US launches first drone strike of the year in Somalia 

The United States launched its first drone strike in Somalia this year on Sunday, reportedly killing three Shabaab members. Neither Africa Command (AFRICOM), the U.S. military command responsible for such strikes, nor Somalia itself have confirmed the exact coordinates, though both countries confirmed the strike took place in the country’s Lower Juba region. 

According to AFRICOM, “at the request of the Federal Government of Somalia, U.S. Africa Command conducted a collective self-defense airstrike with two engagements against the al Shabaab terrorist group on Jan. 21.”

The U.S. military command continued by adding that “the collective self-defense strike occurred in a remote area of Somalia, approximately 35 kilometers northeast of Kismayo.” According to the U.S., three Shabaab members were killed without inflicting any civilian casualties. 

The strike marks the first of its kind so far this year inside Somalia and the first since Dec. 20, 2023, when AFRICOM conducted two such “collective self-defense” strikes in Somalia’s Lower Juba. The results of those combined strikes remained inconclusive. 

Just days earlier, on Dec. 17, the United States conducted another airstrike against a Shabaab position in its long-time stronghold of Jilib in the Middle Juba region. AFRICOM said that it killed at least one Shabaab member in the attack, offering no other details. 

However, the Somali National Army (SNA) reported that the strike on Dec. 17 targeted Maalim Ayman, the emir of Shabaab’s eponymously named Jaysh al-Ayman. Jaysh al-Ayman acts as the military wing of Shabaab’s Kenyan branch, which is responsible for all militant activity along the Kenya-Somalia border. This includes the January 2020 attack on the U.S. base in Manda Bay

While the SNA has reported that Maalim Ayman was killed in the strike, this remains unconfirmed. No other independent source has corroborated this information nor has Shabaab itself commented on the matter as of the time of publishing.

If confirmed, Ayman’s death would be the first high-profile leader removed from the battlefield since Abdullahi Yare, a co-founder of Shabaab and former emir of its da’wah [proselytizing] operations, was killed in Oct. 2022. 

The targeting of Maalim Ayman is also the first targeted operation conducted by the U.S. in Somalia since May 2023, when it also attempted to kill Maalim Osman, the emir of Shabaab’s external operations. 

American, other strikes in Somalia 

AFRICOM conducted at least 18 airstrikes inside Somalia in 2023, in addition to a special operations raid in February. This marks the most active year for U.S. military operations inside Somalia since President Biden took office in Jan. 2021. 

The U.S. has conducted at least 262 strikes in Somalia since 2007, reportedly killing over 1200 Shabaab militants according to data compiled by FDD’s Long War Journal. This is likely an undercount as the U.S. sometimes does not comment on selected strikes due to security measures or lack of confirmation of results. 

It is important to note that the U.S. is not the only state actor conducting drone strikes inside Somalia, with Turkey also being an active participant with at least 19 drone strikes since 2022 according to data compiled by FDD’s Long War Journal. That said, Turkey’s strikes remain difficult to track and corroborate as they do not comment on any such operations. Its total number of drone strikes in Somalia is thus likely significantly higher. 

The United Arab Emirates is also alleged to have launched at least one drone strike in Somalia, though this remains entirely unconfirmed and denied by Somali officials.

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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