US airstrikes in Somalia on the rise

WASHINGTON (AP) — A spate of American airstrikes against Islamic extremists in Somalia is the latest in a dramatic uptick in U.S. attacks in the Horn of Africa nation since President Donald Trump took office.

The weekend strikes, which killed 62 people, targeted al-Shabab militants who want to establish their own version of repressive Shariah law in Somalia. A Somali intelligence officer told The Associated Press that the strikes on Gandarshe, a town along the Indian Ocean coast, were aimed at foiling a planned extremist attack.

The U.S. conducted 17 airstrikes in Somalia between 2007 and 2015, according to Bill Roggio of the Long War Journal who has tracked airstrikes in several countries for more than a decade. But those numbers have sharply escalated in recent years.

In 2016, the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency, the U.S. launched 15 strikes in Somalia. That number rose to 31 in 2017 and at least 45 this year.

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Al-Shabab once controlled large swathes of Somalia, including much of the capital, Mogadishu. African Union forces have succeeded in pushing the extremists from most major cities, however the group continues to be active in Somalia’s rural areas and still launches suicide car bomb attacks in the capital. Last year, a massive truck bomb killed more than 500 people.

There are between 3,000 and 7,000 al-Shabab militants in Somalia, along with up to 250 Islamic State group members.

The U.S. is targeting training camps and other sites to reduce al-Shabab’s the military capacity, said Roggio, who predicts the airstrikes in Somalia will continue at the current pace or increase.

“They are effective in keeping al-Shabab at bay, but not effective at defeating them — dealing them a decisive blow,” Roggio said.

The weekend strikes were aimed at al-Shabab fighters who were preparing a major attack on a Somali government military base in the Lower Shabelle region, said the intelligence official, who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the matter. The official said the airstrikes hit both a military camp and battle vehicles in Gandarshe. Al-Shabab has long used the historic town southwest of Mogadishu, as a place to organize and launch attacks, including car bombs that hit the capital.

The U.S. military said Monday it carried out four strikes on Dec. 15 in which 34 people were killed and two more on Dec. 16 which killed 28. No civilians were injured or killed in the attacks, U.S. military officials said.

The strikes were carried out in close coordination with Somalia’s government and were “conducted to prevent al-Shabab from using remote areas as a safe haven to plot, direct, inspire and recruit for future attacks,” said the U.S. military statement.

The strikes are part of the Trump administration’s strategy in Africa that addresses three core U.S. interests on the continent: advancing trade and commercial ties, making sure that money spent on U.S. aid is not wasteful and combating violence and Islamic extremism.

After decades of the U.S. largely leaving Somalis to work out their own problems, the Trump administration with its focus on counterterror operations has grown the number of U.S. military personnel in the country to an estimated 500. Two U.S. service members have been killed in Somalia since Trump took office, the first such deaths since 1993.

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Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor in Washington and Abdi Guled in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report.

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