President Biden has approved the deployment of hundreds of Special Operations troops to Somalia, officials announced Monday, reversing his predecessor’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from the violence-stricken country — a move that complicated efforts to combat a regional terrorist group.
A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the White House, said the deployment will draw from forces already in the region. Their primary focus will be al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda affiliate considered the terrorist network’s most lethal and well-funded operation.
Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, head of U.S. Africa Command, warned lawmakers earlier this year that the U.S. withdrawal from Somalia had hampered the military’s ability to suppress the threat there, saying that undertaking so-called “over the horizon” strikes launched from a permanent base in neighboring Djibouti was akin to “commuting to work.”
Biden’s decision to resume the deployments was first reported Monday by the New York Times.
“Our forces are not now nor will they be directly engaged in combat operations,” said Pentagon spokesman John Kirby. “The purpose here is to enable a more effective fight against al-Shabab by local forces.” The pattern of popping in to conduct limited operations, he added, “was inefficient and increasingly unsustainable.”
The lack of a permanent U.S. military presence in Somalia has allowed al-Shabab to grow stronger and increase “the tempo of its attacks, including against U.S. personnel,” the senior administration official said, noting that sending American troops back “rationalizes what was essentially an irrational arrangement we inherited.”
Attacks by al-Shabab rose by 17 percent in 2021 compared with the previous year, according to a January analysis from the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington. This year, they are projected to rise by 71 percent if the current pace of violence continues. A similar surge in fatalities is expected if nothing changes, the researchers assess — a level of death stemming from al-Shabab’s aggression that Somalia has not endured since 2017.
The deployment announcement comes a day after the Somali legislature elected Hassan Sheikh Mohamud to the presidency, returning him to power after a five-year hiatus. In that time, al-Shabab has reportedly made territorial gains against African Union peacekeeping forces — one of the entities U.S. military personnel will be tasked with supporting.
A decade ago, al-Shabab militants appeared poised to seize Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, before African Union forces stepped in and the United States escalated airstrikes. The group has since pushed to conquer the East African nation and enact a strict interpretation of Islamic law.
Fighters have staged thousands of attacks in Somalia and neighboring Kenya, including the 2013 raid on a Nairobi mall that left 67 people dead and the 2017 truck bombings in Mogadishu that claimed more than 500 lives.
U.S. defense officials say the group is one of al-Qaeda’s biggest moneymakers, extracting funds from companies and civilians trapped within its sphere of influence. The extremists have worsened famine by cutting off aid groups off from those going hungry and have declared war against anyone cooperating with the West.
In early 2020, al-Shabab attacked a military base used by U.S. forces in Kenya, killing three American personnel. An official review released earlier this year determined that an “inadequate focus on potential threats,” “complacent leadership” and “poor oversight” all contributed to the deadly event.
The last known U.S. military casualty in Somalia occurred in 2017, when a Navy SEAL was killed during a raid alongside Somali partner forces. At least two other Americans were wounded in the incident.
In Mogadishu, civil society leaders said they felt optimistic about the return of U.S. forces, though some cautioned that military personnel alone won’t fix the security crisis.
Osman Moallim, chairman of Somali Non-State Actors, which focuses on peacebuilding, warned that the Somali government would have to restore public trust and pour resources into neglected communities.
“We hope the U.S. support will help Somalia maintain security,” he said, “but military is not the only solution.”
Paquette reported from Dakar, Senegal.