The strike was carried out by military aircraft against al-Shabab fighters who were attacking members of the Danab, an elite American-trained Somali commando force, near the town of Galkayo in the country’s north, said a Pentagon spokesperson, Cindi King.
The Biden administration placed new limits on drone strikes outside active war zones when it took office on Jan. 20, to give it time to develop a permanent policy. The Trump administration set broad rules for strikes in particular countries and delegated authority to commanders in the field about when to carry them out, but proposals for strikes are now generally routed through the White House.
The White House has since rejected a handful of requests by the military’s Africa Command to carry out drone strikes against al-Shabab targets in Somalia because they did not meet the new standards. But in this case, King said, White House approval was not needed because the Africa Command has the authority to conduct strikes in support of allied forces under what the military calls collective self-defense.
Under orders from former President Donald Trump, most of the 700 U.S. troops based in Somalia to advise and assist Somali military and counterterrorism forces were withdrawn in the waning weeks of his administration, and sent to nearby Kenya and Djibouti.
King said the Danab commandos were being advised remotely by American trainers when they came under attack.
“There were no U.S. forces accompanying Somali forces during this operation,” King said in an email. “U.S. forces were conducting a remote advise-and-assist mission in support of designated Somali partner forces.”
Galkayo is a divided city that sits on a fault line between two major clans, and it is on a major smuggling route used by militants traveling between al-Shabab’s heartland in southern Somalia and the northern part of the country. The city has been a focus of al-Shabab interdiction efforts by the Danab and other Somali government forces.
King said fighting between al-Shabab and Somali forces was delaying the Africa Command’s assessment of the airstrike, the seventh overall this year against the militants, but the first since Jan. 19, the day before President Joe Biden’s inauguration.
The strike came as the Biden administration was considering whether to reverse the U.S. military withdrawal from Somalia that took place under Trump.
An interagency review, underway for several months, has not yet been completed, a U.S. official said. But under one option being considered, a smaller number of U.S. troops would be redeployed to military bases in southern Somalia, near the border with Kenya, where al-Shabab’s influence is strongest.
The option of continuing U.S. military operations from bases in northern Kenya — informally known as “over the horizon” — has grown less attractive in recent months since a diplomatic spat between Somalia and Kenya severed air links between the two countries for several weeks.
The Somalis and Kenyans are at odds over several issues, including ownership of a triangle of oil-rich waters in the Indian Ocean. In May, diplomats from Qatar mediated between the two countries and appeared to have reached a deal.
But soon relations plunged again, and Somalia suspended all flights from Kenya, including those involving U.S. military aircraft based at Manda Bay, in northern Kenya, which were positioned to carry out counterterrorism missions.
Air traffic has since resumed. But the U.S. official said American military planes had also been refused permission to cross into Somalia during the standoff — a hurdle that convinced military planners that they could not rely exclusively on bases in Kenya for their Somali operations.