WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is sending hundreds of U.S. troops to Somalia to help counter the extremist group al-Shabab, senior administration officials said, warning that the Al Qaeda affiliate has gained strength there since the U.S. withdrew its troops more than a year ago.
Approximately 500 U.S. troops will be deployed to Somalia from elsewhere in eastern Africa, keeping the total number of U.S. troops in the region the same. Officials did not disclose where they’ll be based or what kind of troops would be sent, but said Biden approved the deployment following a request from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
The long-expected decision reverses a move by former President Trump, in the waning days of his administration, to pull out the more than 700 U.S. military personnel who were stationed there on rotations. Since then, U.S. troops have occasionally traveled in and out of Somalia without maintaining an ongoing presence there.
White House National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said keeping U.S. troops in Somalia on an ongoing basis would help U.S. partners to better fight al-Shabab and the “heightened threat” the group poses to Americans in East Africa.
“The decision to reintroduce a persistent presence was made to maximize the safety and effectiveness of our forces and enable them to provide more efficient support to our partners,” Watson said.
Biden’s decision further commits the U.S. military to a global, far-reaching counterterrorism campaign, despite the president’s longstanding hopes of extricating the U.S. from “forever wars.”
Since the 9/11 attacks more than two decades ago, the U.S. has worked to counteract a long list of extremist groups, many of them linked to Al Qaeda, across the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Last year, Biden took a major step in the other direction by ending the two-decade U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, in a widely criticized and chaotic withdrawal.
Founded in 2006 with the goal of establishing an Islamic state, al-Shabab has periodically killed Americans in the region, including three U.S. personnel during a 2020 attack on a base in Kenya used by U.S. counterterrorism forces. Somalia for the past three decades has suffered various levels of lawlessness and political chaos, with al-Shabab at times controlling large swaths of the country.
“The situation in Somalia was deteriorating even before President Trump’s decision,” said Bill Roggio, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and editor of the think tank’s Long War Journal. “This is further evidence that the desire to end the so-called forever wars is good in theory, but reality kind of smacks you in the face.”
Biden’s move to send troops back to Somalia is intended to increase the safety and effectiveness of the U.S. special operators who have been moving in and out of the country episodically. One senior administration official briefing reporters said the shorter deployments had created efficiency challenges, including time wasted packing and unpacking equipment.
The rotational deployments are less risky and better position the U.S. military to succeed there, the official explained, saying that the reversal of Trump’s withdrawal “rationalizes an irrational decision” that the Biden administration inherited. Keeping troops there will also increase the security and freedom of movement for other personnel like State Department and USAID colleagues operating in the challenging and dangerous environment, the official said.
The decision also signals that the Biden administration views Somalia as a key area of focus for counterterrorism, the official said, describing al-Shabab as Al Qaeda’s largest and wealthiest global affiliate.
U.S. troops will be deployed to help build up the capacity of Somalia’s fledgling government and other partners to turn intelligence into operations and to try to dislodge al-Shabab, officials said. The Somali partners who work with the U.S. in the country conduct the vast majority of counterterrorism operations targeting al-Shabab.