Saturday February 9, 2019
US air strikes killed more than 100 militants in Somalia in January — one of the deadliest months since Washington’s air offensive against al-Shabaab, the Islamist extremist group, began in 2007.In 2018 the US staged 47 air strikes against al-Shabaab targets — almost one a week — killing at least 326 suspected militants, according to figures compiled from statements made by US Africa Command, also known as Africom. So far this year, Africom has executed 12 strikes, killing another 115 al-Shabaab fighters, according to the statements.
The casualties reflect a dramatic escalation in the use air strikes against the Somali extremist group since President Donald Trump took office. The air offensive is part of one of Washington’s most active — and least discussed — military campaigns anywhere in the world.
The surge in US air attacks, which are in support of the Somali national army, is the result of a 2017 policy change by the Trump administration that gave the Department of Defence greater latitude to authorise strikes.
Previously, under guidelines established by President Barack Obama, air strikes outside of active US conflict zones needed to be vetted by multiple agencies and could only be approved if the target posed a “continuing, imminent threat” to the US. The shift has taken an unprecedented toll on al-Shabaab’s rank and file, leaving more than 500 fighters dead in the past two years.
But despite its losses, the Islamist group continues to stage attacks against military, government and civilian targets inside and outside of Somalia, raising doubts over whether the US strategy can ultimately help stabilise the troubled nation.
After 24 militants were killed in a January air strike on an al-Shabaab training camp north of the capital, Mogadishu, the group claimed responsibility for two separate bombings in quick succession: an attack on an Ethiopian military base in southern Somalia, and another on a shopping mall in Mogadishu that killed 11 people.
“The tempo is higher, but nobody looks like they are losing” said Hussein Sheikh-Ali, a former security adviser to the Somali government and founder of the Hiraal Institute, a security think-tank in Mogadisghu.
Under President Obama, the US staged fewer air strikes that targeted senior al-Shabaab officials, according Mr Sheikh-Ali. The Trump administration’s campaign, under the direct control of the Pentagon, appears to be targeting foot soldiers, he said.
“It seems [al Shabaab] is losing low-level soldiers, who are easily replaceable with two to three months training.”
Major Karl Wiest, a spokesperson for Africom, said the air strikes targeted personnel, fighting positions, infrastructure and equipment, as part of wider counter-terrorism operations aimed at reducing al-Shabaab’s ability to recruit, train and plot attacks in Somalia and the region.
“There has been measurable progress in Somalia over time, but there is certainly more work to be done” Mr Wiest said.
Formed in 2004 by a small circle of Islamist militants, al-Shabaab has sought to topple the internationally backed government in Somalia for the past decade. As recently as 2010, it controlled vast swaths of the country, including parts of the capital. Al-Shabaab lost formal control of Mogadishu in 2011 to an African Union force, but maintains influence in the city and continues to run large tracts of the rural south and centre of the country, with at least 5,000 fighters, according to Mr Sheikh-Ali’s Hiraal Institute.
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“The air strikes might slow them but are not stopping or halting Shabaab,” said Mr Sheikh-Ali. “In fact they are getting bolder and in terms of influence they are expanding.”
Al-Shabaab has established its own tax systems and sharia courts in many parts of the country, while the current Somali government, which was created in 2012, has struggled to bring unity amid a decades-long civil war.
“Their governance is stretching and reaching farther and farther,” Mr Sheikh-Ali said. “They are taxing areas that they never taxed, their judiciary system is reaching areas it never reached.”
The resilience of al-Shabaab’s political and social apparatus means that air strikes alone are a dead-end, according to Rashid Abdi, Horn of Africa program director at the International Crisis Group.
“Somalia’s problem is essentially political,” he said. “It is a society that is deeply divided, and as long as you have a deadly organisation like al-Shabaab able to feed on these social divisions, you will continue to have problems.”