In Washington, the Pentagon announced Thursday that President Donald Trump has given it more authority to launch airstrikes in Somalia to attack al-Shabab.
The Pentagon said Trump approved a request for additional precision airstrikes in Somalia to help African Union and Somali ground troops “increase pressure” on al-Shabab and to deny the terrorists safe havens from which to attack U.S. citizens or interests in the region.
General Thomas Waldhauser, head of the U.S. Africa Command, had said earlier that it would be “helpful” for American forces to have more flexibility and timeliness when deciding whether to launch an attack.
The Somali government has so far declined to comment on the U.S. announcement.
Laetitia Bader, a Human Rights Watch researcher for Somalia, urged caution in identifying targets for strikes, in light of the ongoing drought.
“This is going to be particularly key at a time where we know that there is massive displacement of civilians right now. We are talking about thousands of individuals on the move trying to get access to urban areas in order to find international humanitarian assistance,” said Bader.
Analysts also express concern that local rivalries in Somalia can muddy intelligence.
In September of last year, officials in the Mudug region said a U.S. airstrike aimed at al-Shabab instead targeted a militia allied with the Somali government. The local administration accused authorities in the semi-autonomous Puntland region of providing false intelligence that led the deaths of their fighters.
Al-Shabab has kept up a steady string of suicide attacks and bombings in Somalia, despite the fact that Somali and African Union troops have recaptured much of the group’s former territory.
Abdullahi Halakhe, a Horn of Africa security analyst, said al-Shabab’s reduced state may present a challenge for future airstrikes, in particular when it comes to preventing civilian casualties.
“They are not anywhere near where they were in the middle of this decade. They have lost some of their top leadership to the American drones, AMISOM on the land and from the sea. They have really turned themselves into a guerilla outfit that that lives within the people.”
Somalia’s new president has made security a top priority, pledging to build up the national army in the hope that it can take charge when the African Union mission comes to an end, possibly some time next year.