A key U.S. partner in the fight against terrorism is growing increasingly uneasy about the Biden administration's new guidance on the use of drones and airstrikes, concerned that the changes are giving an already emboldened al-Qaida affiliate more room to operate.
Since U.S. President Joe Biden took office January 20, the United States has not launched a single airstrike against al-Shabab in Somalia, after seven strikes were conducted from January 1 to 19.
Senior Somali military officials worry the new guidance, which has imposed tighter controls on ordering airstrikes and requires the White House to sign off on operations, means al-Shabab will begin to gather momentum.
"Lack of strikes mean al-Shabab leaders will come out of hiding," a senior Somali military commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the issue publicly, told VOA's Somali Service.
"They will bring their battle wagons out. They will mount big guns on top of vehicles again. They will start to gather in large numbers again," he said. "It will be detrimental not only to the security of Somalia but to the region if al-Shabab were given freedom to move around."
U.S. defense and intelligence officials have long considered the Somalia-based al-Shabab one of the gravest threats emanating from Africa, targeting the group with 53 airstrikes in 2020 and 63 airstrikes in 2019.
The impact, though, has been debatable.
Recent U.S. intelligence estimates indicate al-Shabab commands as many as 10,000 fighters across Somalia and parts of Kenya. And despite consistent counterterrorism pressure, officials concluded by the latter half of 2020 that the group was starting to show it was operating without fear.
"The terrorist threat in East Africa is not degraded," the U.S. Department of Defense inspector general warned in a November report. "Al-Shabab retains freedom of movement in many parts of southern Somalia and has demonstrated an ability and intent to attack outside of the country, including targeting U.S. interests."
Intelligence gathered by U.N. member states, and included in a report last month, raised further concerns about al-Shabab's ability to attack in major towns and along key transportation corridors.
The report also noted what it said was a "remarkable increase in al-Shabab propaganda and in the group's online presence to enhance recruitment and radicalization."
Those trends are what have Somali officials feeling ever more uneasy, especially given developments on the ground.
"In the current political situation, where our security forces are diverted to electoral security and political tasks, this is again a boon to al-Shabab," said Samira Gaid, who served as a senior security adviser to former Somali Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire.
"The airstrikes changed their tactics and operation and kept pressure on them when Somali forces and AMISOM [the African Union Mission in Somalia] are not conducting regular operations," she said.
The Biden administration's limits on U.S. counterterrorism strikes, first reported earlier this month by The New York Times, are part of a larger review of the existing "legal and policy frameworks" governing such actions.
"The purpose of the interim guidance is to ensure the president has full visibility on proposed significant actions," according to National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne. She said it would be "premature to anticipate" when the review would conclude.
Current and former Somali security officials indicate they understand the new administration's reasoning for the review. They just fear that the interim guidance is putting them and the U.S. at a disadvantage.
"Of course, the operations should be conducted with the utmost care and should protect civilians," Gaid said. "But the reality is, the group [al-Shabab] needs to be on the defensive and should not have freedom of movement and operations, and that's what the airstrikes helped with."
The extent to which those concerns have made it up the Somali chain of command and have been communicated to U.S. officials is unclear.
In a statement on civilian casualties Friday, U.S. Africa Command acknowledged Somali defense officials have said airstrikes are a critical part of the effort against al-Shabab.
"The Somali National Army fully supports U.S. Africa Command's efforts to degrade al-Shabab through kinetic airstrikes," the statement quoted Somali Chief of Defense Forces Brigadier General Odawa Yusuf Raage as telling U.S. officials at a recent meeting.
"These strikes are a key part in our fight against an enemy that has shown no hesitation in terrorizing innocent Somali citizens through repression, extortion and murder," Raage said.
But the Pentagon said Friday that if there has been any concern about the Biden administration's tightening of control on airstrikes, that has not been shared.
"I'm not aware of any such concerns that have been expressed to the department," spokesman John Kirby told reporters.
U.S. Africa Command, when asked directly about the Somali concerns, told VOA it "remains confident" it can provide its Somali partners with the necessary support to contain al-Shabab.
"Airstrikes are only one of the tools available to counter the threat," said Africa Command spokesman Colonel Chris Karns. "It won't always be the first or best option for a given scenario."
Pressure in 'various forms'
"Pressure will persist, but this pressure will occur in various forms and by various partners," he added.
As part of the ongoing effort to bolster Somalia's campaign against al-Shabab, U.S. Africa Command pointed to training it conducted for the country's elite Danab counterterrorism forces and an emergency response exercise in Mogadishu in January.
"Our mission has not changed," Major General Dagvin Anderson, the commander of Special Operations Command Africa, said in a statement at the time. "We remain committed to our Somali and regional partners and support their fight against violent extremism."
However, unlike some previous training missions and exercises, U.S. forces had to deploy to Somalia in January to work with the Somali forces after Africa Command relocated 700 troops from the country at the direction of then-President Donald Trump.
And that came after the Defense Department inspector general raised concerns that Somalia's security forces were not yet ready to take the lead in the effort to contain al-Shabab.
Somalia's security forces "continue to rely on international support," the inspector general warned in November. "Al-Shabab is not degraded to the point where Somali security forces can contain its threat independently."
VOA's Somali Service contributed to this report.