U.S. forces struck al Qaeda and Supreme Islamic Courts Council targets in southern Somalia on Jan. 8. At the same time, the aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower began operations off the coast of the war-torn country. The combination of the strikes, at least one of which involved an AC-130 gunship, the shift of naval assets to the region and the publicity surrounding these events indicates a big step up for U.S. operations there.
A U.S. AC-130 gunship carried out airstrikes Jan. 8 against al Qaeda and Supreme Islamic Courts Council (SICC) targets in southern Somalia. Further strikes in the town of Hayo might have taken place Jan. 9. At the same time, U.S. naval assets, including the aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower, have been re-tasked to gather intelligence and interdict maritime traffic off the coast of Somalia. The moves are aimed at eliminating any potential regrouping by the SICC, which ruled much of Somalia before its ejection from Mogadishu by Ethiopian forces backing Somalia's transitional government Dec. 27, 2006. The moves also serve the larger U.S. objective of preventing a jihadist training ground from emerging in East Africa. The U.S. airstrikes came four days after al Qaeda deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri released an audiotape calling on Islamists to wage an Iraq-style guerrilla war against Ethiopian forces in Somalia. The specter of renewed jihadism in Somalia raised by al-Zawahiri came amid heated political discussions over the war-torn nation's future. Somalian President Abdullahi Yusuf, who entered Mogadishu just one day ago for the first time since becoming president in 2004, has refused to negotiate with Somalia's Islamists. He has also fully endorsed the U.S. attacks as justified reprisals against the perpetrators of the 1998 attacks against the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Using an AC-130 gunship to eliminate specific militant suspects marks a departure from typical U.S. practice. Previously, the United States used AGM-114 Hellfire missiles fired from an RQ-1 Predator drone or precision-guided bombs dropped by a strike fighter; the latter approach was used to kill al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The larger intent of the strike therefore might have been to send a message to Somalis, namely that sheltering al Qaeda fugitives can have grave consequences. Whatever the objective, the United States went out of its way to use the AC-130 rather than simply relying on the nearest combat aircraft. In all likelihood, the aircraft flew out of Djibouti, where U.S. Special Forces have operated since 2002. The AC-130's 105 mm howitzer, 40 mm cannon and two 20 mm Gatling guns — all of which fire from the port side of the aircraft — can saturate an area with supporting fire. The newest version of the aircraft, the AC-130U, also brings a new degree of accuracy. It is equipped with a multimode strike radar that can track individual 105 mm and 40 mm projectiles and adjust its fire accordingly. The new version is also capable of conducting a precision strike as accurate as that of a Hellfire missile, although it would take assistance from the ground to pinpoint the proper building in a darkened Somalian village. However, in the case of the recent strikes, intelligence might only have been accurate enough to warrant an area-saturation.
The AC-130 is more powerful than any other weapon in Somalia and is more than capable of extinguishing occasional flare-ups of SICC and al Qaeda militants. Thus, the shift of the bulk of an entire carrier strike group is extremely notable. The USS Eisenhower and its four squadrons of strike aircraft have been re-tasked by the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet from the Persian Gulf to the waters off Somalia, ostensibly to conduct intelligence-gathering missions and maritime security operations. The guided-missile cruisers USS Bunker Hill and USS Anzio are on station with the guided-missile destroyer USS Ramage, and the three ships have five 5-inch guns and more than 100 cruise missiles between them. With them is the dock landing ship USS Ashland, which is capable of embarking 500 Marines and landing craft or amphibious assault vehicles. According to the Navy, the carrier was moved in order to "support emergent contingency operations if the situation should require air power." But intelligence gathering and maritime interdiction do not require the bulk of a U.S. carrier strike group, indicating that the United States could have something bigger planned for urgent situations. These might include times when a strike package assembled and launched from the Arabian Sea (which would have to be refueled en route) would take too long to get to the country, or when the Navy wants to conduct larger-scale operations. The funneling of jihadists from Yemen — and the escape of al Qaeda militants back to the Arabian Peninsula — likely figure prominently into this operation. Rumors of U.S. forces operating clandestinely in Somalia are not new. This time, however, the largest naval force probably since the disaster of Operation Restore Hope in 1993 is positioned off the coast of Somalia. Though large ground incursions are probably not in the cards, a task force of this magnitude will definitely be conducting more than just a few AC-130 strikes and intelligence-gathering and maritime security operations.