since 2006. Shabaab took control of much of southern and central Somalia by 2009, but was forced out of most major cities in an offensive that began in 2011. Shabaab still controls much of the countryside in southern Somalia to this day. And it has successfully expanded the scope of its terrorist operations throughout the region, executing attacks in Djibouti, Kenya, and Uganda.

In July 2013, the UN’s Monitoring Group for Eritrea and Somalia issued its assessment of the situation. The UN found that Shabaab has “suffered conventional military setbacks, particularly in urban centres, including the loss of Kismaayo, as the forces of AMISOM and the Somali National Army expanded their areas of territorial control.”

The UN observed, however, that, Shabaab “continues to control most of southern and central Somalia and has shifted its strategic posture to asymmetrical warfare in both urban centres and the countryside.” Unfortunately, Shabaab’s “military strength … remains arguably intact in terms of operational readiness, chain of command, discipline and communication capabilities.” By shifting its tactics and “avoiding direct military confrontation, it has preserved the core of its fighting force and resources.”

The UN went on to note the importance of the Amniyat, Shabaab’s “secret service” organization, in maintaining the group’s cohesion. The UN’s report was written more than one year before Shabaab’s emir, Ahmed Godane, was killed in a US airstrike. But while it is too early to tell the full impact of Godane’s death, the group quickly named a successor and reaffirmed its loyalty to Ayman al Zawahiri, the head of al Qaeda.

In its Country Reports on Terrorism for 2013, the State Department found that Shabaab remains an effective fighting force.

“While progress was made in some areas,” State reported, Shabaab “continued to exploit divisions within Somalia and commit asymmetric attacks to destabilize the country.”

The State Department’s report continued: “Compared with previous years, the terrorist group al-Shabaab executed a wider spectrum of attacks in Mogadishu and throughout Somalia, including more sophisticated, asymmetrical attacks and assassinations; and destruction of property.” Security forces have taken control of major urban areas, but Shabaab “continued to control large sections of rural areas.”

“The ability of federal, local, and regional authorities to prevent and pre-empt Shabaab terrorist attacks remained limited,” State cautioned. “The overstretched AMISOM forces could not take the offensive against Shabaab nor liberate new areas controlled by al-Shabaab in 2013.” In November 2013, this forced the UN Security Council to approve “an increase of 4,000 troops for AMISOM to enable increased offensive operations.”

The bottom line is that America’s partners in East Africa are not close to defeating Shabaab.

Viable partners are the key

Iraq and Syria likely present far more daunting challenges than Somalia and Yemen.

In Somalia, the government may be weak, but it cooperates with the US campaign. AMISOM and the Somali National Army are invested in the fight, even if they are not able to eradicate Shabaab. And strong regional partners, such as Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya, are actively involved in containing the threat.

In Yemen, the military and government have encountered local resistance to the US drone campaign, mainly due to civilian deaths caused by the airstrikes. But the Yemeni government, while far from being either a strong or always reliable partner, still provides valuable assistance.

The State Department noted in its Country Reports on Terrorism for 2013 that Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi has “supported US counterterrorism operations in Yemen and encouraged cooperation among the US military and Yemen’s Special Operations Command and the Ministry of Interior’s Counterterrorism Unit.” The US military has also “trained Yemeni counterterrorism units and advised efforts to restructure the Ministry of Defense.” These forces are joined by government-backed tribal militias known as Popular Committees, which played a key role in driving AQAP back in 2012.

Iran meddles in Yemen by supporting Shia Houthi rebels opposed to the government, but the Yemeni government is opposed to Iran’s designs. And Saudi Arabia remains a key part of the equation, providing intelligence and security assistance in the fight against both AQAP and the Houthis.

Iraq is far more complex. The Shia-led Iraqi government is close to Iran. And the Iranian-supported Shia militias that targeted and killed US troops between 2004-2011 are prominent on the Iraqi battlefield. American airstrikes have already been used by Iranian-backed forces, including known terrorist organizations, as cover for their on-the-ground advances. But Iranian extremists are not a viable partner, as their actions only inflame tensions among the Sunni population, creating more allies for the Islamic State, which can then portray itself as the only defense against Iran’s aggression.

