In Somalia, Iran Is Replicating Russia’s Afghan Strategy
Iranian forces are supporting al-Shabab and allegedly offering bounties. The U.S. government must stop Tehran before it further destabilizes the Horn of Africa.
Iran has established covert ties with the Somalia-based al-Shabab terrorist group well known for its attacks in the Horn of Africa. Following Russia’s playbook in Afghanistan and the surrounding regions, Tehran is allegedly using al-Shabab to attack the U.S. military and other foreign forces in Somalia and in the region, according to senior Somali government and security officials familiar with intelligence and briefed on the matter.
Using financial inducements as their means for recruitment, Iran has a proxy network in Somalia and uses facilitators to provide support to violent extremist organizations to counter the influence of the United States and Persian Gulf states, including using Somalia to funnel weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen and to transit weapons to other countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, South Sudan, Mozambique, and Central African Republic.
Iranian engagement on the African continent is not new. In particular, Iranian religious groups and intelligence agencies have worked for decades to establish missionary and influence operations on the African continent. These include providing religious scholarship opportunities throughout sub-Saharan Africa and in the Horn region competing and countering Gulf states’ influences.
Furthermore, these educational efforts have allowed Africans to study in Shiite religious centers such as Qom in Iran, and then go back to their countries to engage in both direct and indirect proselytizing in favor of Tehran’s activities, making many of them witting or unwitting accomplices to those pursuing Tehran’s intelligence objectives in the region.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is the main Iranian organization in Somalia, and its Quds Force has established relations with extremist groups and criminal networks, according to Somali officials. Somali police and finance ministry officials claim the Quds Force uses these networks to smuggle Iranian oil into Somalia and then sell cheap oil across Africa to subvert U.S. sanctions, with some of the proceeds used to support militants in Yemen and Somalia.
Somali military officials maintain that Iran has been running secret operations to undermine the United States in Somalia, providing sophisticated weapons, improvised explosive devices, mortars, and chemicals used to make bombs. The military officials allege that Iran and its proxies are complicit in al-Shabab attacks on the U.S. military, Somali forces, and the African Union Mission in Somalia. A senior military official involved in operations against al-Shabab in south-central Somalia alleges that al-Shabab has received financial and material support from Iran and may have paid bounties to militants to attack U.S. forces in Somalia and the region.
According to Somali defense ministry and security officials, Iranian money, weapons, and ammunition may have been used in 2019 and 2020 al-Shabab attacks on U.S. military bases in Somalia and northern Kenya, as well as the European Union military convoy in Mogadishu.
Security forces involved in operations against al-Shabab in south-central Somalia discovered weapons as well as bomb-making materials and chemicals from Iran. These officials claim that al-Shabab attacks since 2017 have become more lethal and attribute the group’s increased capabilities to foreign-sourced weapons, with the majority coming from Iran and Yemen.
On Jan. 5, al-Shabab carried out a pre-dawn attack at Manda Airstrip on Camp Simba in northern Kenya. The attack killed three Americans (one soldier and two contractors) and destroyed U.S. military equipment, including surveillance equipment used to support intelligence operations in the region.
Al-Shabab attacked Camp Simba two days after a U.S. drone strike killed Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a senior Iraqi politician and the deputy chairman of Popular Mobilization Units, an Iraqi paramilitary force. (Although the group claimed there was no link between Suleimani’s killing and its attack, the timing and al-Shabab’s history of opportunistic strikes suggests that the two events may have been linked.)
On Sept. 30, 2019, al-Shabab carried out a large car bomb and gun attack on the Baledogle facility, wounding a U.S. service member at the base, according to news reports. The Baledogle base, about 60 miles northwest of Mogadishu, hosts hundreds of U.S. military and civilian personnel supporting Somali government operations against al-Shabab. The U.S.-trained Somali forces and U.S. military repelled the coordinated attack and inflicted heavy casualties on al-Shabab.
Also on Sept. 30, an al-Shabab car bomb hit the European Union military convoy in Mogadishu. The Italian military convoy was part of the European Union Training Mission in Somalia. The attack damaged convoy vehicles, but did not result in any injuries.
