STUTTGART, Germany — As Islamic militants stepped up their assault on the U.S.-backed government in Somalia this week, U.S. Africa Command’s top officer said he is prepared, if called upon, to lend more support to the embattled Somali military.
Al-Shabab continued to clash with Somali and African Union forces in a series of deadly battles on Wednesday, one day after the al-Qaida-linked group launched a brazen attack at a Mogadishu hotel that left more than 30 people dead, including several government officials.
The surge in violence, denounced Tuesday by White House officials, comes at a time when the U.S. is looking for ways to beef up aid to Somalia’s fragile Transitional Federal Government and curb the growing influence of Islamic militants.
AFRICOM provides training to some African Union forces who deploy to Somalia as part of a peacekeeping force that defends Somalia’s weak government from being toppled. However, Gen. William “Kip” Ward said AFRICOM also is prepared to provide that training directly to Somali troops.
“To the degree that the Transitional Federal Government and its military structure requires and asks for that same thing, we are prepared to do that,” Ward said during an interview Monday at his headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. That decision would have to be made by the White House, not AFRICOM, he said.
The U.S. has stopped short of directly training Somali forces, opting instead to work with Ugandan and Burundian troops. AFRICOM could lend support to Somali troops with small unit training to foster better relations, improve leadership and teach the proper role of militaries in society, he said.
“We are prepared to do all of that given it’s aligned with our overall policy and strategy,” said Ward, who added that the U.S. policy on Somalia is under review in Washington.
But he said he doesn’t foresee U.S. forces engaged on the ground in Somalia. Rather, the support will come in the form of logistical assistance, training and equipment.
“It doesn’t mean you have to have U.S. forces on the ground to make a difference,” he said.
Despite the deployment of about 6,000 African Union troops to Somalia, al-Shabab continues to occupy more and more territory within the country, which has not had a functioning government for two decades.
As al-Shabab continues to assert itself across much of southern Somalia, fears of the country serving as a safe haven and training ground for foreign jihadists are growing within the military community.
U.S. military officials are cautioning that an influx of foreign fighters into the country could bring a wave of more unpredictable jihad to the broader region. After gaining experience alongside al-Shabab, those freelancing jihadists could stray from the main al-Shabab mission, officials said.
“Another issue we’re starting to see that we need to get out ahead of is ... an increasing number of foreigners coming to get training and operational experience,” said an American military official speaking under condition of anonymity because his work requires that his identity be protected. “We might start to see non-sanctioned attacks with individuals who have come to Somalia and spent a year or two in the training camps. It might be more dangerous than an al-Shabab directed attack.”
When al-Shabab claimed responsibility for a pair of deadly bombings last month in Uganda — a country targeted for deploying troops to defend Somalia’s government from a militant takeover — it signaled a new tactic for the al-Qaida inspired group. Many analysts feared more such bombings could be on the horizon as al-Shabab attempts to discourage surrounding nations from deploying troops to Somalia.
As al-Shabab takes control over large swaths of territory, the larger long-term security threat could come from foreigners getting trained to take the fight back home — wherever that may be, the military official said.
The threat of Somalia as a home base for al-Qaida also is coming under more intense scrutiny from some Washington lawmakers, who say places such as the Horn of Africa and Yemen could prove to be the most immediate terrorist threat facing the U.S.
According to The Wall Street Journal, U.S. officials are growing increasingly concerned about al-Qaida in Yemen collaborating with allies in Somalia to plan attacks against the U.S. Lawmakers are calling for more aggressive action against al-Qaida in the area around the Horn of Africa.
“It’s very possible the next terrorist attack will see its origins coming out of Yemen and Somalia rather than out of Pakistan,” Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., told the Journal.
For two decades, the international community has been vexed by Somalia and its violent unrest. Over the years, different clans and militias have vied for control. The society is as fractured as ever, but al-Shabab appears to be the most potent force now in operation.
Ward, responding to the recent violence in Somalia, said Al-Shabab's killing of civilians is part of a disturbing trend.
“Just last week I was in Djibouti where I participated in an Iftar dinner, where our Muslim partners and friends participate in the nightly breaking of their religious fast during the holy month of Ramadan. Yesterday’s attacks are a contradiction of the principles and ethics I’ve learned from Islam,” Ward said. “Al-Shabab continues to deprive the Somali people of hope and is destabilizing the region.”
Much about al-Shabab remains unknown, including the number of troops in its ranks and the ways it finances its operations, military officials said. Despite its harsh tactics and imposition of a severe form of Islamic law, or Shariah, al-Shabab is tolerated in some areas because they can provide some measure of security, the military official said.
“We see al-Shabab control expanding, so we can surmise from that that if you get the support of the people ... that’s how you stay (in power),” the official said.
Meanwhile, elements of al-Qaida under intense pressure in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan could find a home in Somalia if Al-Shabab succeeds. “I think it is inevitable they will look at other places for operating environments,” the official said. “We’ve been saying that for a decade, but certainly it is trending that way.”