Somalia: Turkey's Bayraktar TB2 drones join offensive against al-Shabab
The much-coveted Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drone has joined Somalia's offensive against the militant group al-Shabab, in an escalation seen by Somali analysts as highly significant to the war's trajectory.
Somalia's federal government last week confirmed reports that the armed drones produced by Turkish company Baykar, which has ties to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's family, are now active in Somalia, where US drones have been carrying out strikes against al-Shabab for years.
'If Turkish drones are fully involved, I think it would change the war'
- Abdisalam Guleyd, security analyst
Speaking in a town hall discussion, Somalia's newly appointed interior minister, Ahmed Malim Fiqi, said Turkey's drones are providing aerial combat and military reconnaissance to neutralise one of Africa's deadliest militant groups amid a clan uprising against al-Shabab in central Somalia.
"The US government is leading, and we really appreciate that they are providing air support and carrying [out] air strikes against the terror group... but the Turkish government has also joined the offensive and is providing air support. Many other countries are also providing intelligence-gathering support," Fiqi said.
The minister said Turkish drone operators are closely coordinating with Somali commanders, who are providing them with target coordinates.
Middle East Eye has reached out to Turkey's defence ministry and Somali government officials for comment but has not received a response.
Somalia has shared deep-rooted military cooperation with Turkey for the past 10 years. According to analysts, the new move by Ankara is seen as hugely significant for Somalia's war on al-Shabab.
"Turkey has been hugely involved in Somalia security and humanitarian affairs, but the [introduction of combat] drones is new," Abdisalam Guleyd, a security analyst and former Somalia deputy spy chief, told Middle East Eye.
"My understanding is that surveillance drones have been in the country for a while, but during his visit to Ankara, [newly elected] President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud asked the Turkish government to support his efforts against the militants militarily, but differently this time, and that could be the reason," he said, adding that he believes the Turkish involvement will be more significant than that of the US given Ankara's strong military presence in the country.
Mohamud, who was elected president in May this year, paid a two-day official visit to Turkey in early July.
Turkey has trained thousands of Somali troops, mainly special forces, but has not been actively involved in the fight against al-Shabab, until now.
Mohamud has vowed to defeat the group militarily, ideologically and financially, and the uprising led by clans against the militant has immensely contributed to his strategy. But Guleyd sees Turkey's involvement as a major game-changer, but more so, timely.
He highlighted the Bayraktar TB2 drones' proven track record in conflicts in Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh, and most recently in the Russia-Ukraine war, where they have been deployed by Ukrainian forces.
"If you look at the limited US air strike in Somalia, it has significantly reduced the group's military activities over the years, but, if Turkish drones are fully involved, I think it would change the war, given the nature of Turkey's military strategy in other conflicts in recent years."
Guleyd believes that the combination of several factors supports the view that Turkey's commitments to the Somali's security sector could potentially turn out to be a full-scale involvement.
Mogadishu hosts Turkey's largest overseas base, Turksom, which also serves as a military training academy for Somali soldiers, one in three of whom are trained by Turkish armed forces, according to state news agency Anadolu.
Turkey has also been providing special commando training to Somali soldiers in its southwestern province of Isparta under a military cooperation agreement between the two countries.
Last August, Turkey's ambassador to Somalia, Mehmet Yilmaz, told Anadolu that Turkey is on course to training one-third of Somalia's military forces, numbering around 15,000-16,000 personnel.
Turkey's move to provide air support to Somalia's war has not come as a surprise, given Ankara's immense military presence in the country and its efforts to increase its foothold in the Horn of Africa.
"Its role in Somalia, West Africa and, more recently, its military engagement in Libya clearly shows that Turkey wants to expand its influence across the continent," Ibrahim Bachir Abdoulaye, a researcher on Turkey-Africa relations at the German University of Bayreuth, told MEE in October 2021.
The new offensive
Al-Shabab was formed in 2006 and has since been fighting against the Somali national army and African Union forces to overthrow the internationally recognised government and impose its understanding of Islamic Sharia.
The al-Qaeda-affiliated group is now facing the biggest offensive in recent years, which gained momentum early in September after it killed at least 20 people, mostly from the same clan, in the central region of Hiran, sparking anger and revolt.
Al-Shabab has lost ground in the Galgaduud, Gedo and Bay regions to the joint forces, according to the government.
The offensive is quickly becoming a popular armed uprising against the militants, who control large areas of land, with even clan leaders turning against the group.
In early September, Abdi Ali, one of the clan elders who took up arms in the Hiran region, said he preferred dying in a combat zone than idly waiting for the group to execute him in his home.
He said he is not alone and that other elders have joined him, even though, like himself, they do not have basic military training.
"I'm the first clan leader to have worn military fatigues, and I was forced to do so because they assassinated my people, set fire to villages with over 200 homes, and destroyed water points, food and vehicles," Ali, one of the Hawadle clan's elders, told MEE on the phone from the front line.
"We are forced to defend our lives and liberate our land, and we are fighting against this terror group."
According to government officials and clan fighters, more than 100 al-Shabab fighters have been killed over the past three weeks. The group has denied the reports.
"Al-Shabab hasn't shown us humanity at a time when the situation is difficult amid a severe drought, and people are struggling to survive, but I am glad that we have liberated 90 percent of our region," Ali said.