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Non-international armed conflict in Somalia

Conflict type: Non-international armed conflict

The Somali government is engaged in a non-international armed conflict (NIAC) in its territory against al-Shabaab, which has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda. Furthermore, fighting between the Islamic State in Somalia (ISS) and al-Shabab amounts to a NIAC. The African Union Mission in Somalia’s forces, as well as the United States of America and Ethiopia, are providing support to the Somali government and are therefore party to the conflict against al-Shabab.

A number of non-international armed conflicts are taking place in Somalia, involving different international actors:

  • The internationally recognized federal government of Somalia fights against Islamist insurgents, most prominently the armed group al-Shabaab, which has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda.
  • Al-Shabab and the Islamic State in Somalia (ISS) have been engaging in a NIAC in Somalia.
  • The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) is a peacekeeping operation supporting the Somali government. Its military component is a party to the armed conflict.
  • In addition to contributing troops to AMISOM, Kenyan and Ethiopian armed forces also operate independently in the country.
  • The United States conducts ground and air operations against al-Shabaab and provides material support to AMISOM and Somali security forces.
  • The non-international armed conflict involving al-Shabaab has spilled over into Kenya.

After the overthrowing of Somalia’s president Siad Barre in 1991, the country had no effective government for several years. War lords and clans fought each other, as well as U.S. and United Nations peacekeeping forces. After numerous failed attempts, a new transitional government was put in place in 2004, although it did not have effective control over the entire territory of the state. The fighting continued and new armed groups emerged, most notably al-Shabaab, which prompted the intervention by foreign states, including Kenya and Ethiopia. Following elections and the end of the mandate of the transitional government established in 2004, the internationally recognized federal government of Somalia was established. For further information, see ‘Somalia profile – Timeline’, BBC, last updated 17 July 2017; A. I. Samatar, ‘Defeating Al-Shabab and Dismembering Somalia’, Al Jazeera, 1 July 2014; see also A. Bellal (ed), The War Report. Armed Conflicts in 2017, Geneva Academy, 2018, pp 127-128. Despite the progress made, fighting continues to such an extent that the country is still involved in a non-international armed conflict.

Two criteria need to be assessed in order to answer the question whether a situation of armed violence amounts to a non-international armed conflict.

  • First, the level of armed violence must reach a certain degree of intensity that goes beyond internal disturbances and tensions.
  • Second, in every non-international armed conflict, at least one side to the conflict must be a non-state armed group which must exhibit a certain level of organization in order to qualify as a party to the non-international armed conflict. Government forces are presumed to satisfy the criteria of organization. For further information, see ‘non-international armed conflict’ in our classification section.

Intensity of Violence

Various indicative factors are used to assess whether a given situation has met the required intensity threshold, such as the number, duration, and intensity of individual confrontations; the types of weapons and military equipment used; the number of persons and types of forces participating in the fighting; the number of casualties; the extent of material destruction; the number of civilians fleeing; and the involvement of the United Nations Security Council. For further information, see 'non-international armed conflict - intensity of violence' in our classification section.

Al-Shabab

Intense fighting between the Somali National Army, supported by AMISOM and the US, and al-Shabaab is still on-going, with regular attacks carried out throughout the country. International Crisis Group, ‘Somalia’, Crisis Watch, February 2019; Council on Foreign Relations, ‘Al-Shabab in Somalia – Recent Developments’, Global Conflict Tracker, updated 5 March 2019. In late 2018 and beginning of 2019, al-Shabaab carried out several large scale attacks in Somalia but also in Kenya, with a spike of attacks in February 2019, including against AMISOM. International Crisis Group, ‘Somalia’, Crisis Watch, February 2019; International Institute for Strategic Studies, ‘Somalia – Military and Security Updates 2018’, Armed Conflict Database, 2018 (restricted access); ‘Kenya attack death toll rises to 21 as suspects hunted down’, Al-Jazeera, 17 January 219. Al-Shabaab has been using IEDs and car bombs, but it has also been able to procure more sophisticated weapons, for instance armoured personnel carriers and self-propelled guns during an attack on a Kenya-held AMISOM base in 2016. Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea pursuant to Security Council resolution 2244 (2015): Somalia, UN doc S/2016/919, 28 September 2016, §§15, 17. In late 2018, the Somali National Army and AMISOM carried out several joint operations against al-Shabaab, allowing government forces to retake several areas previously under al-Shabaab control. Several senior al-Shabaab figures were killed during these operations. International Institute for Strategic Studies, ‘Somalia – Military and Security Updates 2018’, Armed Conflict Database, 2018 (restricted access).

