U.S. forces tasked with countering the al-Shabab terror group will no longer have to "commute" to Somalia from neighboring countries, after officials reversed a decision that officials blame for allowing the al-Qaida affiliate to grow more powerful and more dangerous.
On Monday, Biden authorized the deployment of fewer than 500 troops to the East African nation to "reestablish a small, persistent U.S military presence in Somalia" in order to better target al-Shabab and its leaders, a senior administration official told reporters.
The new authorization reverses a December 2020 decision by former U.S. President Donald Trump to pull some 700 special forces troops that had been deployed to Somalia to work with the Somali military, requiring them to instead fly into the country periodically to help — a move the current administration decried as disastrous.
"Since then, al-Shabab … has unfortunately only grown stronger," the White House official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the new authorization.
Al-Shabab "has increased the tempo of its attacks, including against U.S. personnel," the official said. "We're concerned about the potential for al-Shabab's upward battlefield and financial trajectory to generate more space for the group to plan and ultimately to execute external attacks," the official added.
U.S. military and counterterrorism officials have long described al-Shabab as the al-Qaida terror group's largest, wealthiest and deadliest affiliate.
But recent intelligence indicates the group has grown even stronger since U.S. forces were withdrawn from Somalia.
When Trump announced the decision to pull U.S. forces from Somalia, U.S. intelligence estimates said al-Shabab had between 5,000 and 10,000 fighters.
However, newer intelligence gathered by various nations and shared with the United Nations earlier this year indicates al-Shabab's forces number in the 7,000 to 12,000 range.
Those same estimates also warned that al-Shabab was pulling in large sums of money, in some cases as much as $10 million a month.
Al-Shabab has also been more aggressive, most recently killing at least 30 Burundian soldiers during an attack on an African Union base in southern Somalia earlier this month.
Already, African Union forces in Somalia, feeling under greater threat, have left one base and have plans to vacate two others, sources confirmed to VOA's Somali Service.
Al-Shabab's increased fearlessness, combined with its newfound numbers and wealth, has U.S. officials believing the threat to the U.S. homeland itself has grown, as well.
The U.S. is "aligning our global counterterrorism efforts with where the threat to Americans is most acute," the White House official told reporters. "Al-Shabab in Somalia simply has to be among our highest priorities on that score."
The White House decision Monday to send troops back in was welcomed by the former commander of Somalia's elite U.S.-trained Danab Brigade.
"This is a welcome step because al-Shabab has been emboldened," Colonel Ahmed Abdullahi Sheikh told VOA.
"Just recently, we saw al-Shabab bring out their technicals (sic) and other vehicles we haven't seen earlier in similar attacks," he said. "They don't fear the strikes and the U.S. capabilities as they used to do previously."
Sheikh further described the U.S. decision to again keep troops in Somalia as "timely," with the country electing Hassan Sheikh Mohamud as its new president on Sunday.
"It's a very positive start for our new president-elect when he starts his first day in office that he has that support he can count on," the Somali colonel said.
Despite initially voicing public support for the December 2020 decision to end a persistent U.S. troop presence in Somalia, some key senior U.S. military officials have been advocating for a change for more than a year.
"Since that time, we have been commuting to work," General Stephen Townsend, head of United States Africa Command, told lawmakers in April 2021. "There's no denying the reposition of forces outside Somalia has introduced new layers of complexity and risk."
Two months later, in June, Townsend said he had made recommendations to the Pentagon's civilian leadership but was waiting for a decision.
More recently, Townsend warned in March that U.S. efforts to counter al-Shabab were "march in place, at best."
"What we're doing is not providing sufficient pressure," he said.
But on Monday, the Pentagon defended the decision-making process to again position some U.S. troops in Somalia.
"This isn't about a tipping point," Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters, in response to a question from VOA. "This was an outgrowth of a very deliberate, mature, reasonable policy process here at the Pentagon to come up with a recommendation, again, based on the advice and counsel of General Townsend."
He added, "This is the best way for us to continue what has remained a very valuable advise-and-assist and training mission."
Kirby and other U.S. officials said that while details regarding how and when U.S. forces would return to Somalia on a persistent basis were still being worked out, most of the troops would likely be repositioned from other U.S. bases in Africa. Camp Lemonnier in nearby Djibouti is the primary base of operations for U.S. Africa Command in the region.
Before the withdrawal, the U.S. kept some 700 troops in the African nation, which has struggled with violence and instability since the 1991 overthrow of the government devolved into a cycle of brutal conflict involving rival clan leaders. Al-Shabab surfaced in 2006, pledging to bring stability by instituting its strict interpretation of Shariah, or Islamic law. It has since grown and conducted strikes outside of Somalia, including in Kenya and Uganda.
Neither the Pentagon nor the White House would say how long U.S. troops will be in Somalia.
"While there is risk, it is manageable," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.