The United States has targeted al-Qaida-linked fighters in Somalia, launching its first airstrike since announcing U.S. special operations forces would again be based in the Horn of Africa nation.
Somalia’s Ministry of Information announced the airstrike Friday on Twitter, saying it had targeted al-Shabab militants near Beer Xaani, west of the southern city of Kismayo, after they had attacked Somali forces.
Initial estimates indicated that five al-Shabab fighters were killed and that there were no civilian casualties, the Somali announcement said.
So far, neither the Pentagon nor U.S. Africa Command has shared any details about the incident.
Friday’s airstrike against al-Shabab is the first since the U.S. announced in mid-May that it would reestablish what it described as a “small, persistent U.S. military presence” in Somalia, following a December 2020 decision by the previous U.S. administration to pull out troops that had been stationed in the country.
Senior U.S. administration officials last month called the decision by former President Donald Trump to end the persistent U.S. presence in Somalia a mistake, arguing it gave al-Shabab, already seen as the largest, wealthiest and most dangerous al-Qaida affiliate, a chance to regenerate.
Al-Shabab “has unfortunately only grown stronger,” a senior U.S. official told reporters. “It has increased the tempo of its attacks, including against U.S. personnel.”
Pentagon officials have described the move, which will see fewer than 500 U.S. special operators working out of Somalia, as a repositioning, noting U.S. troops had been flying into the country to periodically work with the Somali military.
New Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud welcomed the change, thanking U.S. President Joe Biden on social media.
Like a number of high-profile U.S. military officials, some Somali officials had been lobbying for the return of a U.S. military presence to help with the fight against al-Shabab.
“This was a wrong decision taken. Withdrawal was a hasty decision,” a senior adviser to Mohamud told VOA, ahead of the official announcement about the return of the U.S. presence.
“It disrupted counterterrorism operations,” said the Somali adviser, who asked not to be named because his position in the administration had not yet been made public. “To reinstate and start with the new president is the right decision, and it came at the right time.”
Somali officials have also said they hope a persistent U.S. military presence in Somalia will lead to an uptick in airstrikes against the group.
So far this year, U.S. Africa Command has publicly confirmed only one airstrike, on February 22, against al-Shabab fighters near Duduble, Somalia. It has not yet commented on the strike reported Friday by Somali authorities.
It is not clear how many, if any, U.S. forces are currently operating in Somalia. Senior U.S. officials said last month it would “take a little bit of time to reach that full implementation stage.”
Intelligence estimates from United Nations member states and shared earlier this year put the number of al-Shabab fighters at close to 12,000 while warning the al-Qaida affiliate has been raising as much as $10 million a month to fund its activities.