A U.S. Navy SEAL was killed and two other troops were wounded during a firefight in Somalia on Friday, marking the latest casualties in President Donald Trump’s ramped-up fight against terrorists in Africa and the Middle East.
The incident marks the fourth combat death of a U.S. service member this week — in three separate countries — after two Army Rangers were killed in Afghanistan battling the Islamic State, and another soldier was killed by an “explosive device” near Mosul, Iraq.
The SEAL’s death is the first American combat death in Somalia since 1993. A Defense Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed the casualties to Foreign Policy.
The objective of the mission was to kill or capture militants from the al Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab group who had previously conducted assaults against Somali and American targets, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said. It began when American helicopters ferried the Somali and U.S. special operations forces to a site near a compound housing the militants in northeastern Somalia, when they were attacked soon after leaving the aircraft.
While the Americans were on what the Pentagon calls an “advise and assist” mission — meaning they hold back near the intended target to allow local forces to proceed — they were caught up in the fight and were able to assist in “eliminating the targets,” Davis said. It appears the fight was entirely on the ground, and no U.S. aircraft dropped munitions during the exchange. “This was a Somali mission,” Davis said. “We were in support.”
The incident comes just weeks after the Trump administration designated parts of Somalia an “area of active hostilities,” making it easier for U.S. commanders to act against the al Qaeda-linked group without White House approval.
Somalia’s newly elected president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed declared a fresh campaign in April to rid his fragile country of al-Shabaab. Since ousting the group from Mogadishu in 2011, the country’s weak central government has relied on a 22,000-strong African Union peacekeeping force and small cadre of U.S. special forces and advisors to maintain stability.
American commandos have long had a small but significant presence in Somalia, patrolling with government forces battling the insurgent group. The rules of engagement have stipulated that they can only open fire if they or their Somali allies are in danger of being overrun.
The new rules relax those conditions somewhat, though Defense officials insist that they don’t represent the start of offensive operations on the part of U.S. troops. AFRICOM Commander Thomas Waldhauser said in March the Pentagon would avoid turning Somalia into a “free-fire zone.”
“The cardinal rule in these types of engagements is to not make more enemies than you already have,” he said.
In early April, dozens of troops from the 101st Airborne Division arrived in Mogadishu to assist with logistics and training for local forces and African Union peacekeepers in a new deployment that will not include combat operations.
One of the deadliest U.S. assaults against al-Shabaab took place last year, when American drones and manned aircraft targeted a training camp and killed an estimated 150 fighters.
Al-Shabaab has lost ground to the Somali government and its international partners in recent months, but still controls some 10 percent of the country and regularly conducts raids against military and civilian targets.
The African Union reiterated last month it intends to draw down its Somalia mission, AMISOM, in 2018, sparking fears al-Shabaab could make a resurgence. “We were not intending to stay there forever,” AMISOM civilian chief Francisco Madeira said. “Somalia is for the Somalis. We, like all other Africans, we have our own countries.”