Somalia as a Theatre for US/Turkey Competition

By Emily Przyborowski

According to recent reports, US defense service providers — including Halcyon Group International; Barbaricum; and People, Technology, and Processes (PTP) — are recruiting new military instructors to work with the Somali Special Forces' Danab battalion, the country’s highly trained commando force. The instructors will be training Danab in electronic and cyber warfare, psychological operations, and concealment. Additionally, they will be expanding Somalia’s capabilities in geospatial and electronic intelligence. On the surface, the increased presence of US military contractors is a means for the US to indirectly influence Somalia amid the growing threat of the terrorist group al Shabaab and calls from the Trump Administration to reduce US military commitments in Africa. However, the expansion could also be the result of the continually growing influence of other powers, including Turkey. 

These reports come amid Ankara sending the Somali special forces 24 vehicles — a mix of Mitsubishi L200 all-terrain vehicles and BMC Kirpis — a domestically produced Turkish mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle — in late August. In response, the US announced that it was preparing to deliver 85 Toyota Land Cruiser HZJ 79s and 11 Land Cruiser HZJ 78 ambulances. The vehicles, as well as the intelligence contractors, are a means to help Somali forces fight al Shabaab and counter the growing influence of Turkey in Somalia. 

Turkey has been expanding its influence in the East African country since a major famine in Somalia in 2011. The Turkish government and private Turkish companies sent aid; built schools, hospitals, and infrastructure; and provided scholarships for Somalis to study in Turkey. But the relationship soon expanded from humanitarian aid to an economic and military partnership. 

In September 2017, Turkey opened a military base in the Somali capital of Mogadishu that cost more than $50 million to build. During its opening ceremony, Turkey’s now Minister of National Defense Hulusi Akar announced that the base would be used to train over 10,000 Somali soldiers. This year, the Turkish military academy, TURKSOM, will have trained one-third of Somali forces, and was the target of an al Shabaab attack in June. 

Today, Turkey continues to funnel millions of dollars in humanitarian and military aid, operates its largest embassy in the world in the capital, and Turkish companies manage Mogadishu’s international airport and seaport. Just this year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Somalia invited Turkey to explore its waters for oil and in recent months Turkey has sent Somalia aid for the coronavirus pandemic and airlifted victims of terrorist attacks. 

On the other hand, the US has been a part of efforts to stabilize Somalia since 2006, working with the European Union and United Nations. The US has provided millions of dollars in aid — in 2019, USAID provided Somalia with $108.3 million. The Joint Special Operations Task Force - Somalia, a component of US Special Command, is currently training the Somali National Army special forces. Separately, the US conducts its own military operations, which most frequently consist of airstrikes against al Shabaab and the Islamic State in Somalia.

But why Somalia? Although the fight against al Shabaab is of course important to both Turkey and the US, much of the country’s importance is actually rooted in its geographic location. The East African nation is strategically located overlooking the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea — both bodies of water that are key for international maritime traffic. Both countries hope that their presence will have an outsized impact on the Somali government and secure them influence over these influential bodies of water. Turkey was one of the first nations to assert its influence in the Red Sea, which is bordered by multiple former-Ottoman states and has drawn in other Middle Eastern and extra-regional powers. Additionally, Turkey has used its influence in Somalia to expand its foothold in Africa, influence with its large Muslim population, and get preferential access to economic opportunities. Much of the US’s interest in Somalia stems from its northern coast bordering the Gulf of Aden, which leads to Bab al-Mandab Strait, a narrow waterway through which all maritime traffic from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean must pass that also provides the US Navy with a valuable staging ground to project power in the region.

However, the United States and Turkey are not the only countries carving out a place for themselves in Somalia — China, Russia, Iran, and the UAE have also taken an interest in the East African nation, creating even more competition. For the US, the growing influence of China, Russia, and Iran in Somalia is increasingly a concern. This year, reports have surfaced of Russia building a military base at the port of Berbera, China sending Somalia aid for the coronavirus pandemic, and Iran providing support for al Shabaab. Turkey is concerned with the growing influence of the UAE, which has provided support for regional security forces and in July offered to re-open a UAE hospital in Mogadishu that was closed amid tensions with the Somali government in 2018. 

Emily Przyborowski is a contributor for the Turkish Heritage Organization and a researcher focused on the Middle East and terrorism.