Increased US targeting of al-Shabab in Somalia will sustain high threat to Western interests
Washington granted US forces in Somalia the authority to carry out pre-emptive airstrikes and raids against al-Shabab for at least the next 180 days, on 30 March. The changes lift restrictions that previously prevented the US troops from using airstrikes unless they, or partnered African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali security forces, were in the process of being targeted. However, the relaxed rules will not apply in Mogadishu.
Al-Shabab has exploited internal challenges within AMISOM to rebuild its strength, and is now able to carry out regular attacks in the capital. For example, it claimed responsibility for a car bombing that killed six near the Presidential Palace on 21 March, hours after Prime Minister Khayre named his new Cabinet. Mortar attacks around the Presidential compound then injured seven people on 30 March, during the Cabinet’s first meeting. Such attacks will hinder the Government’s efforts to expand control beyond Mogadishu, and so support al-Shabab’s goal of regaining territory lost to AMISOM troops. The US is concerned by this possibility, and President Trump likely eased the targeting restrictions to try to prevent further al-Shabab gains.
Washington will also increase airstrikes against al-Shabab in support of Trump’s agenda to pursue more aggressive action against jihadists globally. The US will hope to decrease the al-Qaeda affiliated group’s strength, particularly since high-profile al-Shabab attacks have the potential to trigger increased Islamic State (IS) violence in the region, as the groups compete for support. IS’s affiliates are primarily based in Puntland, so the group’s ability to operate in Mogadishu is limited. However, IS’s Amaq news agency claimed an attack on a Somali intelligence officer in the capital on 27 March. The targeting is consistent with IS affiliates’ past attacks against security forces in the capital, and we therefore believe the claim is credible. This suggests IS has some capabilities in the area, and its intention to carry out attacks may indeed rise in response to increasing al-Shabab activity.
Al-Shabab continued to operate after its leader was killed by a 2014 US airstrike, suggesting that it will remain able to carry out attacks at a high tempo across Somalia in the coming months, even if Washington’s increased involvement means larger numbers of senior commanders are killed. Greater US involvement will also incentivise further violence against Western interests in the country. Most foreign representatives are based inside the perimeter of Aden Adde International Airport, and al-Shabab may look to target the facility, having last struck it in January.
The group may also seek to place bombs on aircraft flying from Mogadishu in an effort to undermine foreign commitment to Somalia’s security. Our 22 March Special Report noted that al-Qaeda’s desire to attack high profile aviation-linked targets could rise as US pressure on it intensifies. Indeed, flights to countries contributing AMISOM troops, including Kenya, which resumed direct flights between Nairobi and Mogadishu on 29 March after an eleven year ban, are likely to face the greatest threat.