The U.S. military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) is seeking permission to extend its authority in order to carry out armed drone strikes against al-Shabaab in some parts of eastern Kenya, according to the NY Times.
This move is designed to give AFRICOM more flexibility in hitting the terrorist group whenever it advances from its enclaves in Somalia. The details are still being worked out but the request will have to be approved by Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and then President Trump.
The push for the extended authorities is seen as a response to the deadly al-Shabaab attack in January of this year. The attack occurred at Camp Simba, which houses 200 troops and 100 U.S. contractors, as well as Kenyan troops. The attack left three Americans dead and damaged aircraft and property worth millions of dollars. Camp Simba is located in Lamu County in eastern Kenya close to Somalia.
After the attack, the U.S. obtained authority for a drone strike and tried to track al-Shabaab so it could counterattack. But the group escaped and safely made it back to Somalia.
AFRICOM recognized, after the incident, that it lacked the guidelines to conduct drone strikes in Kenya if any al-Shabaab fighters again crossed into Kenyan territory.
The Trump administration has relaxed the more stringent limits on drone strikes put down by the Obama administration. Nevertheless, the Pentagon has been seeking more flexibility to conduct drone strikes.
According to the draft guidelines, drone strikes would be authorized in self-defense of American troops or collective self-defense of partnered Kenyan forces but also for offensive purposes intended to preempt a suspected threat.
The draft plan contains some limitations regarding the use of drone strikes. Specifically, the U.S. will be permitted to conduct strikes only in Kenya’s eastern counties of Lamu and Garissa near the border with Somalia.
AFRICOM spokesman Colonel Christopher Karns declined to directly confirm details. “AFRICOM certainly recognizes the need to apply consistent international pressure on al-Shabab and to monitor their activity, presence, and actively confront them in order to prevent their spread,” he said. “This can take several forms.”
Since Kenya has a stable government and an able defense force, U.S. officials don’t expect a scenario whereby they’ll be conducting many, if any at all, drone strikes in Kenyan territory.
Also, unlike its agreement with Somalia, the U.S. government will have to obtain consent from Kenyan authorities before launching any drone strike. In contrast, the Somalian provisional government has given the U.S. blanket permission to carry out airstrikes wherever it deems necessary.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta visited Washington D.C. back in February. He requested from President Trump additional counterterrorism assistance, including “armed aerial support” to help combat al-Shabaab. This includes the use of drones.
Although the draft guidelines are seemingly designed to protect American lives, some members of Congress are saying that the administration is cutting them out of the loop.
“We need to do whatever’s necessary to defend American lives and interests, but that doesn’t require starting a drone war in Kenya without consulting Congress and using a war authorization that’s two decades old,” Representative Eliot L. Engel, (D-NY), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in referring to the 2001 authorization enacted by Congress in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks by al-Qaeda.
Al-Shabaab has increased its attacks in 2020 inside and outside of Somalia; it has threatened more attacks against Americans.
Last week, Major General Dagvin Anderson, the commander of the Special Operations Command Africa said, while speaking at a virtual security conference, that al-Shabaab fighters have created “a de facto safe haven” in the Juba River valley. There, certain factors prevent American troops from hunting them down, he said.
“What that has allowed them to do is develop their planning, develop their finance, develop their media operations there to a high degree,” MG Anderson added.