Trump grants U.S. military more authority to attack militants in Somalia

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House has granted the U.S. military broader authority to carry out strikes in Somalia against al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab militants, the Pentagon said on Thursday, the latest sign President Donald Trump is increasing U.S. military engagement in the region.

FILE PHOTO: New recruits belonging to Somalia's al-Qaeda-linked al Shabaab rebel group march during a passing out parade at a military training base in Afgoye, west of the capital Mogadishu February 17, 2011. REUTERS/Feisal Omar

Last Friday, the head of U.S. forces in Africa said that greater ability to fight the militants would lead to more flexibility and quicker targeting.

Al Shabaab has been able to carry out deadly bombings despite losing most of its territory to African Union peacekeepers supporting the Somali government. The group’s insurgency aims to drive out the peacekeepers, topple Somalia’s western-backed government and impose its strict version of Islam on the Horn of Africa state.

The United States has a small presence in Somalia and is allowed to carry out strikes in defense of partnered forces.

Two U.S. defense officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said parts of Somalia had been declared an “area of active hostilities” for at least 180 days by the White House on Wednesday night. The capital of Mogadishu was not included.

This broader authority would allow the United States to carry out offensive strikes against al Shabaab militants even if the militants were not attacking partnered forces, the officials said. They said rules to avoid civilian casualties would not be loosened.

In a statement, the Pentagon said Trump had approved a request for “additional precision fired in support of African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali security forces.”

“The additional support provided by this authority will help deny al-Shabaab safe havens from which it could attack U.S. citizens or U.S. interests in the region,” Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said in the statement.

The decision mirrors one the White House made in January when it declared parts of three provinces in Yemen an “area of active hostilities,” allowing the military greater flexibility to target al Qaeda militants there.

In recent months, the United States has carried out more than 40 strikes against al Qaeda militants in Yemen, which lies just across the Gulf of Aden from Somalia.

As many as 12 civilians, some of them women and children, were killed along with a U.S. commando in a January raid in southern Yemen. The United States has said that raid gathered valuable intelligence.

Reporting by Idrees Ali; editing by Grant McCool