The U.S. military has conducted its first offensive airstrike against the jihadist fundamentalist group al-Shabaab in Somalia, targeting the group under the new authorities given by the Trump administration in March that allows offensive airstrikes.
“On June 11, at approximately 2 a.m. eastern daylight time, the Department of Defense conducted a strike operation against al-Shabaab in Somalia,” said Dana White, the Pentagon’s chief spokesperson in a statement.
“The operation occurred approximately 185 miles southwest of Mogadishu,” White said. “The U.S. conducted this operation in coordination with its regional partners as a direct response to al-Shabaab actions, including recent attacks on Somali forces.”
White explained that the airstrike was carried out under the new authorities approved by President Trump in March, which “allows the U.S. Department of Defense to conduct legal action against al-Shabaab within a geographically-defined area of active hostilities in support of partner force in Somalia.”
“We remain committed to working with our Somali partners and allies to systematically dismantle al-Shabaab, and help achieve stability and security throughout the region,” said White.
According to a statement from U.S. Africa Command (Africom) the airstrike targeted “an al-Shabab command and logistics node at a camp located approximately 185 miles southwest of Mogadishu in a stronghold for the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabaab organization.”
Africom assessed that eight al-Shabaab militants were killed in the strike.
“U.S. forces will use all effective and appropriate methods to protect Americans, including partnered military counter-terror operations with AMISOM and Somali National Army (SNA) forces; precision strikes against terrorists, their training camps and safe havens; and hunting and tracking members of this al-Qaeda affiliate throughout Somalia, the region and around the world,” said the Africom statement.
Until the new authorities were granted in March, the U.S. military could only carry out air strikes against al-Shabaab in self-defense situations when Somali troops and their U.S. advisers came under fire.
The U.S. military has previously conducted counter-terrorism missions and airstrikes in Somalia targeting al-Shabaab leaders, but those missions have been carried out under the different authorities targeting al-Qaeda.
Al-Shabaab has been an al-Qaeda affiliate since 2012. It has been designated as a terrorist organization by a number of nations, including the United States and United Kingdom.
In March, the southern portion of Somalia was temporarily designated by Trump as an “active area of hostilities” for 180 days, according to a U.S. official. The designation applies to active combat zones such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, parts of Libya, parts of Yemen and now Somalia.
The U.S. military is permitted to conduct airstrikes in these designated combat zones if there is “a reasonable certainty” that no civilians will be hurt. This is less stringent than the “near certainty” standard issued by former U.S. president Barack Obama in 2013 as a Presidential Policy Guidance that is still applied elsewhere. That standard requires high-level, interagency vetting of proposed airstrikes. The target must pose a direct threat to Americans.
A U.S. official stressed in March that the U.S. military will not be able to make unilateral decisions for airstrikes. Rather, strikes will be done in consultation with the government of Somalia and the African Union military force in Somalia.
There are about 50 U.S. military personnel in Somalia advising and assisting the Somali military in its fight against al-Shabaab.
In May, Navy SEAL Kyle Milliken became the first U.S. military service member to be killed in Somalia since 1993 when the Somali unit he was advising came under attack during a mission.
In its statement, Africom noted that al-Shabaab has used safe havens in southern and central Somalia to plot and direct terror attacks, steal humanitarian aid, and shelter other terrorists. It cited three incidents over the last eight months where large groups of al-Shabaab fighters overran three AMISOM bases seizing heavy weaponry at the bases.