The last deployment of regular U.S. troops to Somalia led to an incident that sparked widespread horror.
Somali militiamen shot down two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters in the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, killing 18 American soldiers. They captured several of the corpses, dragging them through the streets of the Somali capital. The attack contributed to then President Bill Clinton’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops within six months from Somalia, where they had been serving on a humanitarian mission.
But now, as the embattled African state struggles with a long-running jihadi insurgency, the Trump administration has authorized the deployment of U.S. soldiers to Somalia for the first time since 1994. (U.S. military and counterterrorism advisors have been present in Somalia for several years, but regular troops have not.)
The U.S. military command for Africa (AFRICOM) confirmed to Voice of America on Thursday that American soldiers from 101st Airborne Division had been deployed at the request of the Somali federal government to carry out a train-and-equip mission until September. An AFRICOM spokeswoman later confirmed the deployment to AFP and said that “a few dozen” troops would help Somalia’s army to “better fight Al-Shabab” and would conduct “security force assistance,” without elaborating on what this might entail.
Things are quite different in Somalia now from the time of the so-called Black Hawk Down incident, when the country had been plunged into civil war after overthrowing its strongman leader Siad Barre in 1991. The country has a recently-elected federal government, led by a dual U.S.-Somali national who has thrown down the gauntlet to Al-Shabab, an extremist militant group with ties to Al-Qaeda. Yet some of the same scourges that roiled Somalia in the early 1990s—including a harrowing drought that is threatening to escalate into famine; clan rivalries; and the instability caused by frequent bombings in the capital—remain.
President Donald Trump has outlined defeating “radical Islamic terror groups” as the foremost foreign policy goal of his administration. But given the U.S. leader’s insistence on putting American interests first, the Somalia deployment raises the question of what threat Al-Shabab poses to the U.S.
“The question is a fair one. From the U.S. perspective, do we really have a dog in this hunt?” says Kenneth Menkhaus, professor of political science at Davidson College and a Somalia expert. “That’s one of the things that the Trump administration is going to have to explain to its constituency.”
U.S. military personnel have been involved in Somalia’s battle with Al-Shabab for over a decade. An AFRICOM spokesperson recently told Newsweek that around 100 personnel were deployed in Somalia; the focus of their mission was to train African Union and Somali forces, but the U.S. also regularly carries out drone strikes on the militant group. U.S. forces have carried at least 42 strikes in Somalia since 2007, killing up to 449 people—including up to 28 civilians—according to the Bureau for Investigative Journalism.
The State Department classified Al-Shabab as a foreign terrorist organization in 2008. Early U.S. operations in Somalia aimed at surgically taking out high-value targets associated with the group and Al-Qaeda’s East African franchise, which preceded Al-Shabab and orchestrated the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing more than 200 people.
But this tactic has changed in recent months and years, according to Roland Marchal, an Al-Shabab expert and research fellow at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. According to Marchal, the U.S. has now widened the scope of its operations to include Al-Shabab training camps and fighters on the move; in March 2016, for example, the Pentagon took responsibility for strikes on an Al-Shabab training camp that killed more than 150 people. Marchal says that this tactic has likely been motivated by the seeming inability of the 22,000-strong African Union force in Somalia (AMISOM) to keep Al-Shabab at bay: The militants have frequently targeted AMISOM bases in recent months and the group has taken over territorywhere AMISOM troops have pulled out.
According to Marchal, the deployment of a few dozen more U.S. troops is unlikely to have a determinative effect on the outcome of the war on Al-Shabab. “What is the aim of the war? Is it just to kill Al-Shabab fighters? If you kill 100, 200 Al-Shabab fighters, it needs only three or four months to get this number of fighters back,” Marchal adds. Only a political solution, he says, can end the insurgency, and that can only be instigated by the Somali federal and state governments.
There is also the risk of U.S. forces being manipulated by opposing sides in Somalia’s complex, clan-based society. In September 2016, security forces in the semi-autonomous state of Puntland requested U.S. strikes on opposition fighters believed to be Al-Shabab; the U.S. obliged, killing 10 armed fighters. But it later transpired that the fighters were not Al-Shabab—they were from another region of Somalia that is in conflict with Puntland.
Besides the 1998 embassy bombings, Al-Shabab has not launched any successful attacks on U.S. interests in the region. But the group has called for attacks in the West—and even used Trump in a 2016 propaganda video—and tens of American citizens have joined or attempted to join the group, many coming from Minneapolis, which has one of the largest concentrations of Somali immigrants in the United States. The deployment of extra U.S. troops to Somalia follows a presidential directive in March that loosened the conditions for airstrikes against Al-Shabab in Somalia, a sign that the Trump administration may wish to expedite its military efforts against the group. (This was also suggested by a set of leaked queries from the Trump transition team to the State Department in January, which included the question: “We’ve been fighting Al-Shabab for a decade, why haven’t we won?”)