In 2020, armed confrontations between Somali security forces and Al-Shabaab’s militants have continued to remain intense. For instance, in March 2020 fighting between Al-Shabab and state troops resulted in the death of 22 members of Somali soldiers. Furthermore, a number of attacks conducted by the Somali army resulted in the killing of at least 37 members of Al-Shabab. In May 2020, militants of Al-Shabaab killed at least 2 civilians; during the counter-insurgency operation that followed this attack, at least 70 members of Al-Shabaab were killed. Moreover, Al-Shabaab launched a series of bombings which left at least 14 soldiers and 14 civilians dead. September was one of the deadliest months, as Al-Shabaab’s attacks continue in Mogadishu and in the Country with at least 42 deaths among soldiers, civilians and state officials. Counter-insurgent operation left at least 100 dead militants belonging to Al-Shabaab. The intensity of violence has been sustained at the beginning of 2021 as well. Notably, in January Al-Shabaab attacks continue, leaving at least 70 deaths among civilians, security personnel and official. Counter-operations also continued and killed several dozens of Al-Shabaab’s affiliates. Also, a U.S. airstrike killed at least 12 Al-Shabaab’s militants. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch Somalia.

In 2020, thanks to joint military operations conducted by the Somali National Army and AMISOM, al-Shabab has lost substantial parts of its territory, ‘including the significant stronghold of Janale, Lower Shabelle, in March 2020.’ Letter dated 28 September 2020 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolution 751 (1992) concerning Somalia addressed to the President of the
Security Council, S/2020/949, 28 September 2020, at p, 3.
Nevertheless, the United Nations Panel of Experts on Somalia reported that: ‘Al-Shabaab has retained its ability to produce and conduct improvised explosive device attacks, although it has carried out fewer large-scale complex attacks to date in 2020 compared with the same period in 2019. The group continues its intimidation campaign, including assassinations and executions, targeting public figures and communities, while maintaining its agility of action to exploit weaknesses in security as they arise.’ Letter dated 28 September 2020 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolution 751 (1992) concerning Somalia addressed to the President of the Security Council, S/2020/949, 28 September 2020, at p, 3.

The U.S. has carried out air strikes and ground raids against al-Shabaab. In 2017 and 2018, the number of U.S. air strikes has significantly increased, totaling 38 in 2017 and 46 in 2018, mainly carried out in the Southern part of the country. In the sole months of January and February 2019, the US conducted 27 air strikes. Tomi Oladipo, ‘US attacks on Somalia's al-Shabab increase under Trump’, BBC, 7 January 2019; The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, ‘Somalia: Reported US actions 2019’, consulted on 2 March 2019. See also Amnesty International, The hidden US war in Somalia; civilian casualties from air strikes in Lower Shabelle, March 2019.

The conflict has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths. In the year 2018, the UN has documented 1,384 civilian casualties ‘with al-Shabaab accounting for 60 per cent of these’. UN Special Envoy Haysom, Briefing to the Security Council, 3 January 2019; T. Jamal, Somalia (1988 – first combat deaths), Project Ploughshares, 16 March 2012. In December 2018, the UN estimated that around 831,000 individuals had been newly displaced from January to the end of October 2018, mostly due to conflict and insecurity (bringing the total number of IDPs to 2.65 million individuals); and that over 110 violent incidents had impacted humanitarian organizations in Somalia in 2018. Estimates as of 21 December 2018, see UN Secretary-General, ‘Report of the Secretary-General on Somalia’, S/2018/1149, 21 December 2018, §§ 79, 84.

Human Rights Watch has reported that in 2020 there were are an estimated 2.6 million internally displaced people (IDPs) in Somalia. Furthermore, the same organization reported that in 2020 ‘[t]he United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) recorded a total of 1,154 civilian casualties by mid-November. Sixty-seven percent of this figure is due to indiscriminate and targeted attacks, the majority improvised explosive devices (IEDs) attacks, by the Islamist armed group Al-Shabab.’ Human Rights Watch, ‘Somalia: Events of 2019’, World Report 2020.

On account of the frequency of armed attacks and armed confrontations, the number of casualties, and the number of people forced to flee ongoing hostilities, the required degree of intensity continues to be met. See also A. Bellal, The War Report. Armed Conflicts in 2017, Geneva Academy, 2018, pp 127-133.

Islamic State in Somalia (ISS)

In October 2015, a faction of al-Shabab splintered and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, hence founding the Islamic State in Somalia group (ISS). The Organization for World Peace (OWP), Islamic State in Somalia, 11 July 2020. In only one year the group grew and demonstrated to have military capability. For instance, at the end of 2016 it seized control over a coastal city in Puntland for a few weeks. K. Sieff, ‘2,000 miles from Syria, ISIS is trying to lure recruits in Somalia’, The Washington Post, 24 December 2015; H. Maruf, ‘Somalia Security Forces and IS Fighters Directly Clash for First Time’, Voice of Africa, 3 December 2016; Report of the Secretary-General on Somalia, UN doc S/2017/21, 9 January 2017, §11.