Fortunately, the Kurds and the Sunni Awakening forces are willing allies, but cooperating with these groups will cause other groups to extract a price from the US. The US will need to keep pressure on the Iraqi government to include them going forward. And a major effort is needed to boost America’s meager assistance to these natural allies inside Iraq.

In Syria, the situation is worse, as there are even fewer credible actors to call partners. The US is opposed to the Assad government, which is backed by Russia, Iran, and the terrorist organization Hezbollah. As in Iraq, Shia extremism only serves to add fuel to the fire.

Islamist and jihadist rebel groups form the backbone of the insurgency. The Obama administration is primarily focused on the Islamic State. But the Al Nusrah Front, which is al Qaeda’s branch in Syria, the Islamic Front, and the Muhajireen Army constitute some of the most effective rebel groups in Syria. While these three groups oppose both Assad and the Islamic State, they are also enemies of the US. Additionally, top leaders in the Free Syrian Army, which is held up as an effective ally, have stated they support the Al Nusrah Front, would not oppose it in the future, and have provided it with weapons and support. American-backed rebel groups regularly fight alongside Al Nusrah on the battlefield.

America’s friends in Yemen and Somalia are far from finishing the fight against AQAP and Shabaab.

Amazingly, however, they are better near-term allies than some of America’s partners in Iraq and Syria.

Counterterrorism, not counterinsurgency

In both Somalia and Yemen, US airstrikes have killed top terrorist leaders, including Shabaab’s emir and AQAP’s deputy leaders, as well as some of both organizations’ top operatives. But AQAP and Shabaab have quickly replaced the slain leaders and continued to effectively pursue their respective insurgencies.

Although the US has conducted counterterrorism operations in Somalia and Yemen, both countries remain major terrorist hubs, host training camps, and are breeding grounds for recruits.

As a result, al Qaeda’s branches in both countries continue to pose significant security challenges to the US. On Dec. 25, 2009, an AQAP-trained suicide bomber boarded a Detroit-bound plane and nearly blew it up. Luck saved the day. Prior to the attack, the US counterterrorism bureaucracy assumed that AQAP was a threat only to American interests inside Yemen.

Since that time, the US government has scrambled to stop additional AQAP plots, relying in part on intelligence from counterterrorism partners in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. But even with that full-court press, AQAP continues to threaten American interests. In August 2013, the US shuttered more than 20 diplomatic facilities after it was learned that AQAP was planning to carry out one or more attacks. AQAP continues to probe for America’s weaknesses.

Somalia and Yemen are engrossed in perpetual conflicts. There are good reasons to believe that the situations in Iraq and Syria will continue to be more dire. AQAP, Shabaab, and the Islamic State are all primarily insurgency organizations that are fighting for territory. Counterterrorism strikes will continue to have only a limited effect.

In no theater is success in sight.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal. Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Forrest says:

    Arming and training locals to fight on our behalf is what started this problem in the first place. This has been a failed strategy over and over in American history and it’s time that our politicians learned their lesson!
    Arming Afghan rebels in order to defeat the Russians during the 80’s created the network that spawned Al Quaeda and directly led to giving Bin Laden a public voice. Without this, 3,000 Americans would likely never have died 13 years ago tomorrow.
    Arming rebels in Libya gave rise to the militia that stormed our embassy there and killed our ambassador. Four Americans and multiple Libyans died as a result of this strategy.
    Arming unknown “moderate” rebels in Syria gave rise to ISIS when many of those rebels were not as moderate as we would have hoped. The current threat at the hands of the Islamic State is a direct result of this strategy.
    Every time we have tried arming others to fight on our behalf, we have created a worse problem for ourselves and the world at large than the problem we were trying to defeat. Why would anyone think that this time will be any different?