Ultimately, the Trump administration—like previous administrations—is aware that U.S. firepower alone cannot defeat the militant group, according to Menkhaus. “I’ve never met an American government official, whether civilian or military, who believes that Al-Shabab can be defeated outright just by U.S. military [action in Somalia],” he says.
Instead, the deployment constitutes an attempt to help Somalia help itself. “The idea is if you can bottle them up, degrade their leadership and buy time for the Somali federal government and regional states to establish themselves,” says Menkhaus, “then this problem will largely take care of itself.”
Pentagon Foresees at Least Two More Years of Combat in Somalia
WASHINGTON — Amid its escalating campaign of drone strikes in Somalia, the Pentagon has presented the White House with an operational plan that envisions at least two more years of combat against Islamist militants there, according to American officials familiar with internal deliberations.
The proposed plan for Somalia would be the first under new rules quietly signed by President Trump in October for counterterrorism operations outside conventional war zones. The American military has carried out about 30 airstrikes in Somalia this year, twice as many as in 2016. Nearly all have come since June, including a Nov. 21 bombing that killed over 100 suspected militants at a Shabab training camp.
In a sign that the Defense Department does not envision a quick end to the deepening war in Somalia against the Shabab and the Islamic State, the proposed plan is said to include an exemption to a rule in Mr. Trump’s guidelines requiring annual vetting by staff from other agencies — including diplomats and intelligence officials — of operational plans for certain countries.
Instead, the Pentagon wants to wait 24 months before reviewing how the Somalia plan is working, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. Moreover, they said, the Defense Department wants to conduct that review internally, without involvement from other agencies — a request that would further a Trump-era pattern of giving the Pentagon greater latitude and autonomy.
Luke Hartig, a senior director for counterterrorism at the White House National Security Council during the Obama administration, said he supported delegating some greater authority to the Pentagon over such matters, but found it “problematic” that the military wanted to be unleashed for so long without broader oversight.
“A ton can happen in 24 months, particularly in the world of counterterrorism and when we’re talking about a volatile situation on the ground, like we have in Somalia with government formation issues and famine issues,” he said. “That’s an eternity.”
The Defense Department has submitted the plan to the National Security Council for approval by other agencies. Representatives for Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and for the council declined to comment on the details, other than to stress that the military took seriously its need to mitigate or prevent killings of civilian bystanders.
“We are not going to broadcast our targeting policies to the terrorists that threaten us, but we will say in general that our counterterrorism policies continue to reflect our values as a nation,” said Marc Raimondi, a National Security Council spokesman. “The United States will continue to take extraordinary care to mitigate civilian casualties, while addressing military necessity in defeating our enemy.”
Approving the plan would also end the special authority that Mr. Trump bestowed on the top State Department official for Somalia to pause the military’s offensive operations in that country if he saw problems emerging, the officials said. The Pentagon has objected to that arrangement as an infringement on the chain of command, the officials said, and the new plan would drop it — further eroding State Department influence in the Trump administration.
Still, eliminating the State Department authority might make little difference in practice, said Joshua A. Geltzer, who was senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council during the Obama administration. Either way, he said, if the State Department wanted to stop airstrikes in Somalia and the Pentagon wanted to keep going, the dispute would be resolved in a meeting of top leaders convened by Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster.
“The question of whether to allow a veto has been a source of tension before,” Mr. Geltzer said of the State Department authority. “But it’s not clear to me how much it’s worth fighting over — so long as those channels for communicating and working out concerns are functioning.”
According to the officials familiar with it, the Pentagon plan would also exempt operations in Somalia from another default rule in Mr. Trump’s guidelines: that airstrikes be allowed only when officials have determined there is a near certainty that no civilians will be killed. Instead, the officials said, the plan calls for imposing a lower standard: reasonable certainty that no bystanders will die.
However, it is also not clear whether altering that standard would result in any changes on the ground in Somalia. Mr. Trump has already approved declaring much of Somalia an “area of active hostilities,” a designation for places where war zone targeting rules apply, under an Obama-era system for such operations that Mr. Trump has since replaced. That designation exempted targeting decisions in that region from a similar “near-certainty” rule aimed at protecting civilians and instead substituted the looser battlefield standards.
Nevertheless, the head of the United States Africa Command, Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, decided not to use that added flexibility and instead kept the near-certainty standard in place. His decision stemmed from the challenges of distinguishing fighters from civilians from the air in Somalia, a failed state with complex clan dynamics and where a famine has uprooted people, many of them armed, in search of food and water.
Robyn Mack, a spokeswoman for General Waldhauser, declined to say whether he would again decide to keep the near-certainty standard in place if the Pentagon’s new plan were approved, writing in an email that it would be “inappropriate for Africom to speculate on future policy decisions.”