Since 2018, ISS has started operating in central and southern Somalia: between October 2017 and November 2018, ISS claimed 50 killings in Mogadishu. Furthermore, in December 2018 it has claimed eight attacks in the town of Beledweyne, in central Somalia, which have been traditionally under al-Shabab control. Letter dated 7 November 2018 from the Chair of theSecurity Council Committee pursuant to resolutions 751 (1992) and 1907 (2009) concerning Somalia and Eritrea addressed to the President of the Security Council, S/2018/1002, 9 November 2018; C. Weiss, ‘Reigniting the Rivalry: The Islamic State in Somalia vs. al-Shabaab’ (2018) 12 Sentinel 4. The expansion of ISS increased tension with al-Shabab. On 15 November 2018, a newsletter published by ISS further exacerbated the relationship with its rival. While referring to a number of ISS members allegedly killed by al-Shabab members, the group affirmed that: ‘As we record these crimes, we do not do so as a complaint or out of weakness, but to teach people […] especially our people in Somalia, what the al Qaeda branch in Somalia has done, because the response from the Islamic State is coming.’ During the following month, ISS conducted a number of attacks against al-Shabab fighters. Accordingly, on 20 December 2018 the latter released a statement whereby it authorized its members to target ISS fighters.’ C. Weiss, ‘Reigniting the Rivalry: The Islamic State in Somalia vs. al-Shabaab’ (2018) 12 Sentinel 4.

Since then, clashes between the two groups have been increasingly intense. For instance, on January 2019 al-Shabaab conducted armed attacks against ISS in Mirali and three days later ISS fighters attacked members of al-Shabab while they were lecturing in Puntland. As a consequence, a few days later al-Shabab engaged in armed confrontations against ISS in Dhadaar. Over the years, clashes between the Somali government and ISS have been rare and were therefore not enough to reach the intensity of violence threshold required by international humanitarian law (IHL). In 2020 episodes of violence increased and lead us to conclude that there is a NIAC between ISS and Somali governmental forces. In January, Somali security forces killed several suspected members of ISS; in May, several confrontations occurred between security forces and ISIS in Somalia; in June, Somali troops conducted an operation against ISS with the US support, which killed at least 27 ISS fighters; in August and October, ISS claimed to be responsible for two attacks in Mogadishu. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch Somalia; The Organization for World Peace (OWP), Islamic State in Somalia, 11 November 2020. Nevertheless, the intensity of violence threshold does not seem to be met as clashes between the group and governmental forces remained sporadic. In particular, ISS ‘ability to conduct activities have been impeded by Puntland Security Force operations and the group’s ongoing conflict with Al-Shabaab.’ Letter dated 28 September 2020 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolution 751 (1992) concerning Somalia addressed to the President of the Security Council, S/2020/949, 28 September 2020, at pp. 19-20. Accordingly, it is possible to conclude that al-Shabab and ISS have been engaging in a NIAC since at least the beginning of 2019.

Over the years, clashes between the Somali government and ISS have been rare and were therefore not enough to reach the intensity of violence threshold required by international humanitarian law (IHL). In 2020 episodes of violence have increased. In January, Somali security forces killed several suspected members of ISS; in May, several confrontations occurred between security forces and ISIS in Somalia; in June, Somali troops conducted an operation against ISS with the US support, which killed at least 27 ISS fighters; in August and October, ISS claimed to be responsible for two attacks in Mogadishu. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch Somalia; The Organization for World Peace (OWP), Islamic State in Somalia, 11 November 2020. Nevertheless, the intensity of violence threshold does not seem to be met as clashes between the group and governmental forces remained sporadic. In particular, ISS ‘ability to conduct activities have been impeded by Puntland Security Force operations and the group’s ongoing conflict with Al-Shabaab.’ Letter dated 28 September 2020 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolution 751 (1992) concerning Somalia addressed to the President of the Security Council, S/2020/949, 28 September 2020, at pp. 19-20.

Other pro-Islamic State groups

In parallel to this situation, the UN Secretary-General also noted an increase, in 2018, of violent activities by ‘pro-ISIL elements […] in and around Mogadishu, although their operations remain limited to targeted killings’ UN Secretary-General, ‘Report of the Secretary-General on Somalia’, S/2018/1149, 21 December 2018, para. 11. Furthermore, the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for an attack in Somalia for the first time in April 2016. M. Winsor, ‘ISIS in Somalia: Islamic State Claims First-Ever Attack in Mogadishu While Courting Al-Shabab’, International Business Times, 25 April 2016.