  • Fred says:

    Excellent analysis, in my opinion. A few things though.
    First of all, the US strategy in Iraq is closer to our strategy in Libya than our strategy in Yemen. In Libya, we provided air support to operations by ground forces, and this strategy proved enormously successful, turning the tide of the war and ending in victory.
    What we’re doing in Yemen is using air strikes to reduce AQAP, rather than providing air support for Yemeni operations. This strategy has indeed repeatedly failed to achieve victory, in both Yemen and Pakistan. But it’s an entirely different strategy.
    I’m not too educated on the situation in Somalia, but from what you’re saying it sounds as though the UN lacks the will or the manpower to really bring the fight to Shabaab. Even so, the campaign there has had some success in pushing Shabaab out of urban areas.
    In Iraq, we have dedicated, effective allies on the ground. Our intervention at least appears to have reversed the tide of the war. The fact that some of our partners are murderous extremists is a problem, but it’s a different one. Iran and their minions are going to have a strong influence on Iraq no matter what we do.
    I think this strategy of providing air support is the best tool we have at the moment. It’s been a winner in the past and it’s working so far. Let’s wait and see how it goes.

  • M Muthuswamy says:

    First of all, I am in broad agreement with the assessment of the authors.
    Moreover, I would go even further and state the plan or the strategy proposed by Pres. Obama couldn’t be more wrong, as it constitutes old wine in a new bottle. These types of strategies have brought grief thus far just about everywhere.
    I am not personally criticizing the president, because he and others have been let down by the inability of U.S.-based scholars to develop a coherent understanding of the threat called radical Islam.
    This threat has spread like a pathogen, and hence, I posit that we can and should be able to develop science of the phenomenon. The commentary I published recently elaborates these ideas further:
    A more rigorous analysis, published by Albany Law School, is available here:
    The axiom that science should drive strategy/policy is all the more pertinent here.

  • Mike says:

    Having served on a small manned ISR platform for years in Afg and Iraq supporting DA missions for a “TF” there is no more effective means of dispatching terrorists than with those type of missions. Limited airstrikes only stoke the hatred. Being dragged out of your hovel at 2am and interrogated by an operator is well proven as effective in eliminating many more than can be replenished.

  • DockyWocky says:

    Boy, both Yemen and Somalia are gold-plated examples of unsuccess. Funny how al-Obama tends to only go with what he knows won’t work.

  • Will Fenwick says:

    The “secret war”in somalia has cost us billions to maintain over the past few years. In exchange for lending their armies to us as proxies we given our allies billions in “foreign aid” to encourage them to keep up the fight. We typically give the Ugandan’s and Kenyan’s each over $400 million a year, the Ethiopians more than $500 million a year, and the Somalis some $100 million a year to keep al-Shabab at bay. Their offensive against Shabab has stalled (the Ugandans have taken such high casualties, that they do not report the total they have received so as to morale from falling) but we keep shelling out billions to keep up the fight.
    There have been some successes in Yemen. AQ no longer controls abyan province, and virtually all of its heavy weaponry (like the t-72 tanks it used to operate) has been destroyed through American airstrikes.

  • Reader says:

    Insanity-doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result!
    Just why should i/we trust this admin or govt?
    Obviously.. INSANITY is the Order of the Govt.

  • Ryan says:

    Obama may not define success as functioning states in these areas. Airstrikes, drones, and limited special forces actions have been successful at limiting the threat to the homeland from these areas-which may be all the President is concerned with. Why should we worry about state building if our intelligence capabilities allow us to end a threat with a UAV strike?

  • Eric says:

