U.S. airstrike kills 27 Shabaab fighters in central Somalia

The U.S. military killed 27 members of Shabaab, Al Qaeda’s branch in East Africa, in an airstrike in support of a Somali military and African Union offensive in central Somalia. Since June 3, the US has conducted at least seven airstrikes against Shabaab, according to data tracked by FDD’s Long War Journal.

“At the request of the Federal Government of Somalia, U.S. Africa Command conducted an airstrike against al-Shabaab terrorists who were attacking Somali National Army forces near Buulobarde, Somalia, on Sept. 18,” AFRICOM announced in a press release.

AFRICOM’s “initial assessment is that the strike killed 27 al-Shabaab terrorists and that no civilians were injured” in what the command described as a defensive strike.

“The defensive strikes allowed the Somali National Army and African Union Transition Mission in Somalia forces to regain the initiative and continue the operation to disrupt al-Shabaab in the Hiraan region of central Somalia,” AFRICOM noted, indicating the offensive had stalled before the strike to place. “This operation is the largest combined Somali and ATMIS [African Union Transition Mission in Somalia] offensive operation in five years.”

The recent drone strike comes as the Somali National Army (SNA) mounts a large offensive against Shabaab in Somalia’s central Hiraan Region. Intense fighting has been ongoing in the area since the jihadist group’s incursions into Ethiopia from the region in July. 

However, the SNA – backed by the Macawisley, or clan-based militias in central Somalia – have made a concerted effort to combat Shabaab following the latter’s long hotel siege in Mogadishu last month. Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud vowed to defeat the Al Qaeda branch in one year following the hotel siege, in which the recent offensive in Hiraan has been touted as part of this vow. 

Hiraan has traditionally been a strong-hold for Shabaab over the last decade and territorial control in the region often vacillates. In the last few days, however, the SNA – alongside the Macawisely and US airstrikes – has been able to recapture several towns and villages that have been under direct Shabaab control since 2011. 

Somali officials themselves have higlighted U.S. involvement in the counter-offensive, while also claiming that more than 200 Shabaab fighters have been killed in Hiraan in its “first phase” of military operations for the region. Shabaab has attempted a counter-offensive, especially near the town of Booco, where Shabaab-ran media says its men are still fighting, however, it is unclear how successful it will be in its operations to counter the Somali government offensive. 

For its part, Shabaab’s main spokesman, Ali Mohamud Rage, recently released a video statement “accepting the challenge” of Hassan Sheikh’s vow to eradicate the group and pledged to meet the Somali government forces head on.

Since Jan. 2007, the United States has launched at least 235 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.

Since the beginning of this year, the U.S. has increased the tempo of drone strikes inside Somalia, with seven now recorded in 2022. 

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, 2021, 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.

The recent initiative by the Somali government to work alongside local clan-based militias, backed by U.S. airstrikes, to oust Shabaab from its longtime strongholds in Hiraan is a welcome development. However, the jihadist group continues to dominate much of the rest of southern and central Somalia.

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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