The U.S. military’s massive aerial assault on al-Shabab enclaves in Somalia over the weekend killed dozens of terrorist fighters and signaled that the Trump administration could take an even more aggressive tack in 2019.
But the unexpectedly broad mission also has analysts warning that Somalia’s feeble central government has allowed the al Qaeda affiliate in Somalia to “claw back” to relevance and is now in a position where it can be contained but not defeated.
Under President Trump, the U.S. has dramatically ramped up its bombing campaign against al-Shabab, which boasts at least 7,000 fighters and has thrived in largely lawless areas beyond the control of the central government in Mogadishu. So far this year, American forces have conducted at least 45 airstrikes against the terrorist group — a nearly 50 percent increase from last year’s 31 bombings, according to figures compiled by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. In 2016, there were 15 strikes on al-Shabab targets — and just 15 total in the seven years before that.
The weekend’s bombings — just days after White House National Security Adviser John R. Bolton laid out the administration’s revamped policy toward Africa and said U.S. partnerships with African nations are vital to combat terrorism — were some of the most lethal so far, Pentagon officials said. In a total of six bombing missions spanning Saturday and Sunday, U.S. forces took out at least 62 al-Shabab fighters without killing or injuring any civilians, U.S. Africa Command said.
But those strikes, analysts say, can only contain al-Shabab and perhaps keep it from gaining significant new territory. The organization has gained strength over the past several years, according to regional analysts, and has begun to retake lost ground.
In the current environment, fully eradicating al-Shabab in the same way the U.S. has decimated and rolled back the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria would require competent forces on the ground and a central government capable of marshaling the manpower and money needed for a yearslong fight.
As has been the case for nearly 30 years in Somalia, dating back to the infamous 1993 Battle of Mogadishu — in which Somali warlords killed 19 Americans — such a government doesn’t exist, providing a fertile ground for al-Shabab to reconstitute itself.
“It’s coming back. It’s coming back in ways that are disturbing,” said Seth Jones, director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“I think the single most significant reason why al-Shabab has been able to claw back into Somalia is that Somalia lacks any kind of an effective, strong, central government,” he said. “The U.S. has to help manage the situation. It is not going to defeat al-Shabab in such a weak spot. But the objective is to contain it to specific areas.”
The key goal, Mr. Jones said, is to keep the Somali capital of Mogadishu from falling back into al-Shabab’s hands.
At the peak of the Islamist group’s power in 2011, the insurgent group controlled a portion of the capital city as well as the strategic port of Kismayo.
Preventing a buildup
Pentagon airstrikes over the past several months have been designed to keep the organization from putting together the large-scale ground army capable of mounting a successful attack on Mogadishu or other strategically important areas.
The weekend’s strikes targeted al-Shabab fighters massed in the Gandarshe region, about 30 miles southwest of Mogadishu. Somali intelligence officials told The Associated Press that the militants were planning to launch a major assault soon on a government military base in the Lower Shabelle region.
“The strike has neutralized an imminent attack,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Pentagon officials also said the airstrikes were aimed at depriving al-Shabab of areas to train and plot attacks.
“All six airstrikes … targeted a known [al-Shabab] encampment,” U.S. Africa Command said. “We are committed to preventing al-Shabab from taking advantage of safe havens from which they can build capacity and attack the people of Somalia. In particular, the group uses portions of southern and central Somalia to plot and direct terror attacks, steal humanitarian aid, extort the local populace to fund its operations and shelter radical terrorists.”
Later Monday, Pentagon spokesman Col. Robert Manning told reporters that the strikes were part of a broader mission “to diminish the capabilities of terrorist organizations” in Africa and around the world.
The administration’s broader Africa policy centers on expanding U.S. economic and political ties on the continent, even in dangerous nations such as Somalia. Late last month, the U.S. formally re-established a “permanent diplomatic presence” inside Somalia for the first time in 27 years, with Ambassador Donald Yamamoto setting up shop at the American mission in Mogadishu.
There are also a limited number of U.S. special operations forces on the ground in Somalia. Last summer, one American soldier was killed and four others wounded during a firefight with al-Shabab militants.
Analysts say the organization is largely regional in nature and hasn’t exploded into the same kind of threat that the Islamic State presented during its heyday, but they add that al-Shabab should be taken seriously as a key piece of a broader terrorist strategy.
“Al-Shabab is a persistent and effective insurgent and terrorist group,” said Bill Roggio, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “It still controls territory in large areas of Somalia, most rural, but it effectively fights Somali forces, African Union forces.”
“Al-Shabab is al Qaeda’s branch in East Africa,” he said. “It’s part of al Qaeda’s global strategy.”
Specifically, regional analysts say it’s in America’s national security interest to ensure the group cannot ever regain control of Mogadishu.
“It would create a very concerning strategic situation for the United States because we would have an al Qaeda ally in Mogadishu,” Mr. Jones said.
⦁ Carlo Muñoz contributed to this report.
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