The global security picture is growing ever more complicated for the new U.S. president.
The United States will send several dozen troops to help train Somali forces in their fight against the al Qaeda-linked militant group al Shabab, Pentagon officials said Friday, the latest move in the tit-for-tat escalation in the troubled East African nation.
On March 30, President Donald Trump agreed to declare Somalia an “Area of Active Hostility,” which grants the military greater authority to launch strikes. The move suspends 2013 rules that require extensive interagency vetting to prevent air strikes from hitting civilians.
But escalation can easily lead to blowback in hot spots like Somalia, and that appears to be what is happening there now. A spate of suicide attacks followed reports of the U.S. declaration. Al-Shabab stated the suicide attacks were a “doubled response” to the Trump administration’s announcement. On April 9, 13 died in a failed assassination attempt against Somalia’s military head. On April 10, several soldiers perished in a suicide attack in the capital Mogadishu.
A Pentagon spokesperson told Foreign Policy that “fewer than 50” troops from the 101st Airborne Division had arrived to perform a “train and equip” mission with the Somali armed forces. They stressed this is separate from the new authorities to attack al Shabab recently granted by the White House.
The stepped-up military involvement in Somalia didn’t begin with Trump. U.S. Special Operations have had a presence on the ground for years, though regular troops have not been posted there since 1994. In March 2016, U.S. drones and manned aircraft launched an airstrike that killed up to 150 militants at an al-Shabab training camp north of Mogadishu, which the Pentagon believed was planning to carry out an attack on U.S. and African Union forces in the region. It was the deadliest U.S. mission in Somalia in years.
The situation in Somalia has grown more urgent in recent months. On April 6, new Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo declared war on al Shabab, also offering amnesty for fighters who voluntarily surrender to Somali government forces. “We want to pardon the Somali youth who were misled by al-Shabab,” said Farmajo at a press conference in the capital. The declaration of war, and the amnesty, come amid a severe drought and famine that threatens food security for millions in the already war-torn country.
Al-Shabab controls territory in rural portions of southern Somalia, where 22,000 African Union troops are currently fighting the militant group. It once controlled larger swaths of land and settlements, and for several years even ruled Mogadishu, but campaigns by African Union forces over the past several years has reduced its holdings. It aims to establish an Islamic state, and it enforces a strict interpretation of sharia law over the inhabitants of the lands it controls.
Al-Shabab has also carried out attacks in neighboring Kenya. In 2013, the group’s fighters stormed the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, killing 68. In March 2015, they killed 148 at Garissa University, which is close to the border with Somalia. Though the group operates primarily in the horn of Africa, over the past decades it has recruited several dozen Somalis living in the United States to join the fight in Somalia.
Paul McCleary contributed reporting.
This piece has been updated to include comments from a Pentagon spokesperson.