The Pentagon conducted an operation against the al Shabaab terrorist group in Somalia in what amounted to a rare public acknowledgement of the quiet work it's been doing there, it revealed Monday.
Ever since al Shabaab's stunning attack inside an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi almost a year ago that killed scores of people and signaled a comeback of sorts for a terrorist group U.S. officials said was largely vanquished, the United States has ramped up its assistance in Somalia, even as the mission maintained a low profile. A small team of American advisors support the African Union Mission in Somalia, or AMISOM, as well as Somali national security forces.
The Pentagon was mum on operational details and its announcement wording was vague as to whether the U.S. troops only conducted an airstrike or if ground forces had been involved.
"U.S. military forces conducted an operation in Somalia today against the al-Shabaab network. We are assessing the results of the operation and will provide additional information as and when appropriate," Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby stated Monday.
Citing reports from journalists in Somalia, The Washington Post indicated that there had been drone strikes near the port city of Barawe, a focus of effort against al Shabaab.
The United States has been providing financial, logistical, and material backing to AMISOM and Somali forces doing battle with al Shabaab, which is linked to al-Qaida. American drones from nearby Camp Lemonnier, a sprawling base the U.S. maintains in Djibouti, have also been providing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.
"The result has been a rather successful (if slow and grinding) campaign prosecuted by AMISOM and the Somalis against al Shabaab," Roger Carstens, a former special forces officer who spent more than a year on the ground in Somalia in the last few years, told Foreign Policy.
Carstens said that if the United States conducted an airstrike mission in Somalia, as it appeared to have done in Barawe, that would be an indication that it had in its sights a high-value target.
"As can be shown by the rather small number of U.S. military operations in Somalia over the past few years, the standard for an attack in Somalia has been pretty high," Carstens wrote FP in an email. "The target must be worthy of the U.S. stepping out from its preferred position (behind the scenes) to conduct a unilateral strike."
Since the United States has been working closely with Somali-based forces for months, it's possible the level of coordination between the U.S. and those forces was high enough that if it was an airstrike mission, it could have been conducted entirely from the sky and involved no U.S. ground forces. Carstens noted that if the operation in fact had occurred in Barawe, that area is still a "pretty tough neighborhood" and, therefore, American commanders may have wanted to rely more heavily on indigenous forces instead of using U.S. special operations forces on the ground and thus putting those forces at considerable risk.
The memory of the 1993 downing of two American Black Hawk helicopters during a raid in October of that year that resulted in the deaths of 18 American servicemen still weighs heavily on American policy in Somalia and contributes to a risk-averse approach there.
Peter Pham, the director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, said the U.S. seemingly has increased its role in Somalia as it strengthens its capabilities with AMISOM and local forces.
"I would put the apparent increase in U.S. operational tempo in Somalia as a function of both better intelligence and a change in al-Shabaab itself," Pham wrote FP in an email late Monday. "The first is the result of an increased presence, both public and clandestine, that has resulted in information that can be operationalized," he wrote. The second shift is within Shabaab after it ‘abandoned Mogadishu' in 2011 and became more focused on terrorism, rather than insurgence, and began to pose a greater threat to the U.S. and its allies, Pham said.