In 2017, there have been relatively few attacks reportedly carried out by Islamic State group affiliates. The main area of their activities seemed to remain within Puntland, beyond the reach of government forces, where they were reportedly battling Al-Shabaab for primacy. A. Hassan, ‘One Soldier Killed, One Wounded by Roadside Bomb in Somalia’s Puntland’, Reuters, 28 March 2017; A. Hassan, ‘Suicide Bomber Kills Five in Somalia’s Northern Puntland Region’, Reuters, 23 May 2017; Council on Foreign Relations, ‘Al-Shabab’, Global Conflict Tracker, updated 31 January 2019. However, since late 2017, there has been a spike in reported activities by pro-Islamic State elements, not only in Puntland but also in and around Mogadishu. Between October 2017 and August 2018, the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for ‘50 assassinations primarily of Federal Government police, intelligence and finance officials in Mogadishu and Afgoye’, as well as five improvised explosive device attacks in Mogadishu, Elasha Biyaha and Bosaso; the UN was able to corroborate 13 of these killings. UN Secretary-General, ‘Report of the Secretary-General on Somalia’, S/2018/1149, 21 December 2018, para. 10; Caleb Weiss, ‘Analysis: Islamic State ramps up attack claims in Somalia’, FDD’s Long War Journal, 9 May 2018; UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, Report on Somalia, S/2018/1002, 9 November 2018, § 96; ‘Somalia: ISIL claims raid in Bosaso that killed 3 Ethiopians’, Garowe Online, 4 October 2018. Some of these attacks have resulted in assaults by or clashes with the Somali security force, others have resulted in arrests. Caleb Weiss, ‘Analysis: Islamic State ramps up attack claims in Somalia’, FDD’s Long War Journal, 9 May 2018; Caleb Weiss, ‘Somali intelligence agency arrests two Islamic State members in Mogadishu’, Threat Matrix, 24 May 2018. In December 2018, al-Shabaab publicly pledged to ‘attack and eliminate’ Islamic State-related factions. Report of the Secretary-General on Somalia, UN doc S/2017/21, 9 January 2017, §11; Mohamed Olad Hassan, ‘Somalia's Al-Shabab Declares War on Pro-Islamic State Group’, VOA, 21 December 2018.

Overall, the acts of violence for which Islamic State-related factions have claimed responsibility mostly consist of low intensity, small scale operations. Their capacity to carry out large scale military operations is uncertain. With the exception of IED attacks, their operations have remained limited to targeted killings. UN Secretary-General, ‘Report of the Secretary-General on Somalia’, S/2018/1149, 21 December 2018, para. 11. It is also unclear whether the organizational criterion for an Islamic State-affiliated armed group in Somalia is met (see next section). Accordingly, the Islamic State group or its affiliates do not seem to be, at present, parties to a non-international armed conflict in Somalia.

Organization of armed groups

A series of indicative factors are used to assess whether armed groups exhibit the required degree of organization, such as the existence of a command structure and disciplinary rules and mechanisms, the ability to procure, transport, and distribute arms, the ability to plan, coordinate and carry out military operations, the ability to negotiate and conclude agreements, e.g. cease fire or peace agreements. If the criterion of a minimum organization of the armed group is not fulfilled, there is no armed conflict. For further information, see ‘non-international armed conflict - organization’ in our classification section.

Al-Shabab

The Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a union of various courts that emerged in the 1990s to locally restore law and order due to the failure of state institutions, and which formed the most significant militant organization in Somalia at the time, held Mogadishu for a period of six months in 2006. Somalia: Who supports who?’, BBC, 28 December 2006. When the ICU disintegrated in 2006/2007, its militant wing turned into the independent group of al-Shabaab, which continued to control vast parts of central and southern Somalia in 2009/2010. M. Brookman-Byrne, ‘Drone Use “Outside Areas of Active Hostilities”: An Examination of the Legal Paradigms Governing US Covert Remote Strikes’, 64 Netherlands International Law Review 1 (2017), pp 33ff; A. Bellal (ed), The War Report. Armed Conflicts in 2014, Oxford University Press, 2015, p 239; Stanford University, Islamic Courts Union, Mapping Militant Organizations, last updated 30 March 2016. Despite having lost control over major towns and cities, al-Shabaab continues to hold many rural areas. Amnesty International, Report 2016/2017 - The State of the World’s Human Rights, p 326; Vanda Felbab-Brown, ‘Developments in Somalia’, Brookings, 14 November 2018. Recently, it has stepped up its presence in the northern, semiautonomous region of Puntland. Council on Foreign Relations, ‘Al-Shabab’, updated 31 January 2019. It also regained control over areas previously held by Somali and Ethiopian forces. Report of the Secretary-General on Somalia, UN Doc S/2017/21, 9 January 2017, §9; ‘Who are Somalia’s al-Shabab?’, BBC, 9 December 2016

The organizational capacity of al-Shabaab is further illustrated by its capacity to carry out attacks outside of its strongholds, including the capital Mogadishu, See for instance ‘Somalia: Huge Blast Rocks Downtown Mogadishu’, Al Jazeera, 8 May 2017; ‘Somalia: Al-Shabab Attack at Mogadishu Hotel ‘Kills 28’', Al Jazeera, 25 January 2017; International Crisis Group, ‘Somalia’, Crisis Watch, January and February 2019. and even outside of Somalia, such as in Kenya or Djibouti.Somalia Profile – Timeline’, BBC, 4 January 2018; ‘Kenya attack death toll rises to 21 as suspects hunted down’, Al-Jazeera, 17 January 2019. Moreover, in addition to car bombs and suicide attacks, al-Shabaab is capable of carrying out more complex attacks against AMISOM bases, army bases, and government locations, occasionally against high-level targets. Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea pursuant to Security Council resolution 2244 (2015): Somalia, UN doc S/2016/919, 28 September 2016, §8 and §§14ff; International Crisis Group, ‘Somalia’, Crisis Watch, January and February 2019.

Al-Shabaab disposes of a considerable number of fighters. At the start of 2019, estimates varies between 2,000 and 6,000. Council on Foreign Relations, ‘Al-Shabab’, updated 31 January 2019; Vanda Felbab-Brown, ‘Developments in Somalia’, Brookings, 14 November 2018.

Al-Shabaab has a leadership, currently organized under Ahmad Umar, also known as Abu Ubaidah. Council on Foreign Relations, ‘Al-Shabab’, updated 31 January 2019; Joe Sommerlad, ‘Al-Shabaab: Who are the East African jihadi group and what are their goals?’, The Independent, 15 January 2019. A sort of enforcement mechanism for enforcing internal rules seems to exist, as ‘action would be taken’ against persons disobeying ‘the rules’. N. Boehland, The People’s Perspective: Civilian Involvement in Armed Conflict, Center for Civilians in Conflict, 2015, p 73.Al-Shabaab collects taxes in the areas it controls. Other sources of fundings include racketeering, piracy, kidnapping. C. Harnisch, 'The Terror Threat From Somalia: The Internationalization of al Shabab', Critical Threads, 12 February 2010; Council on Foreign Relations, ‘Al-Shabab’, updated 31 January 2019. Al-Shabaab also claims that it brings law and order to territories under its control, carries out investigations into violations committed by other forces and disarms militias. Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea pursuant to Security Council resolution 2244 (2015): Somalia, UN doc S/2016/919, 28 September 2016, §98. Finally, al-Shabaab has convened local peace talks by itself. Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea pursuant to Security Council resolution 2244 (2015): Somalia, UN doc S/2016/919, 28 September 2016, §98.

Islamic State in Somalia (ISS)

The Islamic State group started to appear in Somalia in in late 2015 when the first al-Shabaab splinter faction, led by Sheikh Abdulqadir Mumin (an al Shabaab leader in charge of around 300 troops in Puntland), swore allegiance to the Islamic State group. European Institute of Peace, ‘The Islamic State in East Africa’, September 2018, p. 12; Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea pursuant to Security Council resolution 2244 (2015): Somalia, UN doc S/2016/919, 28 September 2016,Annex 1.2. In April 2016, a new group called Jahba East Africa, reportedly composed of former al-Shabaab fighters, appeared and swore allegiance to the Islamic State Group. L. Dearden, ‘Isis: New Terrorist Group Jahba East Africa Pledged Allegiance to “Islamic State” in Somalia’, The Independent, 8 April 2016. In December 2016, an al-Shabaab splinter group declared allegiance to the Islamic State group and seized control over a coastal city in Puntland for a few weeks. The estimated strength of the group varies from a few dozen fighters to 300. Moreover, their main area of activities seems to be within Puntland, beyond the reach of government forces. Council on Foreign Relations, Al-Shabab in Somalia, Global Conflict Tracker, 3 May 2017; M. Winsor, ‘ISIS in Somalia: Islamic State Claims First-Ever Attack in Mogadishu While Courting Al-Shabab’, International Business Times, 25 April 2016; K. Sieff, ‘2,000 miles from Syria, ISIS is trying to lure recruits in Somalia’, The Washington Post, 24 December 2015; H. Maruf, ‘Somalia Security Forces and IS Fighters Directly Clash for First Time’, Voice of Africa, 03 December 2016; H. Maruf, ‘Somali Officials Condemn Attacks, Vow Revenge’, Voice of Africa, 9 June 2016; Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea pursuant to Security Council Resolution 2244 (2015): Somalia, UN doc S/2016/919, 28 September 2016, §§26ff and Annex 1.2; Report of the Secretary-General on Somalia, UN doc S/2017/21, 9 January 2017, §11. At the end of 2016 the Mumin faction was estimated by the UN to consist of up to 200 fighters. Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea pursuant to Security Council resolution 2244 (2015), S/2017/924, 2 November 2017, §32. The estimated strength of the Islamic State group in Somalia varies between 200 and 300 fighters. Caleb Weiss, ‘Analysis: Islamic State ramps up attack claims in Somalia’, FDD’s Long War Journal, 9 May 2018; Mohamed Olad Hassan, ‘Somalia's Al-Shabab Declares War on Pro-Islamic State Group’, VOA, 21 December 2018, European Institute of Peace, ‘The Islamic State in East Africa’, September 2018, pp. 14, 16.

