“Al Shabab has had more freedom to maneuver,” Maj. Gen. Dagvin R.M. Anderson, who commands American Special Operations forces in Africa, said in an interview. In recent Senate testimony, General Anderson called Al Shabab “the largest, wealthiest and most violent Al Qaeda-associated group in the world.”
Proponents of stepping up counterterrorism activities in Somalia say it is important for the United States to continue strikes on militants and to help train government forces to prevent their territory from becoming a haven for planning terrorist attacks. But some analysts expressed pessimism about what could be accomplished there, citing Somalia’s deep-seated political, economic and security problems.
“Absent a more comprehensive overhaul to the U.S. approach, neither military trainers nor drone strikes will be sufficient to change the trajectory of the conflict, which weighs heavily in Al Shabab’s favor,” said Tricia Bacon, a Somalia specialist at American University in Washington and a former counterterrorism analyst for the State Department.
“Unfortunately, there is no military solution to the conflict,” she said.
Under the Trump-era rules, the United States carried out 52 drone strikes in Somalia in 2020 and 63 the year before, almost all against Al Shabab with a handful of attacks against the Islamic State in Somalia. The military conducted six more strikes in the final days of the Trump administration, but it has not carried out any since Mr. Biden became president.
When the Biden administration imposed the new limits on such strikes, it initially envisioned devising a new set of rules for drone strikes as part of a 60-day review of counterterrorism policy. The talks have now extended for almost five months.
The delays have been driven by a number of factors, including uncertainty about how far away drones that can carry out strikes in Afghanistan will be based — where the new rules will also apply after American ground forces pull out — and competing priorities for the use of surveillance craft used to watch who is coming and going from a strike zone.
Policymakers are wrestling with questions like whether to tighten a requirement of “near certainty” that no civilians will be killed so that it always protects adult men, not just women and children. They are also considering whether a newly appointed leader of an Islamist militant group can be targeted based on his position alone and without knowing much else about that person, or whether more should be learned about his actions and intentions first.