The US’ decision to redeploy 500 troops to Somalia to help in the fight against militant Islamists is a clear sign of its support for new President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud.
The redeployment came after former US President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of the troops in December 2020 following years of strained relations with his predecessor Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo”, who was voted out of office by Somalia’s lawmakers.
The US considered him to be a failure both in terms of governance and the campaign against Islamist militant groups al-Shabab and the much smaller Somali branch of the Islamic State (IS) group.
The announcement of what US Africa Command (Africom), describes as a “small, persistent US military presence” will come as a relief to Somalis who have experienced a surge of Islamist attacks since their departure – and to the US troops in neighbouring Djibouti who went in and out of Somalia to fill the security vacuum created by Mr Trump’s decision.
According to The Africa Centre for Strategic Studies, the number of al-Shabab attacks rose from 1,771 to 2,072 in the year following the US pull-out, an increase of 17%.
The number of battles with the security forces went up by 32%. Last month, security officials said that about 450 al-Shabab fighters attacked an African Union base in southern Somalia, killing at least 40 Burundian soldiers.
United Nations experts have described al-Shabab as al-Qaeda’s most powerful and wealthy affiliate. They estimate it has as many as 12,000 fighters and an ability to raise a monthly revenue of about $10m (£8m).
“Having American troops back on the ground in Somalia will make a big difference,” says Samira Gaid, the executive director of the Hiraal Institute, a Mogadishu-based think tank focusing on security issues.
“It will not win the war but it will give the new administration space to set its security priorities.”
As well as training, advising and equipping what Africom describes as “partner forces”, the US military will have standing authority to target about a dozen al-Shabab leaders.
A previous campaign of US air strikes disrupted the group’s activities, preventing senior militants from moving around and making it more difficult for al-Shabab infantry to carry out big attacks.
Some are sceptical about the return of the US military, highlighting that ordinary people have become victims of US drone attacks.
“Civilians have been killed in US airstrikes,” says Halima Ahmed, a university student whose father was blown up in an al-Shabab suicide attack in September 2021.
“Cutting the head off the snake will only produce more snakes,” she says, in reference to targeted killings of militant leaders.
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