While announcing an airstrike that targeted a Shabaab “command and logistics node” in southern Somalia, the US military warned of al Qaeda’s resurgence in the country and said it has “taken advantage of safe haven.” The strike is the first announced by the US military since the Trump administration declared that it would expand operations against al Qaeda’s branch in Somalia.
US Africa Command, or AFRICOM, announced that it targeted a “command and logistics node at a camp located approximately 185 miles southwest of Mogadishu in a stronghold for the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabaab organization” in an airstrike. AFRICOM assessed that eight Shabaab operatives were killed.
AFRICOM’s worrying assessment of Shabaab’s revival in Somalia is an admission that efforts by the US, African Union, and Somali government to contain and defeat the group over the past several years have failed. The US Department of Defense admitted as much in late March, when it announced that the Trump administration approved “additional precision fires” to target Shabaab throughout Somalia.
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 African Union and US forces, and it is plotting to attack the West. Shabaab used a sophisticated laptop bomb in an attempt to down a Somali airliner 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 laptop ban.]
Today’s strike is part of an overarching effort to “degrade the al-Qaeda affiliate’s ability to recruit, train and plot external terror attacks throughout the region and in America.”
The AFRICOM statement also acknowledged that African Union and Somali forces have suffered significant losses at the hands of Shabaab:
In the last eight months, al-Shabaab has overrun three African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) Forward Operating Bases by amassing large numbers of fighters and attacking in overwhelming numbers. Al-Shabaab has also increased its combat capability by seizing heavy weaponry, armored vehicles, explosives, small arms, ammunition, and other miscellaneous supplies during its operations overrunning Burundian National Defense Forces FOB Leego, Ugandan People’s Defense Force FOB Janaale, and Kenyan Defense Force FOB Ceel Ad.
The terror organization has taken advantage of safe haven. The group has cemented its control [sic] southern and central Somalia, they have used this area to plot and direct terror attacks, steal humanitarian aid, and to shelter other radical terrorists.
Shabaab has successfully overrun Somali and African Union bases in the past and inflicted a large number of casualties on troops based there. In Jan. 2016, Shabaab fighters assaulted a base in Al Ade in the south and killed at least 100 Kenyan soldiers. In June 2015, Shabaab killed an estimated 60 Ethiopian soldiers in the south. That same month, Shabaab fighters killed more than 50 Burundi soldiers in Leego.
Shabaab has been resurgent in Somalia since losing ground to a combined African Union and Somali offensive in 2011. The jihadist group has slowly but methodically retaken several towns and villages that it lost, including the coastal town of Marka.
However, Shabaab’s efforts have not been confined to southern and central Somalia. Late last week, Shabaab fighters overran a base manned by Puntland forces in northern Somalia. Upwards of 60 troops were killed and Shabaab seized a large number of weapons and vehicles as well as a quantity of ammunition.
Today’s strike is the first reported by the US military against Shabaab since the Department of Defense announced that it would expand military operations. AFRICOM released a statement on April 17 to refute press reports that US forces launched airstrikes in southwestern Somalia.