WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is weighing a request by Somalia that the United States loosen restrictions on its military drone strikes targeting Shabab militants in the troubled Horn of Africa nation, according to several U.S. officials.
The request comes as a new Somali administration has launched an offensive against Al Shabab, with several local clan militias joining the central government’s fight. President Biden also recently redeployed 450 U.S. troops to Somalia, reversing former President Donald J. Trump’s abrupt withdrawal in January 2021.
But the Somali government wants U.S. military operators to be able to attack groups of Shabab militants who might pose a threat to Somali forces — even if they are not firing upon them at the moment, the officials said. Such a move would further escalate American involvement in the long-running counterterrorism war.
In May, Somalia elected a new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who also held the role from 2012 to 2017. Since returning to office, he has made pushing back Al Shabab a top priority. He has ordered Somalia’s fledgling national army to go on the offensive in the countryside, is planning for the delivery of services to stabilize areas that have been newly liberated and is trying to forge stronger partnerships with both clan leaders and international allies.
At the same time, local clan militias in the Hiran region of Hirshabelle State, in central Somalia, are fighting Al Shabab ferociously after turning against them over their heavy-handed rule and taxation. The Somali government has been resupplying the militias with ammunition and other aid.
Some U.S. officials are hoping that the long-troubled country may be turning a corner. Others are more skeptical that Mr. Mohamud will be able to sustain the current “honeymoon” period, as one official described it, given Somalia’s history of dysfunction, the limited capacity of its central government, the extraordinary complexities of its clan dynamics and a drought-driven famine.
This article is based on interviews with more than half a dozen U.S. military, diplomatic and administration officials, along with several Somali officials and people with humanitarian and policy organizations focused on Somalia. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic and military matters; several declined to talk about the request for expanded strikes, although none denied that it had been made.
In a statement, Adrienne Watson, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, emphasized that the United States was trying to bolster stability in Somalia and counter Al Shabab not just through military force but by building the Somali government’s capacity and addressing humanitarian needs.
“As a part of this holistic approach, the U.S. military works to train and support Somali partners who are catalyzing offensive action against Al Shabab, while judiciously applying high-end capacity only to disrupt the most serious threats,” she said.
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Somalia is now the center of the U.S. counterterrorism drone war. The military has justified most of its strikes there as the “collective self-defense” of Somali partner forces who have sometimes needed bailing out as they stepped up offensive operations against Al Shabab. That includes a Sept. 18 strike that the military said killed 27 militants.
The Pentagon’s Africa Command announced this week that the latest strike took place on Sunday and killed two militants, bringing the total number of known U.S. drone attacks in the country this year to 11. The command categorized 10 of those as collective self-defense. The 11th, on Oct. 1, apparently killed a senior Shabab leader, Abdullah Nadir, who was on a list of about a dozen Mr. Biden had approved targeting of if the military located them.
Mr. Biden recently signed a policy governing drone strikes outside war zones that requires presidential approval to target specific militants. The policy covers Somalia, but it exempts self-defense strikes from the centralized vetting requirement.
The Somali request, described by officials on the condition of anonymity, is said to ask the United States to more broadly define what can count as a collective self-defense strike. It could also be interpreted as asking to deem certain parts of Somalia as a war zone, where it is permissible to target members of an enemy force based only on their status, even if they pose no imminent threat.
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The request was still being evaluated, the officials said, and the Pentagon had not yet formally presented it to the White House with any accompanying policy recommendation. Several officials said it was likely to face sharp scrutiny in the interagency review process.
The reinvigorated American military presence in Somalia stands in contrast to Mr. Biden’s decision last year to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, which he justified in part by saying that “it is time to end the forever war.”
The United States is one of several countries advising and assisting the Somali government in its fight against Al Shabab. Members of the African Union have about 18,000 peacekeeping forces in Somalia. Turkey, the European Union, Britain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt are also involved.
