United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) announced on 5 May that a US Navy SEAL had been killed and two others wounded, including a US-Somali translator, during a counter-terrorism operation targeting Al-Qaeda’s East African affiliate Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, in Somalia’s Shabeellaha Hoose region the day before.
“The objective was a compound and a group of people… associated with attacks against US, Somalia, and AMISOM [African Union Mission in Somalia] forces,” Pentagon spokesperson Captain Jeff Davis told reporters. Although he provided no further details about the aim of the operation – which took place in Darusalam village, located between the small Al-Shabaab-occupied towns of Barii and Mubarak, approximately 60km west of the capital Mogadishu – a senior Somali official in Shabeellaha Hoose told on 5 May that the raid had targeted a building housing Radio Andalus, Al-Shabaab’s official radio station, and that eight Al-Shabaab militants had been killed and radio equipment seized during the operation. US officials told on 9 May that the operation was eventually aborted when the militants opened fire on them, adding that three Al-Shabaab militants had been killed, including Moalin Osman Abdi Badil, whom Davis described as an Al-Shabaab leader responsible for gathering information on troop movements in order to support attacks.
Separately, an unnamed Mogadishu-based security source told Reuters on 5 May that the raid had targeted a high-ranking Al-Shabaab commander. Although this remains unconfirmed, a second security source cited by the news agency noted that Darusalam is the suspected hiding place of Al-Shabaab deputy leader Abdirahman Mohamed Warsame (alias Mahad Karate), who is the subject of a USD5-million bounty as part of the US Rewards for Justice programme. According to his US Department of State designation, Karate has “played a key role in the Amniyat”, Al-Shabaab’s intelligence wing, and was involved in planning the 2 April 2015 attack on Garissa University College in Kenya, in which 147 people were killed.
Although the objective of the raid remained unclear, Davis stressed that it “was a Somali mission”, and that US troops had only been “operating in support of” the Somali National Army (SNA). Local officials cited by Voice of America on 5 May confirmed that the operation had been led by Somalia’s Danab (“Lightning”) commando team – a unit within the country’s elite, US-trained Gaashan (“Shield”) special forces that is modelled on the US Army Rangers – with one official revealing that the Danab team and accompanying US special forces were engaged with small-arms fire as they advanced on foot to Darusalam from a landing site near Barire.
Separately, Al-Shabaab military spokesperson Abdulaziz Abu Musab told Radio Andalus on 5 May that the group had known about the raid in advance, and was prepared for it, although this claim could not be independently verified.
The death of the Navy SEAL marked the first US combat fatality in Somalia since the ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident in October 1993, when 18 US soldiers were killed after two Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters were shot down in Mogadishu while supporting a UN-brokered ceasefire, prompting the US to withdraw its forces from the country in March the following year. In addition, the recent fatality highlighted the growing role being played by US forces in Somalia, coming only weeks after US president Donald Trump signed a directive on 29 March declaring parts of the country an “area of active hostilities”, where warzone targeting rules will apply for at least 180 days.
Before Trump’s directive, operations in Somalia were required to adhere to rules of engagement, known as the Presidential Policy Guidance, that were introduced by former president Barack Obama in May 2013 amid mounting concern about civilian fatalities from US unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strikes in non-conventional warzones, such as Pakistan and Yemen. These rules necessitate high-level, inter-agency vetting of operations in such countries, and require that the target must pose a direct threat to US interests and be capable of being attacked without risk of civilian casualties. In suspending these guidelines, Trump’s directive – similar to one declared by Obama around the Islamic State’s Libyan stronghold of Sirte in late 2016 – enables US commanders to target Al-Shabaab militants irrespective of whether they pose a threat to US citizens, and without inter-agency vetting.
Pentagon’s request for the expanded targeting authority was first reported on 12 March, and AFRICOM commander General Thomas Waldhauser confirmed the report in a subsequent press conference on 24 March. “It’s very important and very helpful for us to have a little more flexibility, a little bit more timeliness, in terms of decision-making process,” he explained, adding, “It allows us to prosecute targets in a more rapid fashion.” However, he stressed that the new rules would not create a “free-fire zone” in Somalia, or represent the start of offensive operations by US troops.
