US picks up pace of airstrikes in Somalia

Since resuming military activity inside Somalia earlier this year, the Biden Administration has ramped up the pace of airstrikes in the Horn of Africa country in recent weeks. Since June 3, the US has conducted at least six airstrikes against Shabaab, al Qaeda’s branch in East Africa. 

Beginning with the most recent airstrike, the US military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) reported earlier today that on Aug. 14 it conducted an airstrike on Shabaab militants near the locale of Teedan, a small village southeast of the central Somali city of Beledweyne in the Hiraan Region. The airstrike was conducted in support of Somali National Army (SNA) troops engaging Shabaab militants in the area, reportedly killing at least 13 jihadists. 

Just last week, however, AFRICOM stated it conducted three airstrikes in support of the SNA also near Beledweyne, saying it killed four militants on Aug. 9. SNA troops have been conducting a large counter-offensive against Shabaab in Hiraan, primarily in the Maxaas area southeast of Beledweyne, over the last few weeks. SNA troops reportedly re-captured several towns and villages from Shabaab, though Hiraan is traditionally a strong-hold for Shabaab and territorial control in the region often vacillates. 

The counter-offensive in Hiraan comes after Shabaab mounted one of its recent incursions into Ethiopian territory from the region late last month. While both Ethiopia and Somalia have stated they beat the militants back, clashes have continued in Hiraan and along the border. Ethiopian warplanes have also reportedly been involved in support of the SNA in its recent operations against Shabaab in Hiraan.

Meanwhile, on July 17, AFRICOM launched an airstrike on Shabaab militants near Libikus, a small village northwest of the southern city of Kismayo, reportedly killing 2 jihadists. And on June 3, AFRICOM said it killed 5 Shabaab militants in a strike close to Beer Xani, another town near Kismayo in Somalia’s Lower Juba region. 

These recent airstrikes follow a strike in February that reportedly killed 3 Shabaab militants near Duduble in the Lower Shabelle region. That strike constituted the first air strike inside Somalia since Aug. 2021. 

In all strikes conducted so far this year, the United States contends that no civilians were killed. FDD’s Long War Journal cannot independently corroborate that statement. 

Since January 2007, the United States has launched at least 234 airstrikes inside Somalia targeting both al Qaeda and the Islamic State, according to data compiled by FDD’s Long War Journal. This number may actually be higher as FDD’s Long War Journal’s statistics are based on open-source reporting.  

The most active year recorded was 2019 when the US conducted at least 59 strikes (51 targeting Shabaab and 8 targeted the Islamic State’s local branch) inside Somalia. The pace of strikes have greatly tapered off since 2021 when President Biden came into office. Strikes conducted in Somalia under the Trump Administration greatly outnumbered the strikes launched during the administrations of both President Bush and President Obama combined. 

Based on the US military’s own reporting since 2007, it has also stated it has killed at least 1041 militants in the East African country. It is unclear, however, if this number accurately reflects the total number of people killed in the airstrikes. 

The recent uptick in strikes against Shabaab takes place as the security situation has worsened following the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the troubled country more than one year ago.

The Trump administration withdrew more than 700 U.S. troops from Somalia in early 2021 as part of its efforts to end the so-called ‘endless wars.’ These troops were training the SNA, accompanying Somali troops during operations designed to clear Shabaab from contested of Shabaab-controlled terrain, and collecting intelligence for drone strikes against the terror group’s leadership and military organization. 

President Trump ordered the withdrawal against the recommendation of military advisors, who argued that Shabaab would benefit from the vacuum and the U.S. military would have a more difficult time hunting key Shabaab leaders and operatives.

On May 16, 2022, as the security situation in Somalia continued to deteriorate, the Biden administration ordered approximately 500 U.S. troops to return to Somalia to train Somali forces while aiding the SNA in its fight against Shabaab. 

But since May, Shabaab continues to strike across much of southern and central Somalia, regularly attacking inside northeastern Kenya, where it is also controlling territory, all while feeling confident enough to also launch a major incursion into Ethiopia. 

Despite some setbacks in recent years, Shabaab continues to be one of al Qaeda’s most effective branches. Though its fortunes have ebbed and flowed over the past decade, it has shown the capacity to weather numerous offensives from an array of local, regional, and international actors, including the United States.

Update: Article originally had May 2021 as the date of the Biden Administration’s decision to return US troops to Somalia, this was changed to May 2022.

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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