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In sign of intensifying Somalia fight, Navy SEAL killed during raid against al-Shabab

A Somali soldier patrols next to the burnt-out wreckage of a car that was used by suspected al-Shabab fighters on April 16, 2017. (Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty)

A Navy SEAL was killed during a firefight with al-Shabab militants in Somalia, the U.S. military said Friday, a sign of the risks the United States faces as it expands its fight against al-Qaeda-linked extremists there.

Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said that the service member, who has not been identified, was killed as a team of U.S. troops provided support to a Somali army mission targeting a Shabab cell believed to be linked to plots against U.S., Somali and African Union forces.

Defense officials said that a firefight erupted shortly after a team of Navy SEALs and Somali army forces were dropped by helicopter near an al-Shabab compound in an area called Barii, about 40 miles west of the capital Mogadishu. In addition to the slain SEAL, at least two other Americans were wounded, one official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive operations. A number of Shabab militants were believed to have been killed, officials said.

An al-Shabab spokesman said that U.S. forces had launched an assault on one of the group’s bases, Reuters reported.

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The incident marks the first U.S. combat death in Somalia since 1993, when 18 American service members were killed in an extended battle with Somali militiamen, defense officials said. That incident, which became known as “Black Hawk Down,” generated a firestorm of criticism for the Clinton administration, prompting the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Somalia and the resignation of then-Defense Secretary Les Aspin.

It was also the latest casualty to occur during counter-terrorism missions under the Trump administration, following recent incidents in Yemen and Afghanistan. The deaths highlight the risks inherent to ground missions against militant targets, which are typically conducted by Special Operations troops and often take place in areas without a significant military footprint.

The firefight comes several weeks after the Pentagon announced that President Trump had approved expanded military operations in Somalia, authorizing unilateral U.S. counter-terrorism ground and air strikes against al-Shabab.

The decision to allow more expansive operations in Somalia is a signal of the Trump administration’s willingness to delegate decision-making power to military commanders and authorize a greater use of force more generally. It has already done so in Yemen, where U.S. forces are conducting intensified operations against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and in Syria, where President Trump launched missile strikes on Syrian government facilities last month in retaliation for a chemical attack.

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Even before the Trump administration’s move in Somalia, the Obama administration had gradually expanded counter-terrorism operations there, adding special operators and permitting more expansive ground missions. A force of 50 U.S. troops is tasked with partnering with the Somali army, and additional forces come and go for shorter periods of time.

Defense officials said Friday’s operation was conducted under earlier established authorities focused on partnered operations with Somali and African Union troops.

The firefight illustrates the gargantuan challenges facing Somalia, which has been gripped by a quarter-century of civil war and is now grappling with with a severe drought and potential food crisis. In the wake of recent elections, the weak government is struggling to fend off the ongoing threat from al-Shabab, which aims to establish its own conservative Islamist state, and from a newer Islamic State presence.