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Is There a New U.S. Airstrike Policy in East Africa?

Is There a New U.S. Airstrike Policy in East Africa?

U.S. warplanes flying over East Africa have bombarded al-Shabab targets in the past week with a series of strikes in Somalia, shifting from pinprick attacks that strictly focus on the jihadis’ leaders, U.S. officials said Friday.

A July 14 U.S. airstrike in Somalia, coupled with a Kenyan artillery barrage, killed “more than 50 militants preparing a direct attack” against African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces, Pentagon spokesman Maj. James Brindle told Foreign Policy. And over the last week alone, American forces “conducted a series of strikes against al-Shabab,” according to an official with the U.S. Africa Command.

Al-Shabab is the Somali-based militant group that has pledged allegiance to al Qaeda. The strikes have all sought to defend African Union forces “under imminent threat of attack,” the Africom official said Friday.

While U.S. officials would not confirm the number of attacks, or whether the aircraft were manned or unmanned, the Los Angeles Times has reported that they were drone strikes. The attacks represent “a change in how we’re providing support” to African forces, a U.S. military official told the newspaper. “Up until now, we’ve focused strikes on high-value targets. These strikes were launched to defend forces on the ground.”

American drone strikes and Special Forces raids have been a key part of the fight against al-Shabab in Somalia for the past decade, a struggle that has bled over the border into nearby Kenya.

The majority of the violence in Somalia is reportedly taking place near the port city of Baraawe, where AMISOM troops — a force that includes units from Kenya, Burundi, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Djibouti — have been fighting to uproot al-Shabab from one of its strongholds.

Al-Shabab has taken a real toll on civilians in Kenya. The group slaughtered almost 150 people at Garissa University in northeastern Kenya in April and murdered dozens of police officers in hit-and-run attacks in recent months. The militant group also took over the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in September 2013, killing 67 people.

President Barack Obama landed in Kenya on Friday for a two-day visit, where he plans to highlight American assistance in fighting jihadi groups and discuss gay rights and discrimination.

Despite the continued attacks, the AMISOM force has scored some big victories over the past several years in Somalia, managing to retake much of the capital of Mogadishu, though attacks on police stations and military bases in and near the city still occur regularly.

Photo credit: Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images