Meanwhile, on 2 April, dozens of US soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division arrived in Mogadishu at the request of the Somali government to help train and equip SNA and AMISOM forces battling Al-Shabaab, with one US official telling Voice of America on 13 April that the mission was expected to run until September. The new deployment, which will not be involved in combat operations, added to a small unit of up to 50 soldiers already in the country supporting US-Somali military-to-military relations, and advising and assisting Somali troops, but will operate separately from this detachment, albeit with “some overlap”.
However, although there has been a notable escalation in US commitment to Somalia since Trump’s inauguration, in practice this simply represents an extension of a trend already evident in the last year of Obama’s presidency, when the White House authorised the military to increase operations in Somalia without always going through the high-level vetting process detailed in the Presidential Policy Guidance. Despite being clearly offensive in nature, such operations were routinely described by AFRICOM as “self-defence strikes” so as to bypass the restrictions imposed by the guidance, and although the Pentagon has only acknowledged a fraction of these missions, AFRICOM confirmed nine such “defensive fire” missions in Somalia in 2016 – including a 5 March airstrike targeting an Al-Shabaab training camp in Raso, north of Mogadishu, in which up to 150 militants were reportedly killed.
Moreover, in November 2016 the Obama administration ended years of internal debate by designating Al-Shabaab an “associated force” of Al-Qaeda, which on 30 March had shored up the executive branch’s authority to wage war in Somalia by bringing Al-Shabaab under Congress’s authorisation to use military force against the perpetrators of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US mainland.
This escalation in US counter-terrorism activity in Somalia reflects mounting concern that Al-Shabaab is rebuilding its capabilities after suffering significant losses of territory and personnel during a major AMISOM offensive that was launched with the support of regional countries in 2011. In the past 12 months, in addition to regaining control of several towns and rural areas from which it had previously been ousted, the group has escalated its operations in and around the capital, and demonstrated a potential transnational threat by employing a sophisticated laptop improvised explosive device (IED) in an attempt to down a Somali airliner in February 2016 – cited by the US government as one of the reasons behind a ban introduced in March on electronic devices in the cabins of airplanes departing from 10 airports in the Middle East.
Moreover, although new Somali president Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed made clear his determination to confront Al-Shabaab, announcing on 6 April that his administration was declaring war on any members of the group who did not accept his offer of amnesty in return for their surrender, there was little evidence that government forces are capable of addressing the ongoing threat posed by Al-Shabaab, which repeatedly demonstrated its resilience and ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Adding to US concern was the fact that AMISOM – long the sole bulwark preventing Al-Shabaab from overrunning the country – was preparing to draw down its own forces in the country. Speaking in April, Ambassador Francisco Madeira, the civilian head of AMISOM, confirmed that the peacekeeping force would begin withdrawing from Somalia in 2018.
However, it remained unclear what impact an escalation in US operations in Somalia would have on the country’s long-running insurgency. Speaking following Trump’s 29 March directive authorising expanded operations in the country, Luke Hartig, a former senior director for counter-terrorism at the National Security Council during the Obama administration, told that more concerted US action could be helpful in dealing with the threat, but cautioned that it could also exacerbate the situation.
Indeed, it was notable that Al-Shabaab mounted a series of high-profile attacks in the days following Trump’s signing of the new directive, including a 9 April suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED) attack targeting newly appointed military chief General Ahmed Mohamed Jimale as he left the Ministry of Defence building in Mogadishu after taking his oath of office, in which at least 13 people were killed, but Jimale escaped unscathed. After five soldiers were killed in another suicide attack targeting a military academy in the capital the following day, Al-Shabaab’s Shahada News Agency posted a statement on 10 April explicitly declaring that the attacks were a “doubled response” to Trump’s authorisation of expanded operations against the group. It is assessed that Al-Shabaab would probably continue to seek to exploit the propaganda potential of a growing US intervention in the country by explicitly linking its operations to US actions in its strategic communications.
Meanwhile, the militant group once again demonstrated its ability to undermine the new government’s efforts to restore security when an Al-Shabaab militant rammed an SVBIED into the Italian Coffee cafeteria in central Mogadishu on 8 May, killing at least eight people and wounding at least 24 others, including several senior security officials.
Source: New Dheli Times