WASHINGTON – Somali commandos under attack by the al-Shabaab terrorist group received some help from above for the first time in months, in the form of a US airstrike.
The Pentagon confirmed late Tuesday that US forces were behind the single attack near Galkayo, about 580 kilometers north of the capital of Mogadishu, first announced by Somali officials earlier in the day.
A Pentagon official told the VOA that the strike was authorized under existing authorities to protect American Allied forces and came even when no US forces were on the ground.
“The US military was conducting a remote ‘advice and assistance’ mission in support of designated Somali partner forces,” US Defense Department spokeswoman Cindy King said. “There were no US forces accompanying Somali forces during this operation.”
Tuesday’s airstrike targeting al-Shabaab was the first in six months and the first since US President Joe Biden took office.
US officials declined to elaborate on why the attack was sanctioned or whether US Africa Command would launch a more intense air campaign in support of Somali forces, such as the US has deployed in previous years.
The US carried out 63 airstrikes against al-Shabaab in 2019 and 53 in 2020.
Before former US President Donald Trump stepped down, another seven airstrikes were carried out in the first two and a half weeks of 2021.
US officials explained the slowdown, citing a Biden administration review of the military’s airstrikes policy. Still, it caused concern among senior Somali officials, leading some to warn that the change would allow al-Shabaab to “come out of hiding”.
Somalia fears new US airstrikes benefiting al-Shababa
Officials told the VOA that the lack of airstrikes against an al-Qaeda affiliate would allow the group’s leaders to ‘come out of hiding’
Since then, Somali authorities have repeatedly called for a resumption of US air strikes.
Somali military spokesman Colonel Ali Hashi Abdinur told VOA earlier this week that he expected the US to resume attacks, specifically targeting al-Qaeda-linked fighters in areas where Somali infantry Can’t reach
“We have good cooperation and cooperation with the United States,” he said. “There are inaccessible areas in the forests where airstrikes used to target their leaders.”
Somali officials have also said they would like to see expanded support from the US, not just the airstrikes.
Last week, the US military gave Somali special forces six armored personnel carriers (APCs), doubling the number of vehicles capable of protecting their elite Danab units from improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
But Somali military officials say they need more.
“We have AK-47s (automatic rifles),” a senior Somali military official told the VOA. “We need additional weapons like heavy machine guns, mortars … RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades).”
“We also need medical aid, uniforms, camps and rations for soldiers to sleep and rest,” he said.
Top US military commanders have also warned about the growing threat, with some acknowledging that the Trump administration’s decision to pull almost all US forces from Somalia has worsened the situation.
“Since that time, we’ve been coming to work,” AFRICOM’s commander, General Stephen Townsend, told lawmakers last April. “There is no denying that the repositioning of forces outside Somalia has introduced new layers of complexity and risk.”
“Our understanding of what is happening in Somalia is now lower than when we were there,” he said.
Meanwhile, AFRICOM is trying to send troops to Somalia for periodic training missions to supplement the roughly 100 soldiers, who are now mostly operating out of the US embassy.
AFRICOM officials have made their final recommendations about troop numbers in Somalia and across Africa as part of the Pentagon’s ongoing force posture review, which is expected to conclude at the end of August.
However, for now, warnings about the danger posed by al-Shabaab continue.
“Al-Shabaab still enjoys a lot of freedom of action,” Vice Admiral Hervé Blagen, the director general of the EU’s military staff, told a virtual defense forum last month. “You can really feel the insecurity there.”
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The blunt assessment of the top US military general in Africa comes a day after a US-led coalition to defeat ISIS pushed back against the terror group’s gains there.
Yet there is some disagreement as to whether airstrikes, whether carried out by the US or otherwise, are the solution.
Records kept by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), a US-based non-profit research group, show that the threat to civilians in Somalia from al-Shabaab has actually been reduced in the absence of air strikes.
ACLED said it found 155 incidents in which al-Shabaab targeted civilians in the six months before Biden took office, and just 90 in the six months after he became president.
A former Danab official, speaking on condition of anonymity, also questions the reliance on airstrikes, even though he told the VOA that “there is nothing that al-Shabaab hates more.”
About 100 commanders of the terrorist group, including former leaders Ahmed Abdi Godane and Aden Hashi Ayro, have been killed in US air strikes, the official said, to almost no avail.
“The strategy has failed,” he said. “We need to change training. We need to change mobility and training. We must have a mobile force, prepare the army for guerrilla warfare, be good at shooting.”
An African Union official, who asked not to be identified as he did not have the right to speak to the media, agreed.
“Unless the ground forces are in effect, the airstrikes cannot have any effect,” the official said. “Unless you cripple command and control, their ability to regroup, to organize to lead – that’s when air strikes will be effective.”
“But they still have leaders in place, so what you’re doing is pretty minimal,” he said.
VOA Somalia Service contributed to this report.