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 Trump to withdraw nearly all 700 ground troops who had been stationed there, according to four officials familiar with the matter.
In addition, 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-Qaida, three of the officials said. Since Biden took office, airstrikes have largely been limited to those meant to defend partner forces facing an immediate threat.
Together, the decisions by Biden, described by the officials on the condition of anonymity, will revive an open-ended US 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 US forces from Afghanistan, saying that “it is time to end the forever war.”
Biden signed off on the proposal by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in early May, officials said. In a statement, Adrienne Watson, a National Security Council spokesperson, 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.
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 US troops training and advising Somali and African Union forces have made short stays since Trump issued what 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 a US air base at Manda Bay, Kenya, in January 2020.
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 US withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, following through on a deal 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 al-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-Qaida 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 New York City charged an accused al-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.
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 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, US commanders have warned that the short-term training missions that US Special Operations forces have conducted in Somalia since Trump withdrew most US troops in January 2021 have not worked well. The morale and capacity of the partner units have been eroding, they say.