In his inaugural year in office, President Donald J. Trump presided over an unprecedented escalation of the U.S. counterterrorism war in Somalia. In 2017, he conducted twice as many operations in Somalia as had been conducted in any year since the start of the program. With this escalation and subsequent policy changes, he intensified a war that had persisted, though at a slower pace, since 2003, and which had killed more than 350 people before Trump took office.
The first recorded post-9/11 operation in Somalia occurred on March 19, 2003, under the Bush administration. It involved the capture and interrogation of Suleiman Abdallah and reflected the U.S. preference to detain, interrogate, and prosecute terrorists. American counterterrorism operations in Somalia have since expanded to include airstrikes, drone strikes, and ground raids to kill suspected terrorists.
New America calculates drone strikes that occur in short succession and in one location as one strike. However, since President Trump took office, the Pentagon reports multiple series of strikes that are not possible to verify individually. By the Pentagon’s estimates, Trump’s counterterrorism strikes exceed what is represented here.
The U.S. has a long history of military engagement in Somalia, extending back to the bloody 1993 Battle of Mogadishu—one of nine, in Somalia’s decades-long civil war. The blowback of this failed operation, most famously known as “Black Hawk Down,” resulted in a withdrawal of U.S. forces, which further destabilized Somalia, leaving an opening for the rise of local extremist groups.
In the absence of a central government, an Islamist militia called the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) emerged to institute order. Opposite this growing organization was the Transitional Federal Government and various tribes and individuals unwilling to cede power to the ICU.
Ethiopia, with American support, moved across the border into Somalia in 2006 to support the transitional government. The ICU splintered, leading to the emergence al-Shabaab, a jihadist group which would eventually publicly align with al Qaeda. The U.S. Department of State designated al-Shabaab a Foreign Terrorist Organization in February 2008. With the rise of al-Shabaab, what had been low-level targeting of high-level militant leaders escalated into a broader targeting of the new jihadist group. This escalation was aided by a shift from ground operations—often aimed at capturing militants—to drone strikes, which began in 2011.
In March 2017, President Trump approved a Department of Defense proposal to give the military even more latitude to conduct lethal operations in Somalia, designating parts of the country as “areas of active hostilities,” which, under Obama-era policy, effectively institutes “war-zone targeting rules,” despite the absence of a war declaration on Somalia. And in November 2017, the Trump administration authorized a strike on ISIS fighters in Somalia for the first time, expanding the targeted groups in the open-ended counterterrorism campaign.
Counterterrorism operations in Somalia have included a number of ground raids, setting Somalia apart from Yemen and Pakistan, where U.S. counterterrorism operations have mostly been limited to drone strikes. The U.S. conducted 12 counterterrorism operations in Somalia between the opening of the post-9/11 campaign and the expansion of the U.S. drone program to the country in 2011.
These operations were limited to ground raids—three across 2003 and 2004—until the United States began conducting airstrikes in 2007, which coincided with Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia. On January 7, 2007, an AC-130 war plane guided by surveillance from a Predator drone fired on al-Qaeda operatives involved in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. At least eight militants were reportedly killed in the operation, the first casualties of the U.S. counterterrorism campaign in Somalia.
On June 23, 2011, the Obama administration approved the first military drone strike on two al-Qaeda-linked operatives in Somalia. U.S. military officials had intelligence that Somalian militants were communicating frequently with militants in Yemen—where the drone program had already commenced in earnest.
As of late 2017, al-Shabaab has lost control of most cities, mostly due to an African Union offensive that pushed the group out of Mogadishu in 2011 and waves of U.S. strikes that decimated Shabaab leadership in 2008. However, it still operates training camps in many rural areas in the southern half of the country. The U.S. has twiced felled large numbers of Shabaab foot-soldiers at these camps. In March 2016, the U.S. conducted an operation several miles northwest of Mogadishu including drone and air strikes, killing approximately 150 fighters, according to officials. In November 2017, under a new administration, the Pentagon again conducted a large operation near the same location which killed more than 100 suspected Shabaab militants.