Recent diplomatic and military moves by the U.S. in the Horn of African indicate the Trump administration is preparing to ramp up its attacks against Islamist al-Shabab operatives in Somalia.
The moves fall in line with the administration’s recent statements that it wants to beef up its military efforts in certain regions to defeat ISIS and other extremist groups like al-Shabab, a militant group that has ties to Al Qaeda.
Among the recent moves:
- Last week, aid groups in Somalia were asked to supply coordinates of refugee camps, hospitals and other service center, conceivably so they don’t get attacked in error.
- Just over a week ago, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis visited government senior official and U.S. service members in Djibouti, where the U.S. has a base and where the air strikes would originate.
- Photos were released Monday of Marine Corps Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, the commander of U.S. forces in Africa (AFRICOM), meeting Somalia President Mohamed Abdullahi "Farmajo" Mohamed “ahead of expected escalation of U.S. airstrikes against al-Shabab,” according to one Somali government source.
- After vowing that the US military will go after “radical Islamic terrorism” last month, President Donald Trump declared portions of Somalia an “area of active hostilities.”
Marine Corps Brig. Gen. David J. Furness, who was also part of the Monday meeting with President Mohamed and was recently appointed commander of the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, said his top priority is to "neutralize" al-Shabab.
"There is no question that al-Shabab has brought great turmoil and has committed extreme atrocities in East Africa, and particularly in Somalia," Furness said in a statement. "But we are committed to working with partner nations to help Somalia stand strong against this violent extremist organization and assist with the international and intergovernmental efforts to bring back security and stability to this very important region."
Designating parts of Somalia an ‘area of active hostilities’ basically means the rules of engagement against al-Shabab have changed. Under the Obama administration, U.S. special forces and drones could only be used under a more restrictive “self-defense” protocol. For a single mission to be carried out, it had to go through dizzying levels of approvals in Washington under the previous administration.
Now, the Pentagon has authorized what it calls “additional precision fires.” Sources say U.S. military commanders on the ground in the Horn of Africa can now give the ‘go’ signal on their own missions. These no longer need to be classified as self-defense, but can be sudden strikes, targeting even militants who have not, at that time, carried out an aggressive act.
The U.S. has special interest in stopping al-Shabab’s continuing bomb attacks on hotels in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, where American and other Western businessmen and diplomats congregate. The terrorist group has not mounted any attacks outside Somalia but some of its members are now supporting ISIS, so U.S. officials are concerned they could be planning attacks on U.S. soil.
Why is al-Shabab such a threat? The terrorist group has some highly sophisticated operatives – and operating systems. It’s believed one of their successful missions led to laptops being banned on some flights from the Middle East and Africa into the U.S.
Last year, al-Shabab infiltrated security staff at Mogadishu’s airport. Fox News obtained official airport security video in February 2016 showing a security manager who had been “turned” by al-Shabab, by-passing X-ray machines, and giving a passenger a laptop just before he boarded a flight. Shortly after takeoff, the laptop is said to have blown up, tearing a hole in the aircraft’s fuselage. The man carrying the laptop was sucked out of the hole and fell to his death. Only days later, with the security manager in question under surveillance and about to be questioned, he was killed by a car bomb.
Paul Tilsley is a freelance correspondent, covering Africa for Fox News. Follow his African stories on Twitter @paultilsley