Despite U.S. and Somali counterterrorism operations, al-Shabab remains the largest active al Qaeda network in the world, and the Iranian Quds Force’s financial and material support to the militant group represents a new escalation and a morphing threat to U.S. and Western interests in Somalia and the region.
Although the number of U.S. forces in Somalia has increased over the past three years, there has been a steady increase in attacks by al-Shabab and the Islamic State in Somalia in south-central Somalia, Puntland, and increasingly in northern Kenya. According to Gen. Stephen Townsend, “After a series of complex attacks targeting Somali and U.S. bases last year,” the leaders of al-Shabab “publicly identified Americans and U.S. interests worldwide as priority targets,” a stance similar to Osama bin Laden’s 1996 declaration of war against the United States.
In addition to Iran, Russia has expanded its contact and influence in Somalia, sending an ambassador for the first time in 30 years and establishing ties with extremist groups in the fragile state to pressure and bleed U.S. forces and Western allies in the region.
According to senior defense ministry and national and regional security officials in Somalia, Russia’s intelligence service and the Wagner Group—a paramilitary mercenary company with ties to the Kremlin—are active in Somalia, where have they established ties with al-Shabab while also trying to offer the Somali government and regional governments training and equipment, without oversight or accountability and avoiding compliance with U.N. sanctions.
Over the past two years, Russia and Iran have shown renewed interest in the Horn of Africa, and, according to a senior Somali military official, Russia has been working with Iran to push the United States out of Somalia—especially Baledogle, a base built by the Soviet Union that formerly served as Moscow’s main hub in the region.
According to officials, Russians have expressed interest in Baledogle and the port of Berbera. The officials are concerned that the 2019 attack on Baledogle was influenced and supported by Iranian or Russian proxies seeking to force the U.S. military out of the base.
Given that Iran has engaged with and supported violent extremist groups in Somalia and across the region, it’s not surprising that Tehran and its proxy agents are supporting al-Shabab. The reality is that Tehran has on countless occasions in recent years engaged with a wide range of Islamist elements in Somalia. Iran uses these actors in Africa to project its influence and spread its extremist doctrine wherever and however it can. Tehran continues to use proxy allies and violent extremist groups in Somalia, undermining the U.S. administration’s counterterrorism strategy in Somalia and international efforts to stabilize the country.
To counter this threat, the U.S. government should first focus on reducing al-Shabab’s access to financial and material support from foreign sources such as Iran. This can be done by expanding the use of sanctions to identify and target individuals or groups in Somalia and the region facilitating Iranian proxy activities in Somalia, as well as identifying how violent extremist organizations in Somalia procure weapons and chemicals used to attack civilians, government institutions, and security forces in Somalia and the region.
It should then use the Combined Task Force 150 and the European Union Capacity Building Mission to focus on disrupting the flow of weapons and chemicals to Somalia, while helping the federal government of Somalia and federal member states to build naval, coast guard, and other maritime capabilities to protect Africa’s second-longest coast.
Second, the U.S. government should work toward reducing Iranian influence in the Horn of Africa, making it challenging for Iran and its proxies to operate. The U.S. government can reduce Iranian influence by increasing intelligence collection on proxy allies of Tehran, their facilitators, and support structures, as well as by monitoring Iranian trade with countries in the region. Additionally, the United States can use sanctions to go after individuals and organizations engaging with sanctioned elements of the Iranian regime.
Finally, to counter Iran, Russia, and other rogue states, the U.S. government should increase military, security, and economic assistance to Somalia, supporting the Somali government’s efforts to increase the size and capabilities of Somalia’s security forces as they wage counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations to dislodge al-Shabab and other violent extremist groups from areas they control .
Al-Shabab’s aspiration to attack the United States in the region and beyond poses a direct threat to the United States’ national-security and foreign-policy interests. To defeat al-Shabab and limit Iran’s and other foreign agents’ involvement in Somalia requires the U.S. government to use all instruments of national power—including economic, military, security, and financial tools, to defeat the world’s most active, effective, and enduring al Qaeda affiliate.
Mo Fatah is the CEO of the Horn Security Group and a senior fellow at Quilliam International.