3 Notes on the Al-Shabaab Attack on U.S.-allied Forces in Somalia

On June 8, al-Shabaab ambushed U.S. Special forces who were building a command outpost with 800 combined Kenyan and Somali forces north of Kismayo. The group did not claim to inflict mass casualties on a scale of other high-profile attacks, but it did say it killed 1 American, 2 Kenyans, and 9 Somali troops. As many outlets noted, this was the first U.S. battlefield death in Africa since the terrorist ambush Niger last October.

Al-Shabaab Moving Land and Water

According to reports, al-Shabaab dammed and flooded the area of Jiibey preceding the attack – ostensibly to thwart the increased presence of U.S.-allied forces in the area.

Inevitably, the contingent began construction of the outpost 2 km away in Baarka Sunguuni (aka Bar) where they were attacked.


Al-Shabaab has proven proficient at controlling water flow — from building canals for irrigation to destroying bridges to eliminate avenues of retreat for AMISOM forces. The latest tactic shows their ability to leverage its mobility and local infrastructure to force Americans to change its operational plans and expose them to unexpected challenges.

Al-Shabaab was Undetectable to Air Reconnaissance – in Broad Daylight

At 2:42 p.m., the Green Berets reported that they were under attack…”

“…the enemy attack was quick, giving the armed reconnaissance aircraft overhead little time to find the militants firing at the Americans.”

via NYTimes

U.S. Congressional sources believe there has been an insufficient overhead air reconnaissance during operations in Africa and that kind of support has definitely saved lives during advise-and-assist missions. While there are not enough details on how al-Shabaab executed this attack, the brevity of the attack and measures to conceal its approach and disposition could have limited the utility of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) support. Similar to the group’s diversion of water, al-Shabaab may have used DIY methods to outmaneuver 21st-century technology.

The Imaginary Offensive

AFRICOM claimed the command outpost construction was part of a larger mission to “liberate villages from al-Shabaab control.” The Daily Beast ran this as the headline in one of its stories, quoting a Special Operations source who said, “It’s part of a campaign plan to take back territory along the river.”

But talk of an imminent offensive – particularly in the Jubba river valley – is misleading if not wholly incorrect.

The last major AMISOM offensive was in mid-2015, and it curiously preceded then U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to the region to assess the mission’s progress after eight years. While there were rumors of an Operation Jubba River Valley throughout 2015 and 2016, it never transpired because the will and resources to do so could never be culled together.

AMISOM contributing countries and its partners have shown a multitude of signs there will not be another major offensive any time soon due to frustration with EU salary cuts, insufficient resources, lack of cooperation, fatigue, and the inability of Somali forces to hold liberated territory independently.

And yet, is the objective of the U.S. military in Somalia really intended to support an imminent offensive? If so, the U.S. needs to revise its bearings.

There is almost certainly more value for the U.S. and Somalia to focus on efforts that help Somali forces take over security from its current areas of control than to provide support for taking further territories with AMISOM.

Categories: al-Shabaab, Int'l Community in Somalia, Kismayo

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