The US military launched another airstrike in southern Somalia against Shabaab, al Qaeda’s branch in East Africa, two days ago. The strike takes place as US and African Union backed Somali forces attempt to wrest territory held by Shabaab. US Africa Command recently estimated that Shabaab controls one quarter of Somalia’s territory.
The latest strike took place on April 9 “in the vicinity of Jilib” in southern Somalia, killing one Shabaab fighter and no civilians, AFRICOM noted in a press release.
Jilib is a known hotbed for Shabaab, and the US has launched nine airstrikes against the al Qaeda branch there since Oct. 2013, when a drone strike killed Anta Anta, who was described as the mastermind of al Shabab’s suicide missions. In March 2016, AFRICOM killed Hassan Ali Dhoore, a dual hatted al Qaeda and Shabaab leader who also served in the Amniyat, Shabaab’s intelligence and security service.
AFRICOM has recently come under criticism by Human Rights Watch for claiming that no civilians were killed in US airstrikes in the 111 airstrikes in Somalia that have taken place since the beginning of 2017. HRW claimed it found evidence of 14 civilian casualties. AFRICOM later confirmed two civilians were killed in a strike. AFRICOM’s sensitivity to the issue of civilian casualties can be seen in its latest press release.
Civilian casualties in Somalia are difficult to ascertain as many of the airstrikes take place in areas controlled by Shabaab. HRW admitted that it was unable to visit the location of the strikes to conduct a full investigation.
Shabaab currently controls 25 percent of Somalia, Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the head of AFRICOM, noted in mid-March. The uptick in US strikes over the past four years are designed to “degrade” Shabaab and help Somali forces retake control of Shabaab-held areas. Between 2012 and 2015, the US launched between one and three strikes a year. That number spiked to 15 in 2016, then jumped to 35 in 2017 (including four against the Islamic State), and 47 in 2018. There have already been 29 strikes in the first three and a half months of 2019.
Despite the uptick in strikes and increased offensive operations by Somali forces, Shabaab maintains a resilient insurgency. It continues to control a significant amount of territory in southern and central Somalia while continuing offensive operations. It has also launched effective attacks in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, including the targeting of senior government officials and a series of bombings against civilian and fortified installations.