WASHINGTON — President Biden has signed an order authorizing the military to once again deploy hundreds of Special Operations forces inside Somalia — largely reversing the decision by President Donald J. Trump to withdraw nearly all 700 ground troops who had been stationed there, according to four officials familiar with the matter.
In addition, Mr. Biden has approved a Pentagon request for standing authority to target about a dozen suspected leaders of Al Shabab, the Somali terrorist group that is affiliated with Al Qaeda, three of the officials said. Since Mr. Biden took office, airstrikes have largely been limited to those meant to defend partner forces facing an immediate threat.
Together, the decisions by Mr. Biden, described by the officials on the condition of anonymity, will revive an open-ended American counterterrorism operation that has amounted to a slow-burn war through three administrations. The move stands in contrast to his decision last year to pull American forces from Afghanistan, saying that “it is time to end the forever war.”
Mr. Biden signed off on the proposal by Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III in early May, officials said. In a statement, Adrienne Watson, the National Security Council spokeswoman, acknowledged the move, saying it would enable “a more effective fight against Al Shabab.”
“The decision to reintroduce a persistent presence was made to maximize the safety and effectiveness of our forces and enable them to provide more efficient support to our partners,” she said.
Ms. Watson did not indicate the number of troops the military would deploy. But two people familiar with the matter said the figure would be capped at around 450. That will replace a system in which the U.S. troops training and advising Somali and African Union forces have made short stays since Mr. Trump issued what Ms. Watson described as a “precipitous decision to withdraw.”
The Biden administration’s strategy in Somalia is to try to reduce the threat from Al Shabab by suppressing its ability to plot and carry out complicated operations, a senior administration official said. Those include a deadly attack on an American air base at Manda Bay, Kenya, in January 2020.
In particular, the official said, targeting a small leadership cadre — especially people who are suspected of playing roles in developing plots outside Somalia’s borders or having special skills — is aimed at curtailing “the threat to a level that is tolerable.”
Asked to square the return to heavier engagement in Somalia with the American withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, following through on a deal Mr. Trump had made with the Taliban, the senior administration official argued that the two countries presented significantly different complexities.
For one, the official said, the Taliban have not expressed an intention of attacking the United States, and other militant groups in Afghanistan do not control significant enclaves of territory from which to operate and plan.
Given that Al Shabab appears to pose a more significant threat, the administration concluded that more direct engagement in Somalia made sense, the official said. The strategy would focus on disrupting a few Shabab leaders who are deemed a direct peril to “us, and our interests and our allies,” and maintaining “very carefully cabined presence on the ground to be able to work with our partners.”
Intelligence officials estimate that Al Shabab has about 5,000 to 10,000 members; the group, which formally pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda in 2012, has sought to impose its extremist version of Islam on the chaotic Horn of Africa country.
While Al Shabab mostly fights inside Somalia and only occasionally attacks neighboring countries, some members are said to harbor ambitions to strike the United States. In December 2020, prosecutors in Manhattan charged an accused Shabab operative from Kenya with plotting a Sept. 11-style attack on an American city. He had been arrested in the Philippines as he trained to fly planes.
Mr. Biden’s decision followed months of interagency deliberations led by the White House’s top counterterrorism adviser, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, over whether to accept the Pentagon plan, maintain the status quo or further reduce engagement in Somalia.
In evaluating those options, Ms. Sherwood-Randall and other top security officials visited Somalia and nearby Kenya and Djibouti, both of which host American forces, in October.