Just after New Year’s Day 2019, “two senior U.S. officials” told NBC News the U.S. was about to cut back its military activities in Somalia. The Trump administration, they said, has assessed that the Somali Islamist terrorist group al-Shabaab does not pose a direct danger to the United States, because American forces have killed so many of its leaders.
Coming on the heels of President Trump’s tweeted intentions to pull American forces out of Syria and Afghanistan, the logic of declaring victory and coming home seemed, if not convincing, at least consistent.
But the administration’s actions over the past six to eight weeks suggest that what was said to NBC News was either wishful thinking, or disinformation deliberately fed to one of President Trump’s un-favorite news organizations. Because, far from pulling out of Somalia, AFRICOM, the U.S. military’s African command has only further escalated the Trump administration’s acceleration of U.S. air attacks on Al Shabaab.
American air strikes in Somalia started under the George W. Bush administration in 2007 – I remember being the first to get confirmation of the attacks from Admiral Mike Mullen, who had just been appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Over the next eight years, 2007 to 2014, there were a total of 11 U.S. air strikes –a number matched in 2015 and surpassed with 14 in 2016. In 2017 President Donald Trump more than doubled the tempo of the air war with 35 missions, just one short of the total in Somalia for the previous 10 years.
The latest figures from AFRICOM counted 47 air attacks in 2018, and in the first 37 days of 2019, a dozen more. Within 48 hours, that total had added at least 3 missions, all of which, AFRICOM reported, killed Al Shabaab terrorists, but caused no civilian casualties.
Both the “terrorist” body count and the claimed perfect record for civilian protection are suspect because the claims are never checked – not by the Somali government. According to our guest, Nairobi-based freelance journalist Amanda Sperber, two former Somali security advisors told her the U.S. government also has no idea of the casualties. Lack of intelligence on the ground due to a lack of assets that speak any of the Somali languages, plus its security restrictions that keep most American personnel safely inside the “Green Zone,” keep the U.S. literally walled off from Somali reality.
Amanda Sperber is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi and Mogadishu. She has reported for Foreign Policy, The Intercept, and most recently, The Nation.