IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Islamic State group's deputy leader in Somalia is killed in U.S. strike

American military involvement in the country has grown since President Donald Trump approved expanded operations against al-Shabab early in his term.

The deputy leader of the Islamic State group in Somalia was killed in an American airstrike, the U.S. military confirmed Monday.

"In coordination with the Federal Government of Somalia's continued efforts to degrade violent extremist organizations, U.S. Africa Command conducted an airstrike in the vicinity of Xiriiro, Bari Region, Somalia, on April 14, 2019, killing Abdulhakim Dhuqub, a high ranking ISIS-Somalia official," said spokesperson for the command said in a statement.

A witness told Reuters that a vehicle was hit by several missiles around 2 miles outside the village of Xiriiro in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland.

"Today's airstrike killed Abdulhakim Dhuqub, the deputy leader of Islamic State," Puntland's security minister, Abdisamad Mohamed Galan, told Reuters on Sunday.

According to the U.N., Dhuqub helped set up the first cell of al-Ittihad al-Islamiya, an ideological predecessor of al-Shabab, a militant group that seeks to establish its own version of repressive Shariah law and has been fighting the government in the Horn of Africa nation for over a decade.

He later defected to ISIS.

There are thought to be up to 250 ISIS members in Somalia, along with 3,000 to 7,000 al-Shabab fighters.

Matt Bryden, head of the Nairobi-based think tank Sahan Research, played down the significance of the killing because ISIS in Somalia is believed to have only a comparatively small force of militants.

"(If) you take into account that they've never done a large terror attack in several years of operation, you basically have a gang stuck out in the desert," he told Reuters. "Just because they are called ISIS, it doesn't make them an existential threat."

U.S. military involvement in Somalia has grown since President Donald Trump approved expanded operations against al-Shabab early in his term. Dozens of drone strikes followed.

Late in 2017, the military also carried out its first airstrike against a small presence of fighters linked to ISIS in northern Somalia.

Al-Shabab militants once controlled large swaths 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.

In January, two senior U.S. officials told NBC News that the military planned to scale back its role in Somalia and curtail airstrikes against al-Shabab after having taken out many of the group's senior operatives.

That was the latest signal that the Trump administration is looking to cut the number of U.S. troops deployed around the world.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed.