TSC IntelBrief: Terror in Africa
October 19, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front
• On October 14, Somalia suffered the worst terrorist attack in that country’s history when a truck bombing killed at least 320 people in Mogadishu.
• The U.S. has a robust military presence in Somalia working with local forces to target al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda affiliate believed to be behind the attack.
• On October 4, four elite U.S. soldiers from the 3rd Special Forces Group were killed in an ambush in Niger, where they were part of a long-standing CT mission.
• Across Africa, the U.S. is relying on small groups of Special Forces embedded with local forces to combat a growing terror threat.
The October 14 Mogadishu truck bombing that killed at least 320 people and wounded hundreds more was the worst terrorist attack in Somalia’s history — and a horrific reminder that progress and stability remain fleeting goals in that war-torn country. While no group has claimed responsibility for the bombing, officials believe it was the work of al-Shabaab, the terrorist-insurgent Somali group and al-Qaeda affiliate that has been waging a very bloody war against the Somali people for the past decade. Despite taking heavy losses from a sustained campaign supported by the U.S. military, al-Shabaab has killed or wounded more than 700 people in attacks in Mogadishu so far in 2017.
Since taking office, the Trump administration has increased the pace of operations against al-Shabaab. The U.S. has over 400 military personnel operating in and out of Somalia and drone strike restrictions have been relaxed in Somali areas classified for ‘active hostilities’, with at least 15 U.S. strikes so far in 2017. A larger military footprint can mean larger risks for U.S. troops on the ground — in May, a Navy SEAL was killed and three others wounded in combat alongside Somali troops, during a counterterrorism (CT) mission against al-Shabaab.
Somalia is far from the only African nation where the U.S. has a sizable and enduring military presence, as part of an overall CT strategy. In Niger, hundreds of U.S. military personnel are engaged in a multi-lateral CT mission, along with French troops and other forces. On October 4, four U.S. soldiers of the elite 3rd Special Forces Group were killed in an ambush 120 miles south of Niamey, Niger’s capital. The loss of four Delta operators is a huge blow to an elite community that is operating at an unprecedented pace while sustaining unprecedented losses. Casualties in the Special Operations Forces (SOF), a small portion of the U.S. military which incorporates all specialized units, including Special Forces (SF), accounted for over half of all U.S. military losses in 2016. The U.S. global CT mission is expanding, yet being fought by a small and shrinking percentage of U.S. troops.
While combat missions in Iraq and Syria have generated more headlines, the U.S. military presence in Africa has been slowly growing for years. AFRICOM, the combatant command focused on Africa established in 2008, is now a leading front for U.S. CT efforts, along with CENTCOM, which covers the Middle East. The U.S. military presence across Africa is no temporary surge, but rather an enduring strategy of training and advising local forces so they can better combat their respective insurgent and terrorist threats. Yet, as seen in Afghanistan and Iraq, such endeavors are often frustrated by endemic corruption and bad governance, along with natural disasters such as persistent drought. The almost unfathomable death toll in the October 14 Mogadishu bombing is a reminder of the fragility of progress, when it comes to countering terrorist and insurgent threats against civilian populations in Africa.
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