By Charlie Savage and Eric Schmitt
Monday May 16, 2022
WASHINGTON — President Biden has signed an order authorizing
the military to once again deploy hundreds of Special Operations forces inside
Somalia — largely reversing the decision by President Donald J. Trump to
withdraw nearly all 700 ground troops who had been stationed there, according
to four officials familiar with the matter.
In addition, Mr. Biden has approved a Pentagon request for
standing authority to target about a dozen suspected leaders of Al Shabab, the
Somali terrorist group that is affiliated with Al Qaeda, three of the officials
said. Since Mr. Biden took office, airstrikes have largely been limited to
those meant to defend partner forces facing an immediate threat.
Together, the decisions by Mr. Biden, described by the
officials on the condition of anonymity, will revive an open-ended American
counterterrorism operation that has amounted to a slow-burn war through three
administrations. The move stands in contrast to his decision last year to pull
American forces from Afghanistan, saying that “it is time to end the forever
Mr. Biden signed off on the proposal by Defense Secretary
Lloyd J. Austin III in early May, officials said. In a statement, Adrienne
Watson, the National Security Council spokeswoman, acknowledged the move,
saying it would enable “a more effective fight against Al Shabab.”
“The decision to reintroduce a persistent presence was made
to maximize the safety and effectiveness of our forces and enable them to
provide more efficient support to our partners,” she said.
Ms. Watson did not indicate the number of troops the
military would deploy. But two people familiar with the matter said the figure
would be capped at around 450. That will replace a system in which the U.S.
troops training and advising Somali and African Union forces have made short
stays since Mr. Trump issued what Ms. Watson described as a “precipitous
decision to withdraw.”
The Biden administration’s strategy in Somalia is to try to
reduce the threat from Al Shabab by suppressing its ability to plot and carry
out complicated operations, a senior administration official said. Those
include a deadly attack on an American air base at Manda Bay, Kenya, in January
In particular, the official said, targeting a small
leadership cadre — especially people who are suspected of playing roles in
developing plots outside Somalia’s borders or having special skills — is aimed
at curtailing “the threat to a level that is tolerable.”
Asked to square the return to heavier engagement in Somalia
with the American withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, following through on a
deal Mr. Trump had made with the Taliban, the senior administration official
argued that the two countries presented significantly different complexities.
For one, the official said, the Taliban have not expressed
an intention of attacking the United States, and other militant groups in
Afghanistan do not control significant enclaves of territory from which to
operate and plan.
Given that Al Shabab appears to pose a more significant
threat, the administration concluded that more direct engagement in Somalia
made sense, the official said. The strategy would focus on disrupting a few
Shabab leaders who are deemed a direct peril to “us, and our interests and our
allies,” and maintaining “very carefully cabined presence on the ground to be
able to work with our partners.”
Intelligence officials estimate that Al Shabab has about
5,000 to 10,000 members; the group, which formally pledged allegiance to Al
Qaeda in 2012, has sought to impose its extremist version of Islam on the
chaotic Horn of Africa country.
While Al Shabab mostly fights inside Somalia and only
occasionally attacks neighboring countries, some members are said to harbor
ambitions to strike the United States. In December 2020, prosecutors in
Manhattan charged an accused Shabab operative from Kenya with plotting a Sept.
11-style attack on an American city. He had been arrested in the Philippines as
he trained to fly planes.
Mr. Biden’s decision followed months of interagency
deliberations led by the White House’s top counterterrorism adviser, Elizabeth
Sherwood-Randall, over whether to accept the Pentagon plan, maintain the status
quo or further reduce engagement in Somalia.
In evaluating those options, Ms. Sherwood-Randall and other top security
officials visited Somalia and nearby Kenya and Djibouti, both of which host
American forces, in October.
The administration’s deliberations about whether and how to
more robustly go back into Somalia have been complicated by political chaos
there, as factions in its fledgling government fought each other and elections
were delayed. But Somalia recently elected a new parliament, and over the
weekend, leaders selected a new president, deciding to return to power Hassan
Sheikh Mohamud, who led the country from 2012 to 2017.
An incoming senior official on Mr. Mohamud’s team welcomed
the Biden administration’s moves.
They were both timely and a step in the right direction
because they coincided “with the swearing-in of the newly elected president who
would be planning his offensive on Al Shabab,” the official said.
For months, American commanders have warned that the
short-term training missions that U.S. Special Operations forces have conducted
in Somalia since Mr. Trump withdrew most American troops in January 2021 have
not worked well. The morale and capacity of the partner units have been
eroding, they say.
Of each eight-week cycle, the senior administration official
said, American trainers spend about three unengaged with partner forces because
the Americans were either not in Somalia or focused on transit — and the travel
in and out was the most dangerous part. Other officials have also characterized
the system of rotating in and out, rather than being persistently deployed
there, as expensive and inefficient.
“Our periodic engagement — also referred to as commuting to
work — has caused new challenges and risks for our troops,” Gen. Stephen J.
Townsend, the head of the Pentagon’s Africa Command, told the Senate Armed
Services Committee in March. “My assessment is that it is not effective.”
Intelligence officials have raised growing alarm about Al
Shabab over the past several years as it has expanded its territory in Somalia.
In its final year in office, the Obama administration had deemed Al Shabab to
be part of the armed conflict the United States authorized against the
perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Once Mr. Trump became president, he loosened controls on
airstrikes there, and the Pentagon significantly escalated American combat
activity. But shortly before leaving office, Mr. Trump ordered most American
troops to pull out of Somalia — except for a small force that has guarded
American diplomats at a bunker by the airport in Mogadishu.
On its first day in office, the Biden administration
suspended a permissive set of targeting rules put in place by the Trump
administration, instead requiring requests for strikes — except in self-defense
— to be routed through the White House. (Africa Command also invoked that
exception for strikes undertaken in the “collective” self-defense of Somali
That pause was supposed to take only a few months while the
Biden administration reviewed how targeting rules had worked under both the
Trump and Obama administrations and devised its own. But even though it has
largely completed a proposed replacement described as a hybrid between the two
preceding versions, final approval of that has stalled amid competing national
security policy matters.
The military, for its part, has tried to continue training,
advising and assisting Somali and African Union forces without a persistent
presence on the ground, but gradually increased the length of shorter stays.
During a visit to Somalia in February, General Townsend warned of the threat Al
Shabab posed to the region.
“Al Shabab remains Al Qaeda’s largest, wealthiest and most
deadly affiliate, responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocents,
including Americans,” he said. “Disrupting Al Shabab’s malign intent requires
leadership from Somalis and continued support from Djibouti, Kenya, the U.S.
and other members of the international community.”
Abdi Latif Dahir contributed reporting from Nairobi.