As soon as he took the oath of office on January 20, President Joe Biden secretly put a halt on drone strikes and airstrikes outside of the war zones of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. 

That move reversed the policy of the Trump administration that gave the power to military and CIA officials on the ground to combat terrorism. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama had instituted a halt on such airstrikes, requiring White House approval before airstrikes were approved. 

The Biden administration is placing the same suspension on airstrikes whereby they will first have to be approved by the White House, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said.

Kirby said this “interim guidance” was issued “to ensure that the president has full visibility on proposed significant actions.”

“It’s not meant to be permanent and it doesn’t mean a cessation [of strikes],” he said at a news conference.

“We are clearly focused on the persistent threat of violent extremist organizations. And we’re clearly still going to be committed to working with international partners to counter those threats,” he added in a statement. 

But for our Somali partners battling al-Shabaab terrorists, this halt on airstrikes has them worried that the al-Qaeda-aligned group, which has already been emboldened recently, will grow even more. 

“Lack of strikes mean al-Shabaab leaders will come out of hiding,” an unnamed senior Somali military commander, said to Voice Of America’s Somali Service.

“They will bring their battlewagons out. They will mount big guns on top of vehicles again. They will start to gather in large numbers again,” he said. “It will be detrimental not only to the security of Somalia but to the region if al-Shabaab were given [the] freedom to move around,” the Somali commander added.

The U.S. conducted 63 airstrikes on al-Shabaab in 2019, and 50 in 2020. During the first 19 days of 2021, seven more airstrikes were conducted against al-Shabaab leaders and troops. But since President Joe Biden took office the airstrikes have stopped. And this has Somali military leaders concerned. 

While the U.S. considers al-Shabaab one of the most dangerous terrorist groups, for its security, coming out of Africa, it has kept a small footprint in the country, with small groups of Special Operations Forces training the Somali Danab special operations force. Danab is doing the lion’s share of fighting against al-Shabaab, but it isn’t enough. 

An Inspector General’s report in November said that al-Shabaab, which has an estimated 10,000 fighters in Somalia and Kenya, has not been degraded. 

“Al-Shabab retains freedom of movement in many parts of southern Somalia and has demonstrated an ability and intent to attack outside of the country, including targeting U.S. interests,” the report stated. 

The UN has marked a concerning increase in al-Shabaab propaganda and in the group’s online presence aimed at enhancing recruitment and radicalization. 

Complicating the security situation was the removal of most of the 700 American troops from Somalia in January, which will also impact the further training of Danab units moving forward.

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But the Turkish military has stepped up its growing support and influence in Somalia. 

Recently, the Turkish military completed the training of a Somali unit in Turkey. On Monday, the unit returned to Somalia landing at the Adan Adde International Airport, according to a report by Somalian national television.

The troops will join the Gorgor (Eagle) Commando Brigade which is trained by the Turkish military. The Turks also train the Haramcad (Cheetah) Special Police Unit. Haramcad was recently accused of violently putting down an opposition rally protesting the national elections.

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