WASHINGTON — President Biden has signed an order authorizing the military to redeploy hundreds of special operations forces inside Somalia — largely reversing President Donald J. Trump’s decision to withdraw the quasi- all of the 700 ground troops stationed there, according to four officials familiar with the matter.
In addition, Mr. Biden has approved a request from the Pentagon for permanent authorization to target a dozen suspected leaders of Al Shabab, the Somali terror group affiliated with al-Qaeda, three of the officials said. Since Mr. Biden took office, airstrikes have largely been limited to those intended to defend partner forces facing an immediate threat.
Together, Mr. Biden’s decisions, described by the officials on condition of anonymity, will reinvigorate an open-ended U.S. counterterrorism operation that has morphed into a slow-moving war across three administrations. The move contrasts with his decision last year to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan, saying “it’s time to end the eternal war”.
Mr. Biden approved Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III’s proposal in early May, officials said. In a statement, Adrienne Watson, spokesperson for the National Security Council, acknowledged the decision, saying it would allow “a more effective fight against Al Shabab”.
“The decision to reintroduce a persistent presence was made to maximize the security and effectiveness of our forces and enable them to provide more effective support to our partners,” she said.
Ms Watson did not say how many troops the army would deploy. But two people familiar with the matter said the figure would be capped at around 450. This will replace a system in which US troops training and advising Somali and African Union forces have made short stints since Mr Trump published what Ms Watson described as a “hasty decision to stand down”.
The Biden administration’s strategy in Somalia is to try to reduce the threat from al Shabab by removing its ability to plan and carry out complicated operations, a senior administration official said. These include a deadly attack on a US airbase in Manda Bay, Kenya in January 2020.
In particular, the official said, targeting a small group of leaders — particularly those suspected of playing a role in developing conspiracies outside Somalia’s borders or having special skills — aims to reduce “ the threat to a tolerable level”.
Asked to reconcile a return to a heavier engagement in Somalia with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, following a deal Mr. Trump struck with the Taliban, the senior administration official argued that the two countries presented very different complexities.
On the one hand, the official said, the Taliban has not expressed an intention to attack 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 greater threat, the administration concluded that more direct engagement in Somalia made sense, the official said. The strategy would focus on disrupting a few Shabab leaders who are seen as a direct danger to “us, our interests and our allies”, and maintaining “a very carefully framed presence on the ground to be able to work with our partners”. .
Intelligence officials estimate that Al Shabab has around 5,000 to 10,000 members; the group, which formally pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2012, has sought to impose its extremist version of Islam on the chaotic Horn of Africa country.
While Al Shabab primarily fights inside Somalia and only occasionally attacks neighboring countries, some members harbor ambitions to strike at the United States. In December 2020, Manhattan prosecutors charged an accused member of Kenya’s Shabab with plotting a 9/11-style attack on a US city. He had been arrested in the Philippines while training to fly planes.
Biden’s decision follows months of interagency deliberations led by the White House’s top counterterrorism adviser, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, on whether to accept the Pentagon’s plan, maintain the status quo or scale back. further engagement in Somalia.
Assessing those options, Sherwood-Randall and other senior security officials visited Somalia as well as neighboring Kenya and Djibouti, both of which host US forces, in October.
The administration’s deliberations on whether and how to return more vigorously to Somalia have been complicated by the political chaos there, as factions of its fledgling government have clashed and elections have been delayed. But Somalia recently elected a new parliament, and over the weekend leaders chose a new president, deciding to return Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who ruled the country from 2012 to 2017, to power.
A senior official entering Mr. Mohamud’s team hailed the steps taken by the Biden administration.
They were both timely and a step in the right direction as they coincided “with the swearing in of the newly elected president who would plan his offensive against Al Shabab”, the official said.
For months, US commanders have warned that the short-term training missions US special operations forces have carried out in Somalia since Mr Trump withdrew most US troops in January 2021 have not gone well. worked. The morale and capacity of partner units has eroded, they say.
On each eight-week cycle, the senior administration official said, U.S. trainers spend about three unengaged with partner forces because the Americans weren’t in Somalia or focused on transit — and the outward journey. -back was the most dangerous part. Other officials have also called the rotation in and out system, rather than being constantly deployed there, expensive and inefficient.
“Our periodic engagement — also known as commuting — has caused new challenges and risks for our troops,” Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, head of the Pentagon’s Africa Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March. “My assessment is that it is not effective.”
Intelligence officials have raised growing concern about al Shabab in recent years as it has expanded its territory into Somalia. During its last year in office, the Obama administration considered Al Shabab to be part of the armed conflict authorized by the United States against the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks.
That pause was only supposed to take a few months while the Biden administration reviewed how the targeting rules worked under the Trump and Obama administrations and devised its own. But even though he has largely completed a proposed replacement described as a hybrid between the previous two iterations, final approval of it is stalled amid competing national security policy issues.
The army, for its part, tried to continue to train, advise and assist Somali and African Union forces without a persistent presence on the ground, but gradually increased the length of shorter stays. During a visit to Somalia in February, General Townsend warned of the threat Al Shabab posed to the region.
“Al Shabab remains al-Qaeda’s largest, wealthiest and deadliest affiliate, responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent people, including Americans,” he said. “Disrupting Al Shabab’s malign intentions requires Somali leadership and continued support from Djibouti, Kenya, the United States and other members of the international community.
Abdi Latif Dahir contributed reporting from Nairobi.