Up to 500 special forces advisers will train Somali forces to combat growing threat of al-Shabaab militants, says White House

US army soldiers bolster the security of Manda Bay airfield, Kenya, after an attack by Somalia's al-Shabaab militants in 2020
Photograph: US Air Force/Reuters

The US will send up to 500 soldiers back on full-time deployment to Somalia, to train the country’s army to combat the increasing threat posed by al-Shabaab militants.

The White House insisted that the move, deepening the US long-term military commitment in an intractable foreign conflict, did not contradict Joe Biden’s overall policy of disengaging from “forever wars”, which underlay the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The decision does not affect overall deployments in the region, officials said on Monday, but replaces a rotating deployment with a “persistent” presence – longer tours by the same special forces soldiers. They argued the deployment should not be called permanent, as that implied the soldiers would be there forever.

The move marks a reversal of Donald Trump’s abrupt decision, in the last weeks of his presidency, to withdraw 750 US troops who had been stationed in Somalia until then. A senior administration official called Trump’s decision “irrational”.

“It was an abrupt and sudden transition to a rotational presence,” the official said. “Since then, al-Shabaab, the terrorist group in Somalia that is al-Qaida’s largest, wealthiest and deadliest affiliate, has unfortunately only grown stronger. It has increased the tempo of its attacks, including against US personnel.”

The official said that having a rotational presence had increased the security risks to US troops as they moved in and out of the country, and had disrupted the training of Somali forces by constantly changing the US trainers.

The White House said that the deployment would be “fewer than 500” soldiers. The New York Times reported that the cap would be 450. The aim will be to boost the capacity of Somali forces to disrupt al-Shabaab sufficiently so the group is not able to plot attacks against the US, such as the January 2020 assault on the American airbase at Manda Bay in Kenya.

That same month, US prosecutors charged a Kenyan national with involvement in an al-Shabaab plot to carry out a 9/11-style attack on a US city. The Kenyan had been trying to learn how to fly large planes in the Philippines when he was arrested.

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The Pentagon proposed the change some months ago, and Biden is reported to have approved the decision earlier this month, but the timing of the announcement was determined in part by the re-election by the country’s parliament on Sunday of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, ending months of uncertainty.

Outgoing president Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s term ended in February 2021 without an election. The protracted dispute that followed turned violent at times and caused divisions at the highest levels of government.

On Monday, the United Nations, the African Union, the EU and diplomats congratulated Mohamud and expressed hopes that his election would enable political reconciliation.

“This is someone with whom we are familiar given that he served as president 2012 to 2017,” the senior US official said. “Maybe even more importantly, I would say that across Somali leadership there is consistency in terms of support for collaboration on counter-terrorism.”

The official suggested the decision had taken time because of Biden’s caution over sending US troops into a conflict zone.

“He takes seriously his obligation to ask tough questions and to make sure he understands the full ramifications – the risks as well as the potential benefits,” the official said. “Once he worked through that process, once he had his questions answered, he was ultimately comfortable approving this proposal from the secretary of defence.”

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