First U.S. Airstrikes on Islamic State in Somalia

The U.S. conducted its first airstrikes against Islamic State in northeastern Somalia killing several terrorists on November 3rd.

The first strike occurred at approximately midnight local Somali time and the second strike occurred separately at approximately 11 a.m. local time. While the U.S. said it was still assessing the results of the strikes, several missiles hit a base for IS fighters at Buqa village, 60 kilometers south of Qandala.

On November 4th, the U.S. diplomatic mission in Somalia directed all non-essential staff to leave the capital Mogadishu, saying it had received a threat on U.S. personnel on the Mogadishu International Airport. The State Department also urged U.S. citizens who decide to remain in Somalia to be vigilant.

The U.S. hasn’t had an embassy in Somalia since 1991 and calls the security situation “extremely unstable” but maintains the U.S. Mission to Somalia which is based in Kenya.

The Islamic State in Somalia is led by Sheikh Abdulkadir Mumin, who was a former al-Shabaab official before defecting to pledge allegiance to Islamic State in 2015. In October 2016, IS briefly seized Qandala before they were driven out by Puntland’s government two months later.

The group is largely based in the Golis and Bari mountains of northern Somalia. In May, IS claimed responsibility for a suicide attack in northern Somalia in an attempt to vie with al-Shabaab for recognition. The suicide bomber blew himself up at a police checkpoint, killing 5 civilians and wounding 12.

Reports from Somalia suggest IS has been recruiting members in the region since it became active in 2015, but the scale of its activities is far smaller than that of al-Shabaab.

Islamic State lags behind Al-Shabaab, Somalia’s main Islamist group, in terms of size and influence in the country. Al-Shabaab, which has ties to Al-Qaeda, has carried out dozens of bombings this year, and is believed to have carried out the double truck bombing on October 17th which killed 358 civilians.

The leadership of IS in the Middle East has attempted to get Al-Shabaab to switch allegiances but Al-Shabaab’s chiefs have rejected the advances, threatening to hunt down and kill any members who defect or seek to defect to the Islamic State.

Prior U.S. airstrikes in Somalia have focused exclusively on al-Shabaab, with 15 recorded strikes in 2017. This was the first time the U.S. struck IS in Somalia.

In March, President Trump approved enhanced authority for U.S. forces to target al-Shabaab, and other insurgent groups operating in Somalia in offensive strikes.

The strikes on IS may suggest that the U.S. is further expanding its counterterrorism efforts in Somalia, focusing on groups other than al-Shabaab. The U.S. has not established a plan though to further counter the terrorism in Somalia.

U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) says it will continue to use all authorized and appropriate measures to disable terrorist threats, working with the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali National Security Forces (SNSF) to target terrorists, their training camps and safe havens throughout Somalia, the region and around the world.