The move reverses an order by President Donald Trump 18 months ago to remove all U.S. military forces from the country over the objections of Pentagon officials. Before then, about 700 American troops had been stationed in the country, helping to train local forces in their fight against terrorist groups.
White House officials said that President Joe Biden made the move to “re-establish a persistent U.S. military presence in Somalia” in response to concerns about the growing strength of al-Shabab in the region, along with other threats affiliated with al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
The mission will include both training friendly Somali forces to combat the terrorist groups and assist on operations “to try and dislodge Shabab from what is a significant amount of territory that it purports to govern and hold.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin requested the move as a way to build on U.S. military airstrikes in the region “to increase the safety and effectiveness of our special operators,” a senior administration official said.
Even after the Trump order, U.S. forces continued deploying to Somalia for short rotations to train and facilitate counter-terrorism operations.
But military leaders have categorized those restrictions as problematic.
In testimony before the Senate in March, Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, head of U.S. Africa Command, called the current arrangement “not effective.”
“It’s not efficient, and it puts our troops at greater risk,” Townsend said.
Administration officials would not say how many troops will be deployed, but said it will be fewer than 500. They also did not specify which units will be sent, but said the personnel would come “from U.S. forces that are already generally stationed in that region of Africa.”
The senior administration official also emphasized that the move “will not change the scope of the mission that our special operators have conducted in Somalia … and also will not significantly change the Defense Department’s overall posture and resource dedication in East Africa.”
Al-Shabab fighters have killed at least 12 Americans in East Africa in recent years, including three defense contractors during an attack on a military site in Kenya in 2020.
White House officials said the group has also focused efforts in recent years to plan attacks outside of Africa against western targets, underscoring the need to counter the group’s ambitions as soon as possible.
The move comes a day after Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who served as Somalia’s president between 2012 and 2017, was announced on Sunday as the winner of the country’s most recent presidential election. U.S. officials described him as “consistent” in his opposition to the terrorist groups in the region.