A U.S. Navy SEAL was killed in Somalia during a fight with al-Shabaab militants, and is likely the first combat death in the country since the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” incident. The SEAL was part of a U.S. special-operations advise-and-assist team in the country working with the Somali National Army to fight terrorism, an arrangement that has become increasingly common for the U.S., and that Raymond Thomas III, the head of the Special Operations Command, earlier this week called unsustainable.
In the past several years, the U.S. has expanded its campaign in Somalia to fight the al-Qaeda-affiliated militant group. In return, al-Shabaab has waged an increasingly deadly war, and though it has lost ground it still controls much of the border regions of Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia. The SEAL was reportedly killed by small-arms fire Thursday in an operation near Barii, about 40 miles west of Mogadishu. Reuters reported that U.S. troops were assisting in a mission to capture an al-Shabaab commander, possibly Abdirahman Mohamed Warsame, for whom there is a $5 million reward. Warsame was instrumental in planning an attack in 2015 on the Garissa University College in Kenya that led to 150 deaths, most of them students.
U.S. African Command released a short statement, with few details, saying the SEAL was part of a team assisting Somali troops to “degrade the al-Qaeda affiliate’s ability to recruit, train and plot external terror attacks throughout the region and in America.”
A spokesman for al-Shabaab told Reuters that U.S. forces attacked one of its bases in the Darusalam village. Speaking of the U.S.-backed Somali troops, he said, “They left ammunition and weapons on the scene and blood stains. First they had a helicopter which landed some kilometers away from our base, to which they walked. We inflicted heavy casualties—some forces died and others were wounded but we do not have the exact figure.”
The last U.S. military casualty in Somalia came about 25 years ago, during the Battle of Mogadishu—an episode detailed by The Atlantic contributor Mark Bowden in his book Black Hawk Down, which was turned into a film of the same name. That, too, was a U.S. special-operations forces mission, and came during the country’s civil war. The war began after the overthrow of the country’s dictator in 1991. Somalia then spiraled into a fractious battle between competing warlords. One of these warlords was Mohamed Farrah Aidid, who attacked UN troops trying to restore stability. In October 1993, the U.S. deployed a special-operations task force to capture two of Aidid’s lieutenants while they met in Mogadishu, and what was supposed to be a one-hour mission turned into an overnight gun battle, with 18 U.S. casualties. Aidid was later killed years later in a battle, but Somalia has remained in a state of conflict since.
African Union peacekeeping troops have been stationed in the country for 10 years, and in that time have pushed al-Shabaab from city centers to rural parts of the country’s west. The U.S. has aided in this fight, largely in covert missions run by special-operations forces groups.
At a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this week, Army General Thomas, who oversees Special Operations Command, said there are about 8,000 special-forces members in more than 80 countries. They are tasked with everything from fighting terrorist groups, as in Somalia, to countering Russian aggression. In recent years, the U.S. has leaned too heavily on its special-operations forces, Thomas said. “We are not a panacea. We are not the ultimate solution to every problem, and you will not hear that coming from us.”
Under the Obama administration, and now under President Trump, these advise-and-assist missions are being widely used in place of large deployments of U.S. troops on the ground—particularly in northern Iraq, where U.S. soldiers are backing Iraqi government troops to defeat ISIS. In January, a SEAL was killed in Yemen during a similar mission against al-Qaeda. That was the first counterterrorism operation authorized by the Trump administration, and its first military casualty. In Somalia, the Trump administration has granted broader permission for the U.S. forces to carry out strikes, a sign the president is willing to increase engagement in the region.
At the hearing, Thomas cautioned that reliance on special operations alone is not a long-term solution.