On Tuesday, Somali National Army (SNA) forces killed eight al-Shabaab militants during a security operation in the southern region of Gedo, Somalia, a military source told the media.

Ali Mohamed Mohamoud, the commander of the Somali troops in the area, confirmed that the army had conducted an attack on al-Shabaab bases inflicting heavy casualties.

“Our forces destroyed many bases used by the militants and killed eight al-Shabaab fighters including the militants’ operational commander in Bardhere town named Zakarie Sheikh,” Mohamoud said.

On Saturday, Danab Special Forces troops captured three al-Shabaab members while they were preparing a vehicle with explosives for an attack in the Lower Shabelle in the al-Shabaab-held town of Toratorow. Al-Shabaab often uses Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devises (VBIEDs) to attack Somali troops, government officials, and civilians.

The U.S. and some EU members had gotten involved in Somalia and partnered with the Somali government and the Somali National Army (SNA) to defeat and drive al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab out of the country and keep it from sinking into chaos as so many other countries had.

The U.S. had funded, recruited, trained, and partnered with an SNA special operations force of about 1,000 soldiers, known as Danab (“lightning” in Somali). U.S. Army Green Berets have been training the Danab Special Forces unit. As a result, Danab operators have become the best trained, and equipped troops in the SNA. 

Danab, with the support of U.S. drone strikes, has liberated many of the area’s towns. Al-Shabaab’s control over the civilians is slowly being eroded. 

Somali Military captures strategic al-Shabaab stronghold

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Now the question that many Americans ask is why is the situation in Somalia is so important to the security of the United States and why is al-Shabaab considered a threat to the American homeland. Is it just more fluff from the U.S. government? 

Last month, President Trump ordered the troops in Somalia to be withdrawn. That was a hasty and ill-advised move taken in the context of the U.S. forces’ scaledown from counterterrorism wars in preparation for a near-peer conflict with China and Russia.

But the rationale behind the withdrawal from Somalia was short-sighted on a couple of points. 

Firstly, the entire operation had consisted of about 700 U.S. troops, most of whom were Special Operations Forces who were low-cost and low-risk but yielded a very high return. This was in contrast to the vast numbers of troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Secondly, the Somali government is still not in a position to successfully govern the country. Just as recently as about a decade ago, the Somali transitional government was weak and al-Shabaab ruled most of the countryside. Furthermore, the terrorist group had no problem finding recruits among the disenfranchised poor. 

Al-Qaeda-aligned terrorists had even set themselves up with a lucrative extortion racket that reached Mogadishu. Their tentacles had reached the port of Mogadishu, the parliament, and the entire government, including the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA). Their terror attacks and bombings have killed thousands in the past decade in both Somalia and the surrounding countries. But the group has set its sights on expanding its brand of terror much farther. 

General Stephen Townsend, the commander of AFRICOM has called al-Shabaab “the largest and most connectedly violent arm of al-Qaeda.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has frequently said the same. 

The third reason why the U.S. withdrawal from Somalia was impolitic is reflected in the attention-grabbing comments of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley. The general had said back in December that al-Shabaab “could if left unattended conduct operations against not only U.S. interests in the region, but also against the homeland.” 

Somali Army kills 17 al-Shabaab terrorists in fierce firefight

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After an attack on an American base in Kenya that killed three Americans last January, the government was put on notice. General Milley’s comments weren’t fluffing when in mid-December, the United States extradited an al-Shabaab member from the Philippines, where he was in training “to hijack aircraft in order to conduct a 9/11-style attack in the United States.” This was an operation funded and overseen by al-Shabaab. 

Today, al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab are far from defeated and remain entrenched in Somalia. Therefore, to withdraw our troops and support from Somalia at this sensitive juncture could have disastrous results.

By shutting down our operations in Somalia and refocusing on a great power struggle with China and Russia, we are essentially ignoring what is already happening in Africa. With thousands of miles of coastline that run along busy sea lanes, the coasts of Somalia are of strategic importance in the region. China was checked by the large U.S. presence in Somalia and thus built its first overseas base in nearby Djibouti. But with the U.S. withdrawing from the country, the door opens not only for al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab but also for China and Russia to move in and exert their influence.

The small footprint of Special Operations Forces can help the SNA defeat al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda militarily. Nevertheless, simply keeping troops on the ground — while, necessary to ensure the security of the country at the present — cannot be the only answer. Politically, the State Department needs to be proactive and not just throw money straight into the hands of government officials, which only leads to corruption. It needs to set proper goals and ensure that the Somali government is held accountable. Furthermore, SNA and U.S. troops need to work in conjunction with USAID to uproot the causes that cause instability and promote terrorist recruitment in the first place. 

In conclusion, the SNA and the Danab are in need of our help. By helping them we will be helping ourselves — and it won’t require massive numbers of conventional boots on the ground.

The great power competition isn’t thousands of miles away, it is already right there on the African doorstep.