On 16 October, a U.S. military official announced that Forces Africa Command (AFRICOM) over the weekend launched what it is now calling its largest strike against Shabaab in Somalia since late 2017. The military released its assessment of the results of a previously reported assault on 12 October near Haradere, revealing that the strike killed 60 Shabaab terrorists.
Haradere is one of the most northern locations AFRICOM has targeted in 2018. The shift in targeting Shabaab in this area was due to the group deploying fighters far from typical support zones in Jubba River Valley, the region at the country’s southern tip, nearing the Kenyan border. This demonstrates the al-Qaeda branch has significant resilience across Somalia.
In all, AFRICOM has conducted 27 strikes in Somalia since the start of 2018.
Somalia has seen growing U.S. involvement over the past year. U.S. airstrikes began to rise sharply last year, largely due to new targeting rules that U.S. commanders received from President Donald Trump. In March of last year, Trump authorized areas of Somalia as “areas of active hostilities” which allowed more persistent attention from military commanders in the region, as well as more freedom in ordering strikes. While the fight on the ground is mostly in the hands of Somalian forces, the United States has kept up its steady support for the country’s military. As the situation has deteriorated, America has also, in turn, felt forced to increase its activities.
The current escalation of the military in Somalia can really be traced back to the Spring of 2017 when Trump ordered the deployment of U.S. troops to train and equip the Somali National Army as well as forces participating in the African Union Mission in Somalia, or AMISOM. Several dozen troops from the 101st Airborne Division were sent at the request and in close coordination with the government of Somalia. The deployment of U.S. troops joined the small number of Special Operations forces that had already been providing counterterrorism support to local forces battling Shabaab. Other countries, including the UK and Turkey, are also training Somali troops.
Unfortunately, with all the international support, including a rather large AMISOM deployment of over 20,000 troops (whose mandate has been extended several times), Somalia has been unable to keep Shabaab at bay. Throughout the last twelve months, the militants were able to pull off devastating attacks on both military and civilian targets. In late September, fighters attacked a military base outside the capital Mogadishu with car bombs and gunfire, killing eight soldiers and wounding several others. The attack was described by Somali military officials as “very sophisticated,” opening with two explosions, followed by a multi-pronged advance on the base by militants that approached from three directions simultaneously. Several weeks later, al-Shabaab orchestrated a massive bombing in Mogadishu that killed over 300. The blast came from a small truck filled with explosives that detonated on one of the busiest thoroughfares of the capital and was described by authorities as the “Somali 9/11.” In December, al-Shabaab struck again, this time penetrating a police academy via a militant disguised as an officer. After entering the facility, the attacker blew himself up, killing 18 and wounding an additional 15. The list goes on.
All along, the U.S. has shown its resolute support for Somalia, ramping up airstrikes in tandem with Shabaab’s increased attacks. In fact, from what we know of the spread of Shabaab across the country, U.S. military support may be the only thing keeping the militants from completely overrunning Somalia. And it is precisely because the U.S. leadership understands what’s at stake that the support has remained so consistent. Shabaab is officially an arm of al-Qaeda. Shabaab fighters are certainly a concern in their own right. But wresting control of the country would open up the Horn of Africa to even more nefarious actors. Somalia would become a major base of al-Qaeda operations, threatening all of East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, as well as international maritime activity off the country’s east coast.
The aspiration of U.S. policymakers may be, as the AFRICOM announcement put it, “long-term security in Somalia [to] the Federal Government of Somalia.” But for now it’s all about damage control. America cannot let the region descend into chaos.