At the end of 2018, following a violent leadership struggle, ‘Abdirashid Luqmaan (Darod/Leelkase) became the de facto leader of ISS. It has been reported that ‘Unconfirmed intelligence from an internal report of the Puntland Security Force indicates that Luqmaan is between 40 and 48 years of age and had been a religious leader within Al-Shabaab in Galkayo before defecting to the ISIL faction in 2015.’ Letter dated 1 November 2019 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolution 751 (1992) concerning Somalia addressed to the President of the Security Council, S/2019/858, 1 November 2019, at p. 19.

The group has demonstrated military capabilities not only by engaging in sustained armed confrontations against al-Shabab and Somali forces in Somalia, but also by organize ng terrorist attacks abroad. Notably, on 17 December 2018 ISS fighter Omar Moshin Ibrahim, also known as Anas Khalil, was arrested in Bari (Italy) ‘in connection with a planned attack on the Vatican and other targets in Italy, to coincide with the Christmas celebrations on December 25.’ Letter dated 1 November 2019 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolution 751 (1992) concerning Somalia addressed to the President of the Security Council, S/2019/858, 1 November 2019, at p. 19.

During its first years, the number of members was estimated between 300 and 400 fighters. The Organization for World Peace (OWP), Islamic State in Somalia, 11 July 2020. In 2020, the group has attempted to recruit new members, in particular in the Bari region of Somalia. As reported by the United Nations Panel of Experts on Somalia, ‘in February 2020, reports indicated that about 30 fighters, including seven foreign fighters.’ Letter dated 28 September 2020 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolution 751 (1992) concerning Somalia addressed to the President of the Security Council, S/2020/949, 28 September 2020, at p, 3.

International Interventions

The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM)

The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has currently around 22,000 troops deployed in Somalia. Troops are deployed throughout central and south Somalia to fight against al-Shabaab. AMISOM Military Component; AMISOM Mandate. Supporting the Somali security forces in their fight against al-Shabaab, the military component of AMISOM is a party to the pre-existing armed conflict between the government forces and the group. AMISOM is authorized by the United Nations Security Council to use force to ‘reduce the threat posed by Al-Shabaab and other armed opposition groups.’ UNSC Res. 2093(2013) §1; UNSC Res 2297(2016), UNSC Res 2355(2017). However, the mandate of a mission is not in itself determinative, see ‘contemporary challenges – intervention by foreign forces, including peacekeeping operations’; T. Ferraro and L. Cameron, 'Article 2: Application of the Convention', ICRC, Commentary on the First Geneva Convention, 2016, §§245, 246; L. Cameron, B. Demeyere, J-M. Henckaerts, E. La Haye and I. Müller, with contributions by C. Droege, R. Geiss and L. Gisel, ‘Article 3: Conflicts Not of an International Character’, ICRC, Commentary on the First Geneva Convention, 2016, §411. Clashes between AMISON and al-Shabab takes place with a certain regularity. For instance, in April 2020 Al-Shabaab attacked security forces, including AMISOM troops: at least 11 soldiers and 11 civilians were reported dead. Furthermore, in September Al-Shabaab bombed an AMISOM’s convoy and killed one person. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch Somalia.

Since the intervention takes place with the consent of the Somali federal government and in support of the Somali security forces, the conflict continues to be classified as a non-international armed conflict. See ‘contemporary challenges –relevance of consent’ in our classification section. For the question who is a party to the non-international armed conflict, the formal authority for the AMISOM mission appears to be with the African Union, hence only AMISOM, but not the troop contributing countries, In addition to Kenyan and Ethiopian armed forces, the military component of AMISOM includes forces from Uganda, Burundi, and Djibouti. is a party to the conflict. In this sense, see T. Ferraro, ‘The Applicability and Application of International Humanitarian Law to Multinational Forces’, 95 (891/892) International Review of the Red Cross, 2013, pp 591ff. For an overview on questions relating to operations under the auspices of international organisations and the determination of parties to the conflict, see ‘Contemporary challenges – intervention by foreign forces, including peacekeeping operations’ and ‘Contemporary challenges - multinational forces: who is a party to the conflict’ in our classification section.

Ethiopia and Kenya

Ethiopian and Kenyan armed forces continue to operate outside AMISOM, hence both countries are also parties to the conflict. In this sense, see Report of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict in Somalia, UN doc S/2016/1098, 22 December 2016, §10. Indeed, since 2006, Ethiopia has repeatedly intervened in the non-international armed conflict in Somalia. In January 2014 the Ethiopian armed forces were formally integrated into AMISOM, AMISOM, Ethiopian Forces Formally Integrated into AMISOM, Press Release, 22 January 2014. but Ethiopian troops reportedly also continue to operate outside AMISOM. Report of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict in Somalia, UN doc S/2016/1098, 22 December 2016, §10. Armed confrontations between Ethiopia and al-Shabab have continued over the years. Notably, in April 2020 the Ethiopian army reported to have killed at least 17 militants belonging to Al-Shabaab in the state of Jubaland. In November 2020, after the broke out of the conflict in the Tigray region, Ethiopia withdrew about 3.000,00 Ethiopian soldiers unaffiliated with AMISOM and disarmed officers belonging to the Tigrayan ethnicity within AMISOM. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch Somalia.

