The US military has been granted approval by President Donald Trump to target Shabaab, al Qaeda’s branch in East Africa, with “additional precision fires.” This now makes Somalia part of what the Obama administration had described as “areas of active hostilities,” where jihadist groups like al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other terrorist groups can be directly targeted by the US military with looser restrictions on the use of force.
“The president has approved a Department of Defense proposal to provide additional precision fires in support of African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali security forces operations to defeat Shabaab in Somalia,” Pentagon Spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said in a statement released by the Department of Defense.
“This authority is consistent with our approach of developing capable Somali security forces and supporting regional partners in their efforts to combat Shabaab. Somali and AMISOM forces have already achieved significant success in recapturing territory from Shabaab, and additional US support will help them increase pressure on Shabaab and reduce the risk to our partner forces when they conduct operations,” Davis continued.
The new directive to pursue Shabaab will deny it “safe havens from which it could attack U.S. citizens or U.S. interests in the region.”
The Pentagon’s desire to actively target Shabaab reflects the growing concern that al Qaeda’s branch in East Africa is gaining strength despite the presence of both AMISOM and US forces. Over the past year, Shabaab has regained control of some towns and rural areas in the south that it lost during an AMISOM offensive that began in 2011. In addition, Shabaab has stepped up suicide attacks and guerrilla operations in and around the capital of Mogadishu. Furthermore, Shabaab used a sophisticated laptop bomb in an attempt to down a Somali airline in 2016. This attack was cited by the US government as one of the reasons that electronics have been banned in the cabins of airplanes departing from 10 airports in the Middle East. [See What’s really behind Trump’s laptopban.]
During the Obama administration, the US military was conducting raids against training camps and other operations in Shabaab-held territory which were clearly offensive in nature. US Africa Command [AFRICOM] described such operations as “self-defense strikes” in an effort to skirt restrictions on operations against Shabaab in areas outside of active hostilities. [For more information, [See AFRICOM masks military operations in Somalia as ‘self defense strikes’.]
AFRICOM’s attempts to hide direct combat operations against Shabaab targets such as training camps and IED factories as advise and assist missions whitewashed the more than 10-year-old war that the weak Somali government, the African Union, and the United States has waged against al Qaeda’s branch in Somalia. In 2016, AFRICOM announced nine “self-defense strikes” and “defensive fires” missions in Somalia. The Department of Defense has even justified airstrikes on Shabaab training camps, such as the one in Raso on March 5, 2016, as defensive operations.
Under the Obama administration, areas of active hostilities included Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and in Libya for a brief period of time in 2016 when the military was directly supporting the offensive against the Islamic State in Sirte. In these areas, the US military was directly engaged in the fight against the jihadist group and can operate under looser restrictions in targeting the terrorist insurgent groups.
In the areas outside of active hostilities, which included countries such as Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, and though not stated by the US government, Pakistan, the US military was forced to operate under strict rules of engagement that insisted that any operation targeting terrorists include the standard of near-certainty of no civilian casualties. The strict rules of engagement has allowed jihadist groups to thrive and expand their insurgencies against weak central governments.