(Editor’s Note: This is part of our series on the Biden administration’s Presidential Policy Memorandum on counterterrorism direct action.)
The new White House policy, as reported by Charlie Savage of the New York Times, is meant to put limits on operations in places outside of “areas of active hostilities,” but it is not likely to meaningfully change the way U.S. Africa Command (USAFRICOM) operates in Somalia. In principle, the policy, termed a “Presidential Policy Memorandum” (PPM), tightens safeguards for using force outside Iraq and Syria (the two countries exempted from the policy) by requiring stricter standards for airstrikes and special operation raids. In particular, it requires presidential approval for new direct lethal action targets and restores the “near certainty” standard that the approved target has been correctly identified and that civilians will not be harmed. But the policy also contains loopholes that will likely allow business as usual for USAFRICOM in Somalia.
First, the new policy does not require advance approval by the president for airstrikes in defense of U.S. or designated partner forces. This has the potential to be highly relevant for U.S. operations in Somalia, where almost all of USAFRICOM’s airstrikes during the Biden administration have been described by U.S. officials as acting in “collective self-defense” of Somali forces. Moving forward under the new policy, USAFRICOM can and likely will continue to use airstrikes to defend Somali forces without presidential approval. Indeed, USAFRICOM’s collective self-defense strikes sometimes look more like close air support to Somali partners than strikes that are strictly defensive. At least in some instances, USAFRICOM’s use of the term “defensive strikes” might have been a pretext for what in reality appeared to be the use of U.S. air power for Somali National Army (SNA) offensive operations.
Second, while the new policy does require presidential approval for direct lethal action against new targets, there is already a fairly long list of pre-approved targets in Somalia and elsewhere. In May 2022, President Joe Biden gave the Department of Defense standing authority to target about a dozen individuals assessed to be members of al-Shabaab leadership. USAFRICOM likely used this standing authority for the first time during an October 1 airstrike on senior al-Shabaab leader Abdullahi Nadir.
Third, the standard for adding names to the target list does not appear to add a significant new hurdle for future lethal operations in Somalia. In order for individuals to be named targets, the new policy requires each of them to be a “continuing and imminent threat to U.S. persons.” As part of research conducted for the International Crisis Group, I have interviewed current and former U.S. officials who are skeptical that al-Shabaab poses an imminent threat to the United States. However, officials give the impression that the PPM formalizes temporary practices that were already in place, so this standard may not represent a change from the status quo in Somalia.
Moreover, the threat standard in the new policy creates more flexibility than may initially appear, raising some of the same issues as the expansive interpretation of the word “imminent” relied on by U.S. officials in the context of jus ad bellum analysis in counterterrorism operations beyond the scope of what the United States considers to be an existing armed conflict. To be clear, “continuing imminent threat” as used in the PPM (and its predecessor document in the Obama administration) is a policy term of art, not a legal one. But by adding “continuing” to “imminent” in the relevant language, the White House has repeated a logical conundrum, raising the question of how a threat technically can be ongoing and simultaneously about to happen. For example, if the threat posed by al-Shabaab leaders who were listed in May was considered “imminent,” how is it that the threat they pose has been “imminent” for several months? In addition to being confusing in its own right, this framing could dilute the legal meaning of imminence in the jus ad bellum context.
Finally, we should not miss the forest for the trees. Peace and stability must be the end goals of U.S. policy in Somalia, which one hopes are reflected in the new, though classified, counterterrorism strategy that Savage also covered in his reporting. The strategy reportedly emphasizes support to partner forces and reliance on local law enforcement over U.S. kinetic action. Although a good start to easing dependence on U.S. airstrikes, it is prudent for Biden administration officials to think critically about the track record of decades of securitized approaches to countering instability and whether and to what extent these efforts have succeeded. This includes considering the sustainability of training and equipping security forces in unstable environments, even in contexts like Somalia where the U.S.-trained Danab has a relatively positive track record.
Though a perennial challenge, U.S. officials should also continue to explore how the United States might better help governments and civil society in Somalia to address conflict drivers through non-military support. Years of experience suggest that the solutions to the long-running conflict will lie chiefly in the political and economic realms. While there may be tactical military gains – recently, for example, local militias as supported by the Federal Government of Somalia and USAFRICOM have made some advances against al-Shabaab – their durability will likely be contingent upon addressing underlying political issues. U.S. policymakers should bear in mind the importance of embedding their counterterrorism efforts in a broader political strategy as they consider how they can most effectively help bring stability to war-torn Somalia.