U.S. Troop Levels in Somalia Now Close to Number on the Ground in Syria

ARLINGTON, Va. — The Pentagon said today that a week’s worth of daily airstrikes in Somalia is not “necessarily” a “ramp-up” in U.S. operations in the Horn of Africa, even as U.S. troop levels there are close to the number of troops on the ground helping local forces fight ISIS in Syria.

U.S. Africa Command said in a statement Wednesday that, in coordination with the Somali government, the U.S. conducted airstrikes against Al-Shabaab targets 60 miles northwest of Mogadishu the evening before, “killing several militants.”

“Al-Shabaab has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and is dedicated to providing safe haven for terrorist attacks throughout the world. Al-Shabaab has publicly committed to planning and conducting attacks against the U.S. and our partners in the region,” the statement continued. “U.S. forces will continue to use all authorized and appropriate measures to protect Americans and to disable terrorist threats. This includes partnering with AMISOM and Somali National Security Forces (SNSF); targeting terrorists, their training camps and safe havens throughout Somalia, the region and around the world.”

Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie told reporters today that “as we constantly assess the battle space, when targets present themselves that are actionable and within the law of armed conflict, we’re going to strike those targets.”

“As targets present themselves, sometimes it talks a long time to develop a target because it through it an — an exquisite vetting process to make sure they’re we’re striking the tracking appropriately, not doing damage that we don’t need to do. So something it takes us a long time to develop targets,” he said. “So there’s no particular rhythm to it, except that as they become available and as we’re able to process them and vet them, we strike.”

The general added that “the density of targets is such that now there’s some opportunities to do those strikes.”

Asked if increased strikes in Somalia may be targeting ISIS fighters migrating by way of Yemen, McKenzie replied, “I’m not prepared to actually talk about operational details.”

“We look very closely at how foreign fighters flow into the caliphate — not so much anymore — and how they try to get out, which is very hard for them now, for a variety of reasons,” he said. “But I’m not — I’m not prepared to actually say that that’s the case here, and I wouldn’t be able to share it if we actually knew.”

In the past six months, the number of U.S. troops in Somalia has risen from about 50 to “a little under” 500. In Syria, there are “about 503” U.S. troops, the general said, while there are “approximately 5,262” currently in Iraq.

“I would not associate that with a build-up [in Somalia]… I think it’s just the flow of forces in and out as different organizations come in that might be sized a little differently,” McKenzie said. “And I certainly don’t think there’s a ramp-up of attacks. Again, I go back to the point that I’ve hit a couple of times, that really we develop a lot of targets in these places. And it takes a long time to process those targets, to get them vetted, to — again, to make sure that we’re scrupulously correct in regard to the law of armed conflict and our own values and our own approach to warfare.”

In May, a U.S. service member was in a clash with Al-Shabaab about 40 miles west of Mogadishu, the first U.S. military death in Somalia in 11 years.

Last month, a truck bomb in central Mogadishu killed 358 people in the deadliest terror attack in Somalia’s history. A bipartisan group led by Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) introduced a House resolution this week condemning the attack and reaffirming “support for the Government of Somalia’s efforts to achieve peace, security, and prosperity and combat terrorism.”