U.S. President Joe Biden has authorized a deployment of fewer than 500 troops to the East African nation of Somalia to conduct operations against the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab insurgent group, a White House official said Monday, in a reversal of a Trump-era decision to withdraw the forces.
"President Biden has approved a request from the Department of Defense to reposition U.S. forces in East Africa in order to reestablish a small, persistent U.S military presence in Somalia," a senior administration official told journalists. He said the troops would come from nearby bases on the African continent. Camp Lemonnier, in nearby Djibouti, is the primary base of operations for U.S. Africa Command in the region.
Before the withdrawal, the U.S. kept some 700 troops in the African nation, which has struggled with violence and instability since a 1991 coup devolved into a cycle of brutal conflict involving rival clan leaders. The insurgent group surfaced in 2006, pledging to bring stability by instituting its strict interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic, law. It has since grown and conducted strikes outside of Somalia, including in Kenya and Uganda.
The White House said the U.S. Department of Defense made the request to Biden, after more than a year of having troops rotate into Somalia. Defense officials argued that plan posed challenges to those troops' safety and effectiveness.
"We've spent the past year plus since the last administration's decision, moving in and out of Somalia episodically, to try to help with counterterrorism there," the official said, adding, "That rotational presence with which we were left created a very real force protection risk."
It was not clear whether Somalia's new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who was elected to the post on Sunday, made this request. The U.S. official added that the new stance includes diplomatic efforts, security assistance to Somali forces and capacity building for the Somali government, which has been plagued by political infighting, violence and instability.
"We're concerned about the potential for al-Shabab's upward battlefield and financial trajectory to generate more space for the group to plan and ultimately to execute external attacks," the administration official said. "All that is to say, in a world in which we must prioritize how we approach global counterterrorism, al-Shabab is a notable priority given the threat it poses."
The official declined to say where the troops would be positioned, what branch of the U.S. military they would come from, or which members of al-Shabab they might target. When asked how long this operation would last, he did not specify.
"We don't plan to be there forever," he said.