Flashpoints

Record breaking US airstrikes pushing al-Shabab fighters into urban areas

A recent UN report said that record breaking airstrikes targeting al-Shabab militants in Somalia is forcing the group to move from rural areas to urban centers to mitigate American air power.

The report also detailed that improvised explosive attacks carried out by the al-Qaida-affiliated Islamic extremist group are up. From May 1, 2019 to Oct. 12, 3019, Shabab fighters carried out 99 IED attacks —which is an increase from the 83 carried out by the group during the same period in 2018, according to the UN.

The U.S. kicked off 2020 with a bang in Somalia launching nearly 14 airstrikes since the start of the new year putting the U.S. on pace for another record breaking year for airstrikes against militants in the country, according to figures provided by U.S. Africa Command.

In 2019, American warplanes launched 63 airstrikes. Air Force Maj. Karl Wiest, a spokesman for AFRICOM, told Military Times the airstrike totals in 2019 was a record for the command.

The punishing blows by American aircraft appear to have Shabab fighters attempting to alter tactics.

The urban environment will offer some degree of protection to the militant group, Michael Rubin, a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, told Military Times.

However, “al-Shabab has always sought out control of the cities for financial reasons; they make money by taxing commerce, issuing licenses and seek ultimately to run the ports, as they did before,” Rubin said.

Wiest said the strikes have hurt Shabab’s ability to plot and carry out attacks across East Africa and have impacted the “terrorists’ command and control, as well as their ability to mass and maneuver.”

“The purpose of these precision airstrikes, which are conducted in coordination with the Federal Government of Somalia, is to degrade the al-Qaida-aligned group’s ability to recruit, train, and plot terror attacks in Somalia and beyond,” Wiest said.

But Shabab still remains a potent threat in the region. In January, Army Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, the commander of AFRICOM, told lawmakers that al-Shabab “is most dangerous to U.S. interests today.”

In Sept. 2019, the jihadi group carried out a brazen raid on the Baledogle Military Airfield in Somalia which hosts American special operators and a Somali commando unit known as the Danab. Know American troops were killed or injured in the attack.

In January, al-Shabab launched a cross border raid into Kenya targeting the Manda Bay Airfield killing three Americans including a U.S. soldier.

But progress has been made against the terror group, U.S. military officials claim.

Officials with AFRICOM said in an IG report that Somali forces have had “limited success” combating al-Shabab and have repelled multiple attacks while maintaining control of key forward operating bases.

The UN reported that Somali-led offensives have led to the retaking of some towns formerly held by Shabab. But a recent Defense Department report detailed that Somali forces are struggling to maintain control of territory retaken from Shabab without international support.

“However, Al-Shabaab has shifted its presence to other locations while maintaining a significant capacity to attack recovered areas,” the UN report reads.

Wiest explained that the African Union Mission in Somalia, or AMISOM and Somali forces “have made gains in al-Shabaab strongholds in the south, holding territory and establishing outposts.”

“Gains are fragile to be sure, but still incremental progress is occurring with our partners leading the way,” he told Military Times.

“Airstrikes have a cost and they are certainly no panacea. But they also signal the failure of the Federal Government of Somalia to match the optimism that surrounded it just a few years ago,” Rubin said.

While al-Shabab remains a major spoiler in the region, the Pentagon is considering reducing some support to to counterterror missions across AFRICOM in an effort to redirect defense priorities towards near-peers like Russia and China.

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