    While I agree with the assessments summarized in this article, I hold different views of Obama’s massage, and how it fits with our past and present ventures in Somalia and Yemen, and I draw different conclusions from the forecast of operations in Iraq.
    We fight AQAP in Yemen based upon what we have to work with there. Same for Somalia. I guess I view those efforts as flawed experiments in how to pursue al-Qaeda without combat teams doing nightly raids. One poster indicated that nightly SF raids is the most effective practice we know for elimination of an al-Qaeda force that holds territory. While true, we also know that when we take and hold territory with US forces on the ground, we become a target for them to chip away at, and we lose troops, the body count goes up over time, and American political will to stay committed to keeping our military presence there begins to go down.
    Air strikes in Iraq and Syria will not suffice, though, because the ground forces are not fully invested in the fight with ISIS. The Peshmerga will not go all the way to the outskirts of Baghdad. They have their sphere of influence, and the Sunnis of Anbar have theirs, and the Shia of Diyala and Baghdad have theirs. A national Iraqi force of combined arms and intelligence is necessary to the defeat of al-Qaeda, and I laugh as I say it, because they are not even in the planning for it as of yet. We don’t need to talk about that for a couple of years. That’s how badly the Shia’s gutted the Iraqi forces with Iran’s help. ISIS had their pick of armor from Camp Speicher.
    We can put Intelligence teams in there to create some targeting for the air strikes.
    We can put some SF teams in there for reconnaissance and some snatches.
    We can work up our own airborne raids and target key ISIS facilities, like Bayjii.
    What we are right to avoid doing is taking and holding territory with US troops in fixed positions. They present a target to several groups which operate within Iraq. It also raises the crusaders are invading story, which fuels ISIS recruitment.
    What we have not talked about, but maybe should, is mobile raiding teams we can insert and extract at will, which raid where we want to strike, and hold no territory. SF teams like Green Berets and Rangers, A-Teams, and Survey teams.
    If we operate teams in and out of ISIS areas with rules of engagement that leave it to the teams what to shoot at, what to call fires on, and when it’s time to go, we would be much more effective in reducing ISIS numbers and freedom of movement than waiting for Iraqi armed forces to do it.
    A strategy like that may even prevent ISIS from developing the attack on Baghdad that are sure to come when ISIS completes their strategy for the river valleys. Presently we do not control that timetable for ISIS to shift strategies. ISIS holds that initiative.
    I also conclude that Obama is speaking on the ISIS plan as a salesman. He will say we operated successfully in Yemen and Somalia to claim credit for the successes we have had there in strikes against al-Qaeda, and not limit the scope of that claim by acknowleging our overall failure to eliminate al-Qaeda’s forces, or break AQ’s hold on communities. Obama seeks a broad alliance of support for what we do, and nations that have indicated they will partner with the US have explicitly conditioned their support to agreements with an ‘inclusive’ iraqi government to work with Iraqi national forces. And none of that exists yet, so Obama is talking about the indefinite future, and not the present. Obama has nothing good to report for the present, aside from about 100 airstrikes so far.
    That being said, the less we divulge to the media about what we intend to do, the less ISIS can do to prepare for it.
    We need to strike them in ways that will deprive them of freedom of movement, and that will put them in a defensive posture, vice offensive. That as much for Iraqi minorities as to prevent ISIS from dedicating resources to strikes in America, Europe, and elsewhere.
    And last but not least, I conclude that the interim between our entry into the air strikes game, and our entry into committed ground operations, presents the world with a unique opportunity to see what IS means by Islamic, what they mean by State, how far short of both words their reality really is, and also how many Salafists can kill how many Shia extremists without it costing any US forces their lives.

  • blert says:

    Though unstated, it’s reasonable to assume that the President is claiming a free hand to go after ISIS — in Syria — because the M198 howitzers are a real problem looming directly ahead.
    I suspect that ISIS is surely hiding them. They are a strategic asset of the first caliber.
    If drone attacks are ENTIRELY restricted to destroying heavy weapons, then there should be no blow-back from ordinary Achmeds in the Arabian desert.
    It’s reasonable to expect that the speech, by itself, has a chilling effect on opfor military mobility.
    I don’t know exactly how it’s possible — at this late date — to revive the Awakening movement, but it’s the only faction that can possibly deliver success.
    Yet, as far as I know, the administration won’t talk to them.
    The State Department is STILL stuck on the zany idea of maintaining the European drawn borders. It still doesn’t acknowledge that the Syrian-Iraqi border of Sykes and Picot is gone.
    I’m no fan of ISIS, but at least al-Baghdadi’s map is right. He’s created a Sunni state that is ethnically pure. (doing it the bloody way) Left to his own devices, al Baghdadi will surely destroy al Nusrah.
    Al Baghdadi is also a much more important figure for his army than any other Muslim fanatic to date. He has, obviously, Napoleonic charisma within his own crowd. He’s actively raising a seriously large army with all due speed. It’s my take that he is (almost) universally underestimated in the West.
    In all of these Muslim lands, the TFR is in orbit. Every family has 2nd, 3rd, 4th sons — with absolutely nothing for them to do. This is the dynamic that’s paralyzing the Yemeni government. Every member of that government is trying to get government jobs for the rest of his family. The resulting scrum keeps everyone too busy to focus on AQ.
    Ironically, the more $$$ America throws at the Yemeni problem — the more the governing tribes fight over the spoils.
    Like Pakistan, Somalia, and the rest, these are failed economies, failed societies, that can’t direct anyone productively. Reproductively, is another matter.
    Spengler (PJM) figures that the coming bloodbath just can’t be stopped. It’s the unwitting result of providing essentially unlimited food aid to totally unproductive societies. They became numerous before they became wise.
    It’s brutal to say it, but the West has to stop sending food aid their way. It’s only being used to breed hatred and suicidal warriors.

