A US soldier was killed yesterday outside the capital of Mogadishu while fighting Shabaab, al Qaeda’s branch in Somalia. The casualty took place just five weeks after the Trump administration approved the expansion of military counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda in the Horn of Africa.
US Africa Command (AFRICOM) announced the death of an American soldier “during an operation against al-Shabaab near Barii, Somalia, approximately 40 miles west of Mogadishu.” According to AFRICOM, American forces “were conducting an advise and assist mission alongside members of the Somali National Army.”
The nature of the operation against Shabaab has not be disclosed, and it is unknown how many casualties Shabaab incurred during the fighting. Previously, US forces have partnered with Somali forces to target training camps, bases, and other infrastructure used by Shabaab to launch attacks in the region.
AFRICOM described Shabaab as “a threat to Americans and American interests” and said the group “has murdered Americans; radicalizes and recruits terrorists and fighters in the United States; and attempts to conduct and inspire attacks against Americans, our allies and our interests around the world, including here at home.”
Scores of Americans are thought to have traveled to Somalia to wage jihad. Americans have served in top leadership positions in Shabaab, and three Americans are confirmed to have carried out suicide attacks in Somalia, more than in any other theater of war.
US forces are partnering with Somali and African Union forces to “to systematically dismantle this al Qaeda affiliate,” according to AFRICOM.
Shabaab has had success in disrupting one other special operations force raid in the past. In January 2013, Shabaab repelled a raid by French General Directorate for External Security (DGSE) commandos and killed one solider and captured another. The DGSE forces were attempting to free two of its members who were captured by Shabaab in Mogadishu. One was executed after the raid.
Expanding operations against Shabaab
The Trump administration has loosened the restrictions on the US military to use force against Shabaab. On March 30, the Pentagon announced that “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.”
“This authority is consistent with our approach of developing capable Somali security forces and supporting regional partners in their efforts to combat Shabaab,” the Pentagon statement continued.
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 both 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 ten airports in the Middle East. [See What’s really behind Trump’s laptop ban.]