Following a series of incursions by al-Shabaab inside Kenya, the latter sent troops into Somalia in 2011. W. Ross, ‘Kenya’s Incursion Into Somalia Raises the Stakes’, BBC, 17 October 2011. For a discussion of the legal grounds used to justify the intervention, see V. Hadzi-Vidanovic, ‘Kenya Invades Somalia Invoking the Right of Self-Defence’. EJIL Tallk! Blog, 18 October 2011. In February 2012, the Kenyan troops in Somalia became part of the AMISOM mission. See the information provided by AMISOM, Kenya – KDF, although they also continue to operate outside AMISOM. Report of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict in Somalia, UN doc S/2016/1098, 22 December 2016, §10.

In March 2020, Somalia cut diplomatic ties with Kenya, as it blamed Kenya for interfering in the internal affairs of Somalia. The Information Minister Osman Dubbe specified that: ‘Kenya continues meddling in our internal political affairs and it has ignored our previous calls to stop violating our sovereignty. We, therefore, declare that we have cut ties with Kenya over its poor violations on Somalia’s sovereignty.’ Diplomatic relations between the two countries severed when Somaliland President Musa Abdi made a diplomatic visit to Kenya where he met President Uhuru Kenyatta. ‘Somalia cuts diplomatic ties with Kenya citing interference’, Al-Jazeera, 15 December 2020.

The non-international armed conflict with al-Shabaab has spilled into Kenya. In addition to committing terrorist attacks in Kenya, notably the 2013 Westgate mall attack, the 2015 Garissa University attack and the 2016 Dusit complex attack, al-Shabaab continues to conduct raids into Kenyan territory, targeting both civilians and the Kenyan security forces. In September 2015, Kenya initiated Operation Linda Boni to expel al-Shabaab. Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea pursuant to Security Council resolution 2244 (2015): Somalia, UN doc S/2016/919, 28 September 2016, §§43ff; S. Cherono, ‘Kenya: Head of Operation Linda Boni Moved in Wake of Al-Shabaab Attacks’, All Africa, 19 July 2017; C. Praxides, ‘Operation Linda Boni Is a Success, Al-Shabaab IED Experts Killed, Says Official’, Star, 11 July 2017; B. Sanga, ‘Mixed Fortunes of Operation Linda Boni as Locals Cry Foul’, Standard Digital, 17 June 2017; ‘Kenya attack death toll rises to 21 as suspects hunted down’, Al-Jazeera, 17 January 2019. For an overview of border incursions, see ‘Somalia Profile – Timeline’, BBC, 21 November 2016. Taking into account the level of organization of al-Shabaab and the scale and scope of attacks carried out in Kenya and the response of the Kenyan security forces to these attacks, there was thus a separate trans-border non-international armed conflict between Kenya and al-Shabaab. Nevertheless, based on the information at our disposal, since Somalia cut ties with Kenya the latter country has not conducted military operations in Somalia against al Shabab. 

United States

The United States carries out conventional and drone strikes in Somalia against targets linked to al-Shabaab. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Somalia: Reported US Covert Actions 2001-2016, 2016; See also Amnesty International, The hidden US war in Somalia; civilian casualties from air strikes in Lower Shabelle, March 2019. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that since January 2007 and as of February 2019, at least 139 confirmed strikes took place in Somalia, causing 965-1,163 deaths. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, ‘Strikes in Somalia’, consulted 25 March 2019. The deadliest drone strike so far allegedly killed more than 150 al-Shabaab members. Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea pursuant to Security Council resolution 2244 (2015): Somalia, UN doc S/2016/919, 28 September 2016, §2. The U.S. also provides air support to AMISOM and Somali forces, which led to an increase in the frequency of reported U.S strikes. W. J. Hennigan and D. S. Cloud, ‘U.S. Airstrikes in Somalia Signal a More Direct Role Against Shabab’, Los Angeles Times, 23 July 2015. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Somalia: Reported US Actions 2017, 2017 In addition, the U.S. has increased its ground presence in Somalia and American forces have been conducting raids C. Baab, ‘VOA Exclusive: Dozens More US Troops Deployed to Somalia’, VOA, 14 April 2017; Wesley Morgan, ‘U.S. military builds up in land of ‘Black Hawk Down’ disaster’, Politico, 19 November 2017 as well as supporting ground operations from the Somali security forces and AMISOM, including by transporting Somali troops to their targets and by accompanying them during raids. L. Martinez, ‘Inside the US Military’s Mission in Somalia’, ABC News, 5 May 2017; H. Cooper, C. Savage and E. Schmitt, ‘Navy Seal Killed in Somalia in First U.S. Combat Death There Since 1993’, The New York Times, 5 May 2017; The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, ‘Somalia: Reported US actions 2019’, consulted on 6 March 2019. In March 2017, the U.S. government reportedly broadened the authority granted to U.S. military to undertake airstrikes in Somalia. C. Savage and E.Schmitt, ‘Trump Eases Combat Rules in Somalia Intended to Protect Civilians’, The New York Times, 30 March 2017; M. Windsor, ‘Trump’s Directive on Offensive Airstrikes in Somalia Could Fuel Terrorism Recruitment, Experts Warn’, ABC News, 1 April 2017; E. Schmitt, ‘U.S. Carries Out Drone Strikes Against Shabab Militants in Somalia’, The New York Times, 3 July 2017.

