U.S. launches airstrikes as it argues Shabaab is ‘contained’ in Somalia

As the Trump administration orders the withdrawal of the bulk the remaining 700 American troops in Somalia, the U.S. military has continued to target Al Qaeda’s network in the country. The U.S. military has claimed Shabaab is largely “contained,” however the reality is much different.

The drawdown in Somalia is part of President Donald Trump’s effort to end the so-called “endless wars” against America’s jihadist enemies in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere. Trump has ordered the U.S. military to draw down to 2,500 troops in Afghanistan after a signed withdrawal deal with the Taliban requires all U.S. forces to leave by April 2021. Trump has ordered similar drawdowns in Iraq and Syria.

However, disengagement from these theaters does not mean that jihadist groups will end the fighting.

President Trump ordered the Department of Defense and U.S. Africa Command “to reposition the majority of personnel and assets out of Somalia by early 2021.” The Department of Defense claimed that while the withdrawal is “a change in force posture, this action is not a change in U.S. policy.”

With the withdrawal, the Department of Defense plans to shift its counterterrorism operations to an over-the-horizon model – U.S. forces will be managing its targeting of Shabaab from outside the country. “[T]he remaining forces will be repositioned from Somalia into neighboring countries in order to allow cross-border operations by both U.S. and partner forces to maintain pressure against violent extremist organizations operating in Somalia,” the Department of Defense noted.

The U.S. military has launched 50 strikes this year against Shabaab’s network. On Dec. 10, AFRICOM launched two strikes in Jilib, a Shabaab stronghold in southern Somalia, that targeted the group’s “explosives experts.” AFRICOM reported that the strikes “killed terrorists who were known to play important roles in producing explosives,” including the deadly car bombs. Africom reported that eight terrorists were killed and two more were wounded.

Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of AFRICOM, said Shabaab “remains a dangerous franchise of Al Qaeda.” He also noted that Shabaab needs “to be contained and degraded,” and said that this can be done without a presence in Somalia.”

“We’re repositioning, but we will maintain the ability to strike this enemy,” Townsend maintained.

Yesterday’s airstrikes came just days after Col. Chris Karns, the spokesman for AFRICOM, told Voice of America that Shabaab “is contained” – despite a residual threat.

Townsend and Karns’ assessments directly contradict a recent report released by the U.S. Defense Department’s Inspector General’s (IG) office. In the Nov. report, the IG explicitly stated that “Somalia’s security forces are unable to contain the threat from al-Shabaab and ISIS-Somalia … without significant international support.”

Speaking on Shabaab itself, the IG also noted that it “retains freedom of movement in many parts of southern Somalia and has demonstrated an ability and intent to attack outside of the country, including targeting U.S. interests.”

Shabaab still controls much of southern Somalia, while it regularly contests vast swaths of the central part of the country. Last month, for instance, Shabaab launched a massive assault on Bacaadweyne in the Mudug Region. Over the past few weeks, it has also attacked several times inside Kenya, using IEDs.

Local institutions have increasingly documented Shabaab’s firm grip on the rural population. And throughout much of this year, Shabaab has undertaken an increased assassination campaign on Somali government officials.

This year has been one of the group’s most active years in regards to suicide bombings across the country. According to data compiled by FDD’s Long War Journal, Shabaab has conducted at least 30 suicide bombings since the beginning of the year.

In targeting U.S. interests, the IG says that Shabaab has made a “definitive shift” in this regard across East Africa. Over the past year, Shabaab has directly targeted or clashed with U.S. troops numerous times in both Somalia and Kenya.

Last September, Shabaab conducted a suicide assault on the joint U.S.-Somali base at Baledogle in the Lower Shabelle Region. In Jan. 2020, the al Qaeda branch perpetrated a major raid on the joint U.S.-Kenyan base at the Manda Bay airfield inside Kenya’s Lamu County. That attack left one U.S. soldier and two U.S. contractors dead and many aircraft destroyed.

U.S. forces were further targeted this September outside the southern city of Kismayo, where one U.S. soldier was wounded and two Somali soldiers were killed.

And finally, on Nov. 6, Shabaab claimed it killed an American soldier in suicide bombing during a failed raid on the jihadists in the coastal city of Gandershe. The United States has not commented on this claim, but on Nov. 26, the Central Intelligence Agency did admit one of its officers was recently killed in Somalia. It is possible that the officer was killed in the alleged Nov. 6 raid.

Shabaab’s threat is not just limited to East Africa, as it continues to demonstrate its desire to strike further abroad. Last year, a member of Shabaab was arrested in the Philippines, where he was taking flight classes.

And earlier this year, a second Shabaab operative was also reportedly arrested in an unnamed African country also taking flight classes.

The U.S. military has been unable to contain Shabaab inside Somalia despite the presence of 700 troops. Now, the effort to degrade and contain Shabaab will be all the more difficult – if not impossible – without a physical U.S. presence in the country to directly assist its Somali partners.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of The Long War Journal. Caleb Weiss is a research analyst at FDD's Long War Journal and a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the spread of the Islamic State in Central Africa.

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