However, asked whether General Waldhauser is still imposing the near-certainty standard for strikes in Somalia, she invoked his comments at a Pentagon news conference in March, while the White House was still weighing whether to designate Somalia as an active-hostilities zone, saying what he said then “still stands.” General Waldhauser said then that he did not want to turn Somalia into a “free-fire zone,” adding, “We have to make sure that the levels of certainty that have been there previously, those are not changed.”
Ms. Mack wrote that “it is very important for Africom to have a level of certainty that mitigates or eliminates civilian casualties with our strike operations.”
Mr. Trump’s rules, which have been described by officials familiar with them even though the administration has not made them public, are called the “P.S.P.,” for principles, standards and procedures. They removed several limits that President Barack Obama imposed in 2013 on drone strikes and commando raids in places away from the more conventional war zones that the government labels “areas of active hostilities.”
Among other things, Mr. Trump dropped requirements in Mr. Obama’s rules — called the “P.P.G.,” for presidential policy guidance — for interagency vetting before each offensive strike and determinations that each person targeted pose a specific threat to Americans.
Instead, under Mr. Trump’s guidelines, permissible targets include any member of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Islamic State or any other terrorist group deemed to fall under the 2001 congressional authorization to use military force against the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks, even if they are mere foot soldiers who pose no specific threat on their own.
Moreover, instead of interagency vetting before each strike, Mr. Trump’s guidelines call for agencies to approve an operational plan for particular countries, after which the military (or the C.I.A., which also operates armed drones in several countries) may carry out strikes without first getting approval from higher-ranking officials.
How drones could be game-changer in Somalia’s fight against al-Shabab
A former member of U.S. military intelligence is helping fight one of the deadliest terror groups in Africa. He is also a pioneer in the U.S. military’s use of drones and is now using that expertise to help Somalia in its fight against the Al-Qaeda-linked terror group al-Shabab.
The threat of unpredictable violence is ever-present in Somalia. Al-Shabab’s reach is vast and it is one of the most organized and dangerous of Africa’s militant groups, reports CBS News correspondent Debora Patta.
Al-Shabab no longer controls the crumbling city of Mogadishu, but has still been able to wreak havoc with its relentless bombing campaigns. Their weapon of choice has been the vehicle bomb, like the one used with devastating effect on October 14 killing over 500 people in the capital.
CBS News has been told repeatedly that al-Shabab has eyes and ears everywhere. The group’s members blend easily into local communities, and a seemingly quiet road may not look very menacing but can turn nasty in an instant.
Former U.S. military intelligence officer Brett Velicovich wants to change that. He has donated commercial drones to the Somali police force and is training them to use the technology to combat al-Shabab.
“When they go into different areas to clear parts that are under Shabab control, they will actually fly those drones low and in front of them to look out for roadside bombs,” Velicovich said.
Another al-Shabab tactic is to plant one bomb then, as first responders arrive, detonate another, killing everyone who rushed to help.
“The investigators will actually go out and they’ll fly our drones and they’ll make sure that the area is safe for first responders to come into,” Velicovich said.
Somali intelligence has told us that al-Shabaab continues to practice its bomb-making skills over and over until they get it right.
Al-Shabab footage shows how they test one of their bombs on an African peacekeeping convoy. Drone technology could help thwart attacks like these.
“It significantly alters the way they can do counter-terrorism work?” Patta asked.
“Exactly. I mean, imagine walking into a situation where you don’t know if the people in the house or the compound have weapons or if they have explosives, but if you could see from the air what you are about to walk into, that changes the game,” Velicovich said.
Al-Shabab’s bombs are increasingly more complex and more powerful. Simple drone technology could provide a much needed boost for the over-worked, under-resourced Somali counter-terrorism units.
Uganda begins Somalia troop withdrawal
Uganda’s military says it has begun the withdrawal of 281 troops serving in the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia.
The move announced on Wednesday is part of a UN plan that will see African Union (AU) soldiers’ numbers reduced by 1,000 by the end of this year.
At the moment there are more than 20,000 soldiers serving in the AU mission (Amisom).
Uganda, which first sent troops to the country in 2007, is the biggest contributor with more than 6,000 soldiers in the force.
Kenya, Burundi, Djibouti and Ethiopia are also expected to reduce their numbers by 31 December.
Pulling out 1,000 soldiers will not be immediately significant but it shows the international backers of Amisom want to see a handover of security to Somali soldiers and police.
African countries have been praised for bringing increased stability to Somalia but there is frustration about corruption among their forces and the failure to secure an adequate victory.
Efforts to develop Somalia’s national army are gaining ground.
The US has already increased its troop numbers in the country to more than 500 and stepped up airstrikes – boosting its co-operation with the Somali military.
But defeating the militant Islamist Al-Shabaab group will not be easy.
A massive bomb attack blamed on the al-Qaeda-affiliated militants killed more than 500 people in the capital, Mogadishu, two months ago – the deadliest in its campaign against various UN-backed governments.