  • Will Fenwick says:

    In re Ryan: There are generally two theories of how to fight counter insurgency operations. The “modern” theory that the vast majority of western states including the United States uses typically revolves around isolating the insurgents from their local support base via state building. This method was used in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The militants themselves are targeted through operations aimed at producing low civilian casualties and decapitating the leadership of the enemy. The idea is to make the local population like you more than the insurgency, as most insurgencies will ultimately fail if they do not have support among the local population (ie: the locals will sell out the insurgents if the like the counterinsurgency forces better).
    Under this strategy, airstrikes alone without state building is actually counterproductive, because the local population will simply replace fallen insurgents while at the same time despising the counter insurgency forces even more due to the deaths of insurgents among their friends and family as well as any civilian deaths caused by the airstrikes.
    The second “traditional” method of fighting an insurgency involves in essence decimating the actual civilian support of the insurgency by liquidating the civilian population supporting it. The idea is by physically removing the supporting population through violence or deportation, you will eventually drive them into abandoning the insurgency for fear that to continue supporting it be hazardous to their own lives. Rather than support the insurgency and see not only themselves but their their families and friends harmed as a result, the civilian populaiton will cooperate will begin to actively turn on the insurgency in order to end the conflict. Those civilians that are not turned, are detained and moved away from the combat area (or in harsher versions simply killed) to further deplete the support base of insurgents. These types of traditional strategies while harsh and likely even in a most basic form contrary to international law are often quite successful and were used to great effect in the Second Boer War, the Philippine-American War, the Timor campaign in WWII, and the American campaign in haiti in the 1910’s.

  • Stephen says:

    The American government is taking this approach because it’s short on cash. After a decade of War on Terror, America is penniless.

  • Ed says:

    Re: Will Fenwick:
    The traditional model of counterinsurgency you describe was attempted by the Italians under Mussolini in their colonization of Libya during WWII. The insurgency was composed of bedouins led by Omar Mukhtar, and it was an Islamically motivated resistance. Even when the Italians resorted to rounding up all the bedouins and placing them in a concentration camp, those prisoners still supported the insurgency. Looking at Libya today, nuff said.
    One thing that I noted was lacking from the instances you listed of times this strategy has “worked” is the absence of any conflicts where the insurgency was Islamically driven…

  • Will Fenwick says:

    In re Ed: I didn’t say it works all the time. In my own opinion regardless of what methods are used whether they be state-building or coercion, the ultimate factor in defeating an insurgency is simply the will power of the counter insurgent state to continue fighting against it. One must ultimately be willing to fight long enough to outlast the insurgencies will to fight.
    I have found some examples of successful suppression of Islamist charged insurgencies, but am not to familiar with the histories of them.
    The British defeated the Dervish insurgents in Somaliland in 1920 after some 20 years of fighting. British and Omani forces defeated an insurgency led by the imam of Oman in the 1950’s. There were also several religiously motivated revolts put down in India by British forces and by French forces in Africa. I am not overly familiar with the histories of any of these conflicts to state what methods were used and what lead to their successful suppression.


Islamic state



Al shabaab

Boko Haram