Biden administration officials have justified the continued U.S. role in fighting Al Shabab by describing the group as the deadliest and wealthiest of Al Qaeda’s global branches. Intelligence officials estimate that Al Shabab has roughly 7,000 to 12,000 members and annual income — including from taxing or extorting civilians — of about $120 million.
In January 2020, Al Shabab attacked an air base at Manda Bay, Kenya, killing three Americans. That December, prosecutors in Manhattan charged a man accused of being a Shabab operative from Kenya with plotting a Sept. 11-style attack on an American city. He had been arrested in the Philippines as he trained to fly planes.
Some analysts are wary of continuing to carry out U.S. military strikes and training Somali security forces, saying that the approach has not weakened Al Shabab over the past decade.
“The U.S. military can only help tip the scales if there is a collective focus on reconciliation and a recognition by all actors that Al Shabab will not be defeated militarily,” said Sarah Harrison, a former Pentagon lawyer who is now a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group and the lead author of a coming report on U.S. policy in Somalia.
But in interviews, a range of senior military, diplomatic and national security officials described the moment as one of cautious optimism for weakening Al Shabab. Tricia Bacon, a Somalia specialist at American University in Washington and a former counterterrorism analyst for the State Department, echoed those views.
“The drone strikes undoubtedly add pressure and, besides local community revolts, are one of the few things Al Shabab fears,” she said. But she added, “This may be yet another instance of Al Shabab being pushed out of places, only for the government to fail to perform in those places or local community forces becoming predatory.”
Since returning to power this year, Mr. Mohamud has vowed to eject Al Shabab from areas it has controlled for years. In speeches on television, in mosques and in public halls, he has called on Somalis to join the offensive.
“Somalia will triumph over the enemy that has wrongfully devastated the country, its people and its religion,” Mr. Mohamud said in a recent video posted on Twitter.
His administration is trying to clamp down on the group’s access to mainstream banking services and to capitalize on the uprising by local militias against Al Shabab. Known as ma’awisley, these groups have liberated dozens of villages in central Somalia and killed hundreds of Shabab fighters.
Somali and U.S. officials hope the movement could be the start of a broader clan uprising against Al Shabab, which gained strength in recent years amid widespread grievances with the government over corruption, internecine political battles and failures to deliver basic services.
“These clan militias are the closest on the ground and have the most motivation to support the government,” said Samira Gaid, the executive director of Hiraal Institute, a research center in Mogadishu, the Somali capital. “Their momentum could be decisive.”
While a handful of other clan militias have since joined the ma’awisley movement, for now the prospect that it will spread widely remains aspirational. Al Shabab is moving to repair relations with other local clan leaders, officials say, while punishing the rebellious ones — including by blowing up wells and cellphone towers and killing civilians. The likelihood of a new round of famine is adding to the uncertainty.
The ferocity of the militias is also reason for caution, officials say. In the short term, it raises the prospect of pushing Al Shabab out of contested territory. But in the longer term, if they become too strong, they could produce a new era of warlordism.
Two recent episodes in the Hiran region illustrate the precariousness of that balance.
After a battle last month, one militia beheaded some captured Shabab militants. This month, the regional governor of Hiran, Ali Jeyte, delivered a fiery televised speech that announced bounties to people who kill Shabab militants — offering to pay for “their hanging heads or testicles” — and called for killing their wives.
In an interview, Hussein Sheikh-Ali, the Somali national security adviser, called the beheadings a mistake and said the national government had asked the militia to stop committing such acts. He also said Mogadishu was contacting the regional governor and other influential figures in Hiran to dissuade attacks on civilian relatives of Shabab members.
“The families of these militants are not free, and we want them to surrender and come to us,” he said, adding, “It is not government policy to kill civilians, and we discourage them.”
Charlie Savage and Eric Schmitt reported from Washington, and Abdi Latif Dahir from Nairobi, Kenya. Declan Walsh contributed reporting from Nairobi.