Somalia’s Foreign Policy, Al Shabaab, ISIS: Implications for Somalia, the Horn of Africa, and Beyond


Somalia is often considered a quintessential example of a failed state that suffers from devastating humanitarian crises and the lowest levels of development in the world. The country has for decades now been engulfed with multiple crises, including but not limited to separatism, corrupt regional state administrations, foreign interventions, lack of economic stability, clan rivalry, and the ever-growing threats from al-Shabaab and the Islamic State in Somalia (ISS). While the government strives to confront these pressing issues and much more, the Somalis seem to be more optimistic in the current Somali leadership compared to past administrations.

Despite sporadic claims of authoritarianism, inability to leverage international support, and failures to address multiple security threats in the country,[i] the current administration of President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo is considered by many to be the most stable and least corrupt since the collapse of the Said Barre regime in 1991.[ii] Arguably, among the most notable achievements of the current administration is the rebirth and development of the nation’s foreign policy, rooted in the vision and judgment of revitalizing the country’s international standing and sovereign decision-making agency. For instance, since 2018, and under the leadership of Minister Ahmed Isse Awad, Somalia’s foreign ministry has introduced numerous reforms, especially in the areas of accountability and commitment to safeguarding the nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Furthermore, as the country struggles to recover and bounce back from decades of civil war, political instability, and terrorism, it continues to project signs of resiliency and strength, as also evidenced in the recent central government’s efforts to display a new vision of systematic changes and development.

Initiative for regional peace and security and economic integration in the Horn of Africa Region 

Somalia has spearheaded diplomatic efforts across the Horn of Africa to create a new area of friendship among the neighboring countries to support the prosperity of its people, deepen economic and national security cooperation, and uphold effective participation in multilateral diplomacy. By signing the September 2018 tripartite cooperation agreement with Ethiopia and Eritrea, for instance, Somalia played a critical role in changing the region’s longstanding conflict between neighboring countries. Among the successes included reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Eritrea that opened the door for friendship and economic trade and cooperation.

Ethiopia has also re-established historic relations with Eritrea, with Somalia playing a key role in helping mediate the conflicts between Eritrea and Djibouti. Somalia’s cooperation in these historic efforts has been regarded as a measure of success both in working with regional partners and preventing interference with Somalia’s territorial integrity. Case in point: Ethiopia has shifted its policy toward Somaliland (a self-declared state, internationally recognized autonomous region of Somalia) by working directly with the recognized federal government when engaging with any federal member state rather than overstepping the federal government.

Somalia’s Stance on the Gulf Dispute

Caught between the rival and competing interests of Arab nations, the Somali central government remained neutral in the Qatar blockade and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) rivalry, with some countries interpreting the central government’s neutrality as a vote in favor of Qatar, causing further schisms between the central government and other federal member states. [iii] The United Arab Emirates (UAE) perceived Somalia to be close to Qatar and thus waged a strong support in their quest for independence to Somalia’s regional federal member states and autonomous regions of Puntland, Somaliland, and Jubaland. Among the criticisms often raised against the UAE include signing of [unlawful] international agreements with Somaliland and engaging in quid pro quo efforts with other Somali federal member states to openly come out against the government’s neutral stance.

Both direct and indirect rivalries among the Gulf States on Somalia’s soil have prompted shifts in central government’s political calculus. The redrawn new realities have dictated readjustments not only in the domestic political realm but also in considering competing visions and new sets of political conditions – Saudi Arabia and the UAE using Somalia and the Horn of Africa as a launching pad for its operations in Yemen, on the one hand, and Qatar’s “soft-power” approach to expand political influence and economic competitiveness on the other – and the possible long-term ramifications and unanticipated consequences in the form of further diplomatic influence and exercise of dominance in Somalia’s domestic political scene on the part of the Gulf States. 

Terrorism: Al-Shabaab and Islamic State in Somalia (ISS)

Despite significant military and economic investments, evidence of al Shabaab’s drop in ascendancy remains thin on the ground. Author interviews with government and civil society officials in Mogadishu, Somalia, indicates al Shabaab’s mounting influence in generating financial resources, largely by means of extortion, carrying out coordinated, mass casualty attacks throughout Somalia,[iv] and embedding sleeper cells in the police, military, and governmental institutions. The Islamic State in Somalia (ISS) threat also continues to intensify in the northeast of the Puntland region of Somalia. Despite a period of silence due to rivalry with al-Shabaab and suppressions by security forces, the group and its ideology remain attractive, especially to disgruntled members of al Shabaab, leading to further tensions with al Shabaab. Shifts in ISS strategy and, by extension, the group’s rise in prominence, could in part be explained by successful governmental defection, repatriation, and rehabilitation efforts aimed at al Shabaab.[v]

Beyond the confines of Somalia, ISS continues to exhibit impulses of expansion into Kenya and Ethiopia, among others. Furthermore, the collapse of Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq has brought renewed attention to the threat posed by ISS in serving as IS’ entry point into East Africa, including for other IS-affiliated groups in the region. The group’s activities have also been linked to terrorist activities in the United States and Europe.[vi] The United States and the African Union (AU), in particular, have been hailed by the government of Somalia for their efforts to degrade al Shabaab on the ground, namely by means of drone strikes that serve to soften target areas and advance Somali ground troops. The policy of drone strikes remains a contentious point of debate among some in Somalia,[vii] however, with Somali government seeking to balance mission success of drone strikes in enabling greater military effectiveness on the ground and the risk of civilian casualties.

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About the Authors:

Mohamed Ahmed is the Associate Chief Diversity Officer at San Diego State University and an Adjunct Professor of Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism in the San Diego State Universities Homeland Security Graduate Program. Mohamed is Director of Strategic Initiatives & Community Programming at American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute (ACTRI). He received his bachelor’s in International Security and Conflict Resolution and Master’s in Postsecondary Educational Leadership from San Diego State University and currently pursuing his Ph.D. in Higher Education at Old Dominion University. Past positions include Senior Community Engagement Coordinator for the Department of Homeland Security – Office of Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention, Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and positions and consultancies with domestic and international organizations. Mohamed’s research focuses on providing positive counter-narratives to polarizing terrorism recruitment and radicalization.

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, Somalia, 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.

[i] Uluso, M. (2020). “ U.S. and EU diplomats support president Farmajo to tear Somalia apart,” available at
[ii] Author interviews and discussions with security, political, and other officials, Mogadishu, Somalia, March 4-10, 2020.
[iii] Faisal, A. (2018). “ How the Gulf crisis echoes in Somalia,” available at
[iv] Aljazeera. (2020). “ Somalia: Turkish workers wounded in deadly al Shabaab car bombing,” available at
[v] Author interviews with security officials in Mogadishu, Somalia, March 4-10, 2020.
[vi] Weiss, C. (2019). “Reigniting the rivalry: The Islamic State in Somalia vs . al Shabaab,” available at
[vii] Author discussions and interviews with elderly and community leaders, Samadoon Institute for Peace & Strategic Studies (SIPSS), Mogadishu, Somalia, March 10, 2020.




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