The U.S. will reestablish a permanent troop presence in Somalia to counter the al-Shabab terrorist group, reversing a decision by former President Donald Trump to withdraw the roughly 750 special operations troops who were previously stationed there.
President Joe Biden approved a plan, presented to him by Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, that will draw on troops already stationed in neighboring countries to bolster U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Somalia, according to a senior administration official.
In total, fewer than 500 special operations forces will be based in Somalia, where they will continue to train local forces to counter al-Shabab, an al-Qaida affiliate that was responsible for a January 2020 attack on a military outpost in Kenya that killed three Americans.
Since then, the group has grown stronger and increased its attacks, including those against U.S. military personnel, the senior administration official said.
“We're concerned about the potential for al-Shabab’s upward battlefield and financial trajectory to generate more space for the group to plan and ultimately to execute external attacks. All that is to say, in a world in which we must prioritize how we approach global counterterrorism, al-Shabab is a notable priority given the threat it poses,” the official said.
The official characterized the move as a way to more efficiently conduct counterterrorism operations in Somalia. Currently, troops travel in and out of the country on a rotational basis that critics say is inefficient and dangerous.
During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in March, the head of U.S. Africa Command, Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, agreed with an assessment from lawmakers that Trump’s decision to remove troops from Somalia “increased risk and decreased effectiveness” of U.S. forces in the country.
With a troop presence, less time will be consumed by transit and transport logistics, thus allowing more time for U.S. troops to train Somali security forces and conduct operations themselves, the official said.
The U.S. has a long history of involvement in Somalia, where U.S. troops have played some role for the past three administrations. That role includes conducting air strikes inside the East African nation, a capability that the official said the U.S. will continue to maintain.