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2017: A record year for US counterterrorism strikes

Alexandra N. Gutowski, Bill Roggio
3rd January 2018 - FDD's Long War Journal

The United States launched a record number of airstrikes in Yemen and Somalia in 2017, and more importantly has reinitiated the targeting of terrorists in Pakistan and Libya. The pattern of operations in 2017 in what the Obama administration used to call areas “outside of active hostilities” (or active war zones such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria) indicated that the US will continue the reinvigorated air campaign in these theaters in the coming years.

The increased targeting of jihadists in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya provides proof that the Obama administration strategy to defeat terrorist groups in these countries with airpower and limited support to local governments has failed. The US has targeted Shabaab in Yemen since 2007 and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula since 2009, yet both of these al Qaeda branches maintain a robust insurgency and continue to control territory to this day.

FDD’s Long War Journal tracked airstrikes in Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and Pakistan from publicly available press releases and inquiries with the relevant combatant commands as well as from press reports. Strikes in areas of active hostilities, in which the United States is directly engaged, such as Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, are not included.

Based 2017 data, the Trump administration appears to be conducting a more muscular version of President Obama’s targeted counterterrorism strategy. The Trump administration has loosened rules of engagement and has restored many decision making authorities to the military. Nearly one year after Trump ramped up the targeting of al Qaeda and the Islamic State, both group maintain potent insurgencies.

Increased activity in Somalia and Yemen

The Trump administration’s beefed up counterterrorism operations is most apparent in Yemen and Somalia. In 2017, the United States launched 35 airstrikes in Somalia and more than 120 strikes in Yemen. The total number of strikes conducted in Yemen were more than the previous four years combined. Strikes in Somalia in 2017 outnumber the combined strikes of the entire previous air campaign, which began in 2007.

The sharp increase in strikes in Somalia can be partly explained by a new green light to attack. In late March, the Trump administration loosened the restrictions on the US military to use force against Shabaab, following Department of State and Defense assessments of the enhanced Shabaab threat. In 2016, Shabaab leveraged its safe haven to expand areas under its control and threaten African Union and Somali forces, overrunning bases in southern Somalia.

Initial targeting of the Islamic State group in Somalia and Yemen

While the targeting of al Qaeda’s branches in Somalia and Yemen has greatly expanded, a new threat has emerged over the past year: the rival Islamic State. The United States has began targeting the Islamic State’s forces in Somalia and Yemen for the first time this year. In Nov. 2017, the United States launchedits first strikes against the Islamic State in Somalia. So far, every strike against the Islamic State in Somalia occurred in Somalia’s semi-autonomous region of Puntland, where the jihadist group has a foothold. The Islamic State briefly controlled Qandala, a Puntland port, late last year.

In Oct. 2017, the United States conducted its first strikes against Islamic State in Yemen, killing “dozens” of members at a training camp. Likewise, every strike has taken place in Yemen’s Bayda governorate. The Pentagon claims there is no link between the initial targeting of Islamic State in Somalia and Yemen and the group’s loss of its “capital” in Raqqa, Syria.

US renews counterterrorism activities in Pakistan and Libya

While increased US activity in Yemen and Somalia is readily apparent, the renewed counterterrorism efforts in Pakistan and Libya has largely gone under the radar. At first glance, comparing strike totals in Pakistan and Libya from 2017 to previous years may appear to indicate a reduction in counterterrorism activity in these theaters. However, the opposite is true.

In Pakistan, where the drone campaign began in 2004 under the Bush administration, the US conducted eight strikes in 2017, a sharp difference from previous highs, including a peak of 117 in 2010. The Obama administration decreased strikes in Pakistan as it sought to wind down the war in Afghanistan and counterterrorism operations in Pakistan. The Obama administration justified the reduction of strikes in Pakistan by incorrectly claiming al Qaeda’s “core” in South Asia has been decimated.

However, under the Trump administration, the 2017 total in Pakistan more than doubled from the previous year (three strikes). There was a 10-month hiatus in strikes between the last in 2016, which killed the Taliban’s previous emir, Mullah Mansour, and the next in Pakistan, which took place on March 2, 2017. Most of the strikes in Pakistan in 2017 targeted prominent jihadists from al Qaeda and the Taliban, including: Abu Bakar HaqqaniAbdul Raheem, and Qari Abdullah Subari.

President Trump has called out Pakistan for continuing to provide safe haven for jihadist groups such as the Taliban, which in turn supports al Qaeda and other global terrorist groups. The administration has also sought to re-engage Pakistan to end its support for friendly jihadist groups and has limited the number of strikes in Pakistan in order to reduce tensions.

But after Trump called out Pakistan on New Year’s Day for providing “safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan” and saying “33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years” has “given us nothing but lies & deceit,” it can be expected that the US will resume targeting jihadists with increased zeal in 2018.

When comparing strike data in Libya from 2016 to 2017, the numbers appear to show that they have dropped precipitously, from 497 in 2016 to 12. However, all but two of the strikes in Libya took place under the aegis of Operation Odyssey Lightning, the US air operation which enabled Libyan Government of National Accord forces to recapture Sirte. The Obama administration declared during Operation Odyssey Lightning that Libya was an area of “active hostilities,” thus those strikes took place in what was essentially an active war zone. The 12 strikes in 2017 were all counterterrorism strikes.

Transparency suffers

Transparency with regards to available information on these strikes, however, suffered in 2017. The US military has released very few details about US strikes against AQAP in Yemen this year. Of the more than 114 strikes against AQAP in Yemen, CENTCOM has only provided details on four, all of which involved high value targets. Some of the airstrikes may have been close air support to a Yemeni and coalition offensive to clear Shabwah from AQAP during the summer of 2017, which US Special Forces supported.

Even in jurisdictions with more robust reporting, the Trump administration has continued to use Obama-era terms to conceal direct combat operations. Throughout 2017, AFRICOM reported a number of “self-defense strikes” against Shabaab in Somalia, a euphemism for close air support for offensive operations. American air power often facilitates offensive raids against Shabaab positions and training camps deep within territory controlled by the group.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal. Alexandra Gutowski is a military affairs analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies @FDD

Tags

drones, islamic-state, libya, pakistan, shabaab, somalia, taliban, yemen