Somalian Battlefield: The US Counterterrorism Campaign

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The U.S. has a long record of military involvement in Somalia, stretching back to the bloody 1993 Battle of Mogadishu. The failed operation, comprehended as “Black Hawk Down,” resulted in the departure of U.S. forces, which additionally destabilised Somalia, vacating an opening for the rise of local extremist groups.

In the lack of a central government, an Islamist militia named the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) formed to institute order. Countering this militia was the Transitional Federal Government and different tribes and individuals unwilling to cede power to the ICU.

With American support, Ethiopia pushed across the border into Somalia in 2006 to help the transitional government. The ICU cracked, leading to the emergence of al-Shabaab, a jihadist group which would ultimately publicly align with al-Qaeda. The U.S. Department of State designated al-Shabaab a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 2008. With the advancement of al-Shabaab, what had been low-level targeting of high-level militant authorities by the United States escalated into a broader targeting of the new jihadist group. A change from ground operations aided this escalation—often desired at capturing militants—to drone strikes, which began in 2011.

In March 2017, President Trump authorised a Department of Defense proposal to provide the military even more space to conduct lethal operations in Somalia, specifying parts of the country as “areas of active hostilities,” which instituted “war-zone targeting rules,” despite the lack of a formal war declaration in Somalia. In November 2017, the Trump administration also approved a strike on ISIS warriors in Somalia for the first time, extending the targeted groups in the open-ended counterterrorism campaign.

President Donald J. Trump has directed an unprecedented escalation of the U.S. counterterrorism fight in Somalia. By mid-2019, the United States reached the highest number of strikes by drones and Special Operations attacks of any previous year. It had also executed double the number of strikes through August 2018. With this escalation, Trump boosted a covert American war that had lasted since 2003 and which had killed more than 350 people before Trump took the post. 

Counterterrorism operations in Somalia have comprised some ground raids, placing Somalia apart from Yemen and Pakistan, where U.S. counterterrorism operations have mostly been confined to drone strikes. The U.S. instructed 12 counterterrorism operations in Somalia between 9/11 and the development of the U.S. drone program in the country in 2011.

These operations were restricted to ground raids—three in 2003 and 2004—until the US started conducting airstrikes in 2007, which overlapped with Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia. On January 7, 2007, an AC-130 warplane piloted by surveillance from a Predator drone fired on al-Qaeda operatives affected in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. At least eight militants were reportedly killed in the operation, the first losses of the U.S. counterterrorism campaign in Somalia.

On June 23, 2011, the Obama administration authorised the first military drone strike on two al-Qaeda-linked operatives in Somalia. U.S. military officials had intelligence that Somali militants were transmitting frequently with militants in Yemen — where the drone program had already started in earnest.

As of late 2017, al-Shabaab has renounced authority in most cities, primarily due to an African Union offensive that forced the group out of Mogadishu in 2011 and spirals of U.S. strikes that destroyed Shabaab leadership in 2008. However, it still runs training camps in many rural areas in the country’s southern half. The U.S. has twice killed large numbers of Shabaab foot soldiers at these centres. In March 2016, the U.S. led an operation several miles northwest of Mogadishu, including air and drone strikes, killing around 150 fighters, according to officials. 

In October 2018, AFRICOM (United States Africa Command) executed a strike in Haradere, killing between 60-117 militants. In January 2019, the year it started with a strike in Jilib, killing between 52-73 militants. ISIS-Somalia, a local ISIS companion, is a reasonably small group operating in the country. They are at probabilities with Shabaab, fighting for territory in the Golis Mountains. AFRICOM industriously pursues ISIS and Shabaab across the Golis Mountains region, hitting eight times in 2019.

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