2019 saw record US airstrikes in Somalia while al-Shabab surges

By MAX BEARAK, The Washington Post January 16, 2020

NAIROBI, Kenya — Just as soon as the U.S. military closed out a year in which it struck al-Shabab Islamic fighters in Somalia more times than ever — at a pace of just over one airstrike per week — the powerful group carried out its most brazen and successful attack on U.S. forces in its history, killing soldiers and private contractors, and destroying six aircraft at an airstrip in Kenya.

It was symbolic of the greater U.S. effort against al-Shabab: Since the Trump administration loosened rules of engagement in Somalia in March 2017, leading to a more aggressive use of airstrikes, the group has staged nearly 900 attacks on foreign forces in Somalia and on other targets both inside and outside Somalia.

“The rate of al-Shabab’s attacks, at least against foreign troops and Somali military bases, is higher now than before,” said Hussein Sheikh-Ali, a former national security adviser to the Somali president who took part in discussions with Pentagon officials as they weighed changing their rules of engagement in 2017.

Al-Shabab continues to control almost the entirety of rural southern and central Somalia, while staging such regular attacks on the capital, Mogadishu, where residents know any trip into the city center could be their last.

The group’s goal is always the same, however: to chase away, or at least outlast, foreign troops in Somalia, clearing the way for a broader takeover in which it could impose Islamic law. 

In the past few years, the group has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to make powerful explosives and destabilize Somalia’s fledgling government. Since its inception in 2006, the group has carried out more than 10,000 attacks in Somalia and nearly 300 in Kenya. Scores of Kenyan security men, officials and civilians have been killed by al-Shabab in Kenya in just the past six weeks.

Alshabaab has a robust network of informants and operatives, collects zakat from all Somali citizens and instills fear of punishment in anyone who considers opposing them as paying Zakat is one of the Islamic obligatory pillars.

As part of the thousands of troops that the United States has stationed across East Africa, 500 are on the ground on a small number of bases within Somalia. Beyond planning airstrikes, their mission, according to U.S. Africa Command, is mostly to train the Somali national army, to assist with intelligence gathering and to occasionally accompany Somali troops in ground raids.

About 300 U.S. soldiers and military contractors are stationed in Kenya, bolstering the missions in Somalia. The al-Shabab attack Jan. 5 on an airstrip used by those U.S. forces was a major setback, because of American casualties, the loss of high-value equipment and the escape of some attackers, Col. Christopher Karns, a U.S. Africa Command spokesman, said in an email to The Washington Post.

The White House has not commented publicly on the deaths of the Americans in that attack, nor has the president done so independently. The U.S. military has been unusually outspoken in its public response, which included sending its top brass in East Africa to the base adjoining the airstrip that was attacked.

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