The U.S. military launched an airstrike on Wednesday in Somalia, which has become a very active front in the post-Global War on Terrorism conflict against al-Qaida and the Islamic State group.
The airstrike supported the Somali National Army, which was fighting al-Shabaab militants, U.S. Africa Command announced on Thursday. Al-Shabaab declared allegiance to al-Qaida in 2012 and it is responsible for the Jan. 5, 2020 attack on U.S. troops at Manda Bay, Kenya, that killed three Americans.
Five suspected al-Shabaab fighters were killed in the airstrike near Bacadweyne, Somalia, which is roughly 286 miles northwest of the country’s capital, Mogadishu, according to an AFRICOM news release, which did not specify what type of U.S. military aircraft or ordnance was involved in the operation.
In the first two months of this year alone, the U.S. military has launched five airstrikes in Somalia and conducted a Jan. 26 special operations raid in the country that killed ISIS leader Bilal-al-Sudani, said Caleb Weiss, an expert on jihadism in Africa and the Middle East.
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By way of comparison, there were 15 U.S. airstrikes in Somalia in 2022 and 11 airstrikes in 2021, according to the Long War Journal, which is produced by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies think tank in Washington, D.C.
The recent uptick in U.S. military operations in Somalia began last year in support of the Somali government’s offensive against al-Shabaab, said Weiss, a senior analyst with the Bridgeway Foundation, a nonprofit organization that seeks to end genocide. Weiss is also a co-editor of the Long War Journal.
While Somali forces have made progress in clearing al-Shabaab from parts of the country, it is unclear whether they can maintain control of the areas that they’ve taken, told Task & Purpose on Thursday.
Weiss noted that the Somali government is relying on militias to hold most of the towns and villages that al-Shabaab has left.
Al-Shabaab is also well practiced at making tactical withdrawals from cities, only to come back later in full force, he said.
“In the areas of central Somalia, especially in the Hiran region, we’ve seen al-Shabaab take back some villages,” Weiss said. “So, I think the long-term impact is still unclear at this point.
The U.S. troops have been supporting Somali forces against al-Shabaab since 2007, but in December 2020 then-President Donald Trump ordered most of the roughly 750 American service members in Somalia to leave the country.
President Joe Biden later approved a plan in May 2022 to send roughly 500 U.S. troops back to Somalia.
Christopher Miller, who served as acting defense secretary during the final months of the Trump administration, said that the U.S. military’s footprint in Somalia had become far too large by the time Trump pulled most American forces out of the country.
While the U.S. military’s role in Somalia is the “absolutely perfect counterterrorism mission,” it can also be accomplished by just 25 troops on the ground instead of nearly 800, Miller told Task & Purpose.
The U.S. military’s presence in Somalia fell victim to mission creep, Miller said. It started with a small number of troops and then grew to include aircraft based at Mogadishu’s airport, which required firefighters to also be assigned to the airport and then base security to protect the firefighters and other American forces.
Miller also credits the withdrawal of most U.S. troops from Somalia with forcing the Somali government to take the lead in the fight against al-Shabaab and ultimately launching the current offensive.
“But, as soon as we left, in true Department of Defense/government bureaucratic fashion, AFRICOM came in to relitigate,” Miller said. “After its debacle in Afghanistan, I would strongly suspect the [Biden] administration decided that they needed to show strength regarding counterterrorism someplace else.”
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