AFRICOM launches ‘self-defense’ airstrikes against Shabaab in Somalia

U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) killed five members of Shabaab, Al Qaeda’s branch in East Africa, in a “self-defense airstrike” in central Somalia on July 19. AFRICOM has launched four self-defense airstrikes in Somalia this month as it continues to provide air support for the Somali National Army. 

Yesterday’s strike brings the total number of US air strikes in Somalia so far this year to 13. US special operations forces additionally conducted a raid in northern Somalia earlier this year against the Islamic State. 

The strike took place about 200 miles north of the capital of Mogadishu in “a remote area near Hareeri Kalle,”  AFRICOM reported in a press release. Hareeri Kalle is just south of the town of Gal-Libaax in Somalia’s central Galguduud Region. The Somali military reported an operation against Shabaab in the area in recent days, adding that it was supported by “international partners.” 

The Somali government claims to have killed around 100 Shabaab members in this operation, which is a number that cannot be independently verified. AFRICOM’s press release, though not indicative of the entire operation, provides a much smaller body count. The Somali government, much like its enemies in Shabaab, often inflates casualty numbers that its forces inflicted on Shabaab. 

“The airstrike was in support of Somali National Army forces who were engaged by the terrorist organization,” AFRICOM noted. AFRICOM assessed that no civilians were killed or wounded in the strike.

Today’s strike was preceded by three other self-defense airstrikes, all which took place on July 8 near Afmadow, which is about 60 miles north of the southern city of Kismayo. AFRICOM reported that 10 Shabaab fighters were killed in the 3 strikes, which took place as the Somali military was engaged with the terror group.

In the past, the U.S. military masked offensive operations and counterterrorism strikes against Shabaab, such as raids on training camps and the targeting of individual terrorists, as defensive strikes. More recently, AFRICOM’s airstrikes against Shabaab have truly been defensive in nature, with just one offensive strike reported this year. 

That air strike, which took place near Shabaab’s stronghold of Jilib in May, targeted Maalim Osman, the emir of Shabaab’s external operations wing. The terrorist leader reportedly survived. [See LWJ graphic, Detailing Shabaab’s Leadership and Key Personnel, for more]

AFRICOM is supporting the Somali National Army as its offensive to eject Shabaab from its strongholds in southern and central Somalia has largley stalled. Shabaab has responded by attacking and overrunning Somali, Ugandan, and Ethiopian military bases, and conducting a campaign of suicide and IED attacks, as well as assassinations. [See LWJ report, Analysis: Shabaab takes advantage of slowed counter-offensive.]

The Somalia government has been slow to actually implement the so-called second phase of its much-touted offensive, though counter-Shabaab operations in Somalia’s south have picked up in recent weeks. The problem is compounded by internal Somali clan infighting in Middle Shabelle and political squabbles in Hiraan, the imminent withdrawal of thousands of troops from the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) over the next several months. This turmoil further leaves Somali troops with less support and provides more opportunities for Shabaab to exploit any potential security gaps. [Listen to Generation Jihad podcast, Is Africa the epicenter of today’s jihad?, for more information.]

For instance, Shabaab is currently imposing a blockade against the southern city of Baidoa, impacting the ability of tens of thousands to access food and supplies. That Shabaab is currently able to blockade a city of this size should stand as a warning sign that the fight against it is far from over and that any premature announcements of victory harm the Somali government’s narrative. 

And for its part, AFRICOM continues to describe Shabaab as “the largest and most kinetically active al Qaeda network in the world” that “has proved both its will and capability to attack partner and U.S. forces and threaten U.S. security interests.”

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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