The airstrike makes Somalia at least the sixth country where the United States is using drone aircraft to conduct lethal attacks, joining Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Iraq and Yemen. And it comes as the CIA is expected to begin flying armed drones over Yemen in its hunt for al-Qaeda operatives.
Al-Shabab has battled Somalia’s tenuous government for several years. In recent months, U.S. officials have picked up intelligence that senior members of the group have expanded their ambitions beyond attacks in Somalia.
“They have become somewhat emboldened of late, and, as a result, we have become more focused on inhibiting their activities,” the official said.“They were planning operations outside of Somalia.”
Both of the al-Shabab leaders targeted in the attack had “direct ties” to American-born cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi, the military official said. Aulaqi escaped a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in May.
The White House declined Wednesday night to respond to questions about the attack.
But Obama administration officials have made repeated references to al-Shabab in recent weeks, indicating that the group has expanded its aims and its operations. In a speech Wednesday unveiling the administration’s new counterterrorism strategy, senior White House aide John O. Brennan included Somalia among the countries where the administration has placed a new focus on al-Qaeda affiliates.
“As the al-Qaeda core has weakened under our unyielding pressure, it has looked increasingly to these other groups and individuals to take up its cause, including its goal of striking the United States,” said Brennan, Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser. “From the territory it controls in Somalia,” he said, “al-Shabab continues to call for strikes against the United States.”
And earlier this month, in a hearing to confirm him as Obama’s new defense secretary, CIA Director Leon Panetta told senators that the agency had intelligence on al-Shabab “that indicates that they, too, are looking at targets beyond Somalia.” Panetta said al-Qaeda had moved some of its operations to “nodes” in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa. The CIA, he said, was working with the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command in those areas “to try to develop counterterrorism.”
The Special Operations Command carried out last week’s Somalia strike, the military official said, and it has been flying remotely piloted planes over Yemen for much of the past year. It has taken the lead in operations in Yemen, where Aulaqi, a senior figure in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is based.
U.S. aircraft and Special Operations commandos have carried out other attacks in Somalia against militants linked to al-Qaeda, but the strike last week appears to have been one of the first U.S. drone attacks in Somalia.