Accordingly, since then regular air strikes have been conducted by US forces. For instance, in April 2020 a US airstrike killed at least 32 militants belonging to Al-Shabaab. On the other hand, in March 2020 Al-Shabaab conducted a suicide bomb attack against a US compound. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch Somalia.

Since the US activities take place with the consent of the Somali government, the nature of the conflict in which the U.S. is involved can only be non-international. Both the Transitional Federal Government and the new Somali Federal government have expressed their support for the drone strikes, see Center for Civilians in Conflict, The Civilian Impact of Drones. Unexamined Costs, Unanswered Questions, Columbia Law School, Human Rights Clinic, 2012, p 17. For a thorough analysis of the question of consent, see M. Byrne, ‘Consent and the Use of Force: An Examination of “Intervention by Invitation” as a Basis for US Drone Strikes in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen’, 3 Journal on the Use of Force and International Law 1 (2016), 115ff; M. Brookman-Byrrne, ‘Drone Use “Outside Areas of Active Hostilities”: An Examination of the Legal Paradigms Governing US Covert Remote Strikes’, 64 Netherlands International Law Review 1 (2017), pp 31 ff. Given its material support to the Somali and AMISOM forces, the U.S. has been a party to the pre-existing non-international armed conflict between these forces and al-Shabaab under the ‘support-based approach’ proposed by the International Committee of the Red Cross. T. Ferraro, ‘The Applicability and Application of International Humanitarian Law to Multinational Forces’, 95 International Review of the Red Cross 891/892  (2013), 583. As of March 2019, the U.S. is a party to this non-international armed conflict not only on account of its support to Somali and AMISOM forces, but also on account of its direct use of force against al-Shabaab, due to the number of air strikes and ground raids it has been conducting.

Past US strikes against al-Shabaab before the US became a party to a non-international armed conflict against the group however took place outside an armed conflict conflict and were therefore not governed by IHL. M. Brookman-Byrne, ‘Drone Use “Outside Areas of Active Hostilities”: An Examination of the Legal Paradigms Governing US Covert Remote Strikes’ 64 Netherlands International Law Review 1 (2017), pp 36ff. The targeting of al-Shabaab members raises discrete questions under US law, namely whether Congress’s 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force applies to such strikes. For a discussion with further references, see R. Goodman, ‘U.S. Operations Against al-Shabaab/al-Qaeda: The Targeting of Godane’, Just Security Blog, 29 January 2014; R. Goodman, ‘Targeting Al-Shabaab’s Godane Is Not the Same as Targeting Al-Shabaab’, Just Security Blog, 2 September 2014; R. Goodman, ‘State Dep’t Legal Adviser’s Answer to “Acute Question” on US Mil. Action Against Al-Shabaab’, Just Security Blog, 1 November 2016; C. Savage, ‘Is the U.S. Now at War With the Shabab? Not Exactly’, The New York Times, 14 March 2016.

Separately, the US has reportedly conducted three airstrikes against alleged Islamic State-affiliated targets in Somalia in 2017. AFRICOM announced that it conducted three airstrikes ‘against ISIS’, respectively on 3 and 27 November 2017, see AFRICOM, ‘U.S. conducts airstrikes against ISIS in Somalia’, 3 November 2017; AFRICOM, ‘U.S. Conducts Airstrike in Support of the Federal Government of Somalia’, 27 November 2017. The FDD’s Long War Journal reports four strikes in 2017, see JDD’s Long War Journal,&l

All parties to the conflict are bound by Article 3 common to the 1949 Geneva Conventions that provides for the minimum standard to be respected and requires humane treatment without adverse distinction of all persons not or no longer taking active part in hostilities. It prohibits murder, mutilation, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, hostage taking and unfair trials.

In addition, all parties are bound by customary international humanitarian law applicable to non-international armed conflict. Customary international law consists of unwritten rules that come from a general practice accepted as law. Based on an extensive study, the International Committee of the Red Cross maintains a database on customary international humanitarian law.

In addition to international humanitarian law, international human rights law continues to apply during times of armed conflict. Somalia is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Under human rights law, the territorial state has an obligation to prevent and to investigate alleged violations, including by non-state actors. Non-state armed groups are increasingly considered to be bound by international human rights law if they exercise de facto control over some areas.

State Parties

Regional organizations

  • The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) 

Non-state parties

  • Al-Shabaab 
  • Islamic State in Somalia (ISS)
Last updated: Friday 30th April 2021