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US conducts first Somali airstrike of Biden’s presidency

MQ-9 Reaper during Exercise Northern Strike 2019. (Arizona Air National Guard/Released)
July 21, 2021

On Tuesday, U.S. forces conducted an airstrike on terrorists in Somalia for the first time since President Joe Biden took office.

The U.S. drone strike targeted militants of the Al Qaeda-linked Al Shabaab terrorist group. Pentagon spokeswoman Cindi King confirmed the strike in a statement to the New York Times.

The U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) last announced a U.S. strike in Somalia against Al Shabaab on January 19, the final full day of President Donald Trump’s term.

The Trump administration gave broader authority to commanders on the battlefield to decide when to call in airstrikes. Under Biden, those rules have tightened once more and strike requests are now typically brought before the White House.

Some airstrike requests in Somalia have been denied under the new strike authorization rules in place. King told the New York Times White House approval was not needed in this case because the AFRICOM has the authority to conduct strikes in defense of allied forces.

The Tuesday strike was carried out in support of the Danab, an American-trained Somali special operations force. King said Danab troops were being advised remotely by American trainers when they came under attack by Al Shabaab fighters.

“There were no U.S. forces accompanying Somali forces during this operation,” King told Air Force Magazine. “U.S. forces were conducting a remote advise-and-assist mission in support of designated Somali partner forces. U.S. forces are authorized to conduct strikes in support of combatant commander-designated partner forces under collective self-defense.”

While Trump generally gave more discretion to commanders in the field to call in airstrikes, he did order the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Somalia in his final weeks in office. About 700 U.S. troops were in the country at the time Trump gave the order to withdraw. Since then, U.S. forces have continued to remotely assist Somali government forces fighting the Al Shabaab insurgency.

The Biden administration is currently conducting an interagency review, considering whether or not to reverse Trump’s withdrawal order and deploy U.S. troops back into Somalia.

One plan entails sending a smaller number of U.S. troops into Somalia than were previously stationed there. The plan would be to deploy those U.S. troops to military bases in southern Somalia, near the border with Kenya, an area considered to be an Al Shabaab stronghold.

While conducting so-called “over the horizon” operations from neighboring Kenya remains one possibility, strained Kenya-Somalia relations could disrupt cross-border missions. A recent diplomatic feud between Somalia and Kenya resulted in the countries cutting each other off from their airspace.