How the United States Underdeveloped Somalia
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Author: Jason C. Mueller
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Marxist Sociology Blog - Theory, Research, Politics

On September 6, 2023, the United States military reportedly assisted the Somali government in an deadly counter-terrorism operation that killed five civilians. For many Americans, their immediate thought to hearing of this news is probably something along the lines of: I had no idea the US was militarily active in Somalia! What are they even doing there?

I have written about US interventionism in Somalia for the greater part of the past decade. Specifically, I focus on the thirty years of uninterrupted US economic, ideological, and  militarized interventions, under the auspices of ‘humanitarianism’ and ‘counter-terrorism.’

In two recent publications, I outline the US’ historical legacies of brutality in Somalia, connecting these patterns to the US corporate interests in extracting natural resources in Somalia, and the broader legacies of militarized accumulation, environmental destruction, and racist brutality meted out against people of the global South.

The US’ legacy is Somalia is grim, and few Americans are aware of their government’s activities in the Horn of Africa. To broach this subject, consider headlines from several news outlets and human rights monitoring organizations over the past several years:

As of October 17, 2023, Airwars reports that the US conducted at least 282 operations in Somalia over the past sixteen years, with reasonable confidence that between 85-161 civilians were killed.

That number does not count “militants/insurgents/terrorists” that the US routinely confirms killing. Oftentimes, after the US conducts a military strike, it will confirm the death of alleged “terrorists,” only to face investigations from outside sources. The results of such investigations often unveil civilians are indeed being killed in Somalia. Many Somalis live in fear, wondering if their loved ones will be the next victim of the US’ secret war in their country.

Why the United States maintains an Interest in Somalia

In the 1990s, the US justification for intervening in Somalia was grounded in the post-Cold-War discourse of “humanitarian interventionism.” As the 2000s approached, the US’ spying-on, military intervening-in, and economic strangulation-of Somalia was now justified under the banner of fighting a “global war on terrorism.” In Somalia, this was a fight against the Union of Islamic Courts, and then the al-Shabaab insurgency.

Despite official proclamations of humanistic benevolence, the US’ maintains an interest in keeping a neo-colonial relationships with the ruling political bloc in Somalia. US-friendly politicians work in lockstep with US dictates, in their “counter-terrorism” operations, and other ‘development’ goals. The US’ keen interest in the Horn of Africa likely has something to do with creating a stable environment for large corporations to extract natural resources in Somalia, and elsewhere.

The Somali State apparatus collapsed in the early 1990s. At that time, four major oil corporations—Chevron, Conoco, Amoco, and Philips—were setting-up shop in Somalia. As Mark Fineman reported in 1993, there were “exclusive concessions to explore and exploit tens of millions of acres” for these companies, and the US government was one vessel to protect these assets from being harmed. These investments have been frustrated for the past thirty years. The Somali State apparatus remains feeble, its lumpen-capitalist-developmentalist political establishment is roundly unpopular and distrusted, and a widespread insurgency grips the country.

The Case for Wartime and Climate Reparations?

Fossil fuel extraction and export is a cornerstone policy of capitalist developmentalism. However, the allure of oil-drenched development—to climb the ladder of the stratified world-economy—offers little to those who suffer most from climate change. This is tied to the capitalist growth policies of the US, as a leading emitter of greenhouse gasses, and  within the confines of the “global war on terror” in particular.

Brown University’s Costs of War project reported in 2019 that “the U.S. Department of Defense is the largest institutional consumer of fossil fuels in the world and a key contributor to climate change.” Alternatively, in 2021 the government of Somalia reported that they contribute “less than 0.03 percent of total global emissions.”

The Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative (ND-GAIN) ranks Somalia ranks as one of the most vulnerable regions in the world, in terms of their ability to absorb the harms of capitalism-induced climate chaos. The climate emergency was generated by capitalist compulsions to accumulate and commodity worldwide, and Somali citizens are feeling the harm caused by Core capitalist powers. For these reasons, climate reparations must be on the agenda.

In terms of the largely covert economic and militarized war the US government has waged on the people of Somalia for the past thirty years, reparations may be in order as well. From the collective punishment of shutting down a key economic remittance system for Somali citizens, to covert drone strikes that kill and injure civilians, to secret CIA run prisons, the US remains unaccountable for their actions.

The American Empire in Africa

In 1972, Walter Rodney wrote the landmark book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. In it, he outlines the brutality of European colonial-capitalist catastrophe that resulted in the hyper-exploitation and under-development of African societies. In the twenty-first century, the US maintains an active presence all across Africa, claiming to be conducting or assisting allied governments with “counter-terrorism” operations.

For the past thirty years, the United States has contributed to the destruction of social, economic, political, and environmental fabric of Somalia. This underdevelopment of the region is done under the veneer of “humanitarian interventionism,” capitalist extractive “development” policies, and “counter-terrorism.” The intended outcomes of such policies: to hyper-exploit Somalia, as a source of cheap labor and nature.

In other words, we can identify the precise mechanisms by which the US works to exploit and underdeveloped Somalia.

Despite the substantial impact of the US’ imperial interventions across the world-system, few US sociologists seem interested in investigating the causes and consequences of these activities. It is often left to “area studies” specialists, political scientists, or public policy analysts. Critical sociologists must contribute to this domain of intellectual inquiry.

The US’ long history of brutalizing and annihilating Black lives, Muslim lives, and people of the global South has evolved hand in hand with the spread of capitalism. As the hegemon of the capitalist world-system, the US unleashes ecological, economic, and militarized destruction like no other country. It’s about time the American public knows what their government is doing in Somalia. Perhaps then the US’ foreign policy goals in Somalia can be (re)considered with honesty.

Jason C. Mueller is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Kennesaw State University.

This article is based on two recent publications:

Jason C. Mueller. 2023. “Does the United States owe reparations to Somalia?” Race & Class 65(1), 61-82.

Jason C. Mueller. 2023. “Climate change, counter-terrorism and capitalist development in Somalia.” Review of African Political Economy, online first,

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