MOGADISHU—On August 29, U.S. forces carried out their 21st confirmed airstrike in Somalia this year. The short U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) press release announcing the strike on al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda linked insurgency that has sought to implement a hardline Islamic state in Somalia, resembled those that had come before it: It specified neither the kind of aircraft used, the exact location of the strike, nor the identities of those killed. As with past press statements, this one also claimed that no civilians were killed or injured in the strike.
Though America’s drone war in Somalia has been shrouded in secrecy, in the last year and a half the number of American airstrikes in Somalia have notably increased. According to multiple foreign analysts, Somali officials, and several al-Shabaab defectors, these strikes have become one of the most effective tools in confronting the group. The air campaign has hindered al-Shabaab’s ability to communicate, sown widespread mistrust among its members, and restricted its leaders’ mobility
The noticeable uptick in strikes in Somalia came after President Trump approved policy changes ending the limitation on drone strikes imposed by the Obama administration. In March 2017, Trump designated parts of Somalia an “area of active hostilities,” temporarily bringing them under less-restrictive targeting rules. By September of last year, his administration had reportedly approved new targeting rules for drone strikes called “Principles, Standards and Procedures,” which dismantled several Obama-era restrictions. As the Pentagon’s freedom to carry out drone strikes in Somalia has expanded, so too has the CIA’s authorities to conduct drone warfare in North Africa. According to a report from The New York Times published over the weekend, the CIA is set to conduct secret drone strikes in North Africa from a newly expanded base in the Sahara and with authorities once scaled back under the Obama administration.
This latest strike in Somalia, which occurred in the southwestern part of the country, killed three unnamed members of al-Shabaab, according to AFRICOM. That American airpower is necessary to fight a 5,000-man insurgency, operating mostly with old AK-47s, may seem surprising. But local forces advised by American special operators have proven unable to break a tired pattern born from ground operations: First, African Union Peacekeepers and Somali National Security Forces repel al-Shabaab from a rural town; several days later, they withdraw from the town to a nearby forward operating base; and then, predictably, al-Shabaab returns.
Why do security and a strong government in Mogadishu matter for U.S. interests? Though America’s fight against the Islamic State in north Africa has made headlines over the last year, chaos in Somalia has long been a focal point for the U.S. global war on terror. Al-Shabaab pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2012 and in recent years a small contingent of the Islamic State has set up camp in Somalia’s north, raising fears in Washington that it could become a staging ground for international terrorists. Indeed, despite the Pentagon’s current discussions about dramatically reducing the number of U.S. commandos and drawing down outposts across the continent, Somalia is one of only two African countries in which the United States will maintain a robust military presence.