US on track to nearly triple airstrike record in Somalia

The US military continues to target Shabaab’s conventional forces in Somalia with record fury. In one of its latest airstrike, US Africa Command killed eight Shabaab fighters as the group attacked a combined US and Somali force outside of the Somalia capital on March 11.

The US is now on pace to nearly triple last year’s record number of airstrikes against Shabaab, al Qaeda’s branch in East Africa. Monday’s strike marked the 26th time the AFRICOM has hit Shabaab in the first 10 weeks of 2019 – a staggering increase from the record-high total of 47 strikes in 2018.

The operational tempo against Shabaab has increased dramatically since President Trump took office. In the final year of the Obama Administration, the US launched 15 strikes against Shabaab. In 2017, under Trump, the US hit Shabaab 31 times and the Islamic State another 4 times.

Monday’s strike in Dara Salaam is the latest in a series of operations designed to “degrade” Shabaab’s military capacity. AFRICOM described the latest operation as “a collective self-defense airstrike in the vicinity of Dara Salaam, Lower Shabelle Region.”

“The airstrike was conducted in support of Somali-led ground forces that came under attack from militants,” AFRICOM continued, and noted that no US troops were killed or wounded.

Through its Shahada News Agency, Shabaab confirmed that it engaged US and Somali troops in Dara Salaam. But Shabaab claimed to have repelled the operation in Dara Salaam and said it killed a US commander and six Somali troops, and wounded two more soldiers.

AFRICOM launched another strike yesterday in Huley, killing two more Shabaab fighters.

The previous four strikes against Shabaab clearly targeted the group’s rank and file. On Feb. 24, 35 Shabaab fighters were killed while traveling near Beledweyne. One day later, another 20 Shabaab fighters were killed in a strike on a training camp in Ceel Barde. And on Feb. 28, AFRICOM killed 26 Shabaab fighters in a strike in Hiran.

Under the Obama administration, US officials said that airstrikes in countries such as Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, and Libya were designed to target the leaders of terrorist groups and operatives who directly threaten US national security by plotting attacks against the West. Yet, at the end of the Obama administration and now continuing with the Trump administration, it has been been clear that most of the strikes have targeted the group’s ability to wage local insurgencies – even though the Obama administration claimed that local Islamist insurgencies did not pose a threat to the US.

The increased targeting of Shabaab takes place as the Trump administration seeks to pull back US forces from conflicts against jihadist groups. In Afghanistan, the administration is desperately trying to negotiate a peace agreement with the Taliban. Trump has also ordered the withdrawal of all but 200 US troops from Syria.

Yet in Somalia, the pace of operations has increased dramatically. If the current pace of strikes continues, the US will strike Shabaab 130 times in 2019.

It is unclear why the Trump administration is ramping up activities in Somalia as it pulls back from other theaters. If the Trump administration is seeking to leave Somalia, as has been rumored, it may be seeking cover to withdraw by claiming a military victory over Shabaab.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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