U.S. troops may no longer be eligible for a National Defense Service Medal, but that doesn’t mean the Global War on Terrorism is over.
On Thursday, U.S. Africa Command announced that U.S. forces in Somalia had “conducted a successful counterterrorism operation.” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin later said that the operation killed an Islamic Group leader, Bilal al-Sudani, as well as other members of ISIS in the country.
“Al-Sudani was responsible for fostering the growing presence of ISIS in Africa and for funding the group’s operations worldwide, including in Afghanistan,” Austin said in his statement. “This action leaves the United States and its partners safer and more secure, and it reflects our steadfast commitment to protecting Americans from the threat of terrorism at home and abroad.”
The operation was the latest in a series of recent missions against extremist militants in Somalia. Prior to the attack on al-Sudani, the most recent strikes on Jan. 23 and Jan. 20 killed roughly more than 30 al-Shabaab fighters as part of defensive actions in support of the Somali armed forces. Those strikes were among more than a half-dozen engagements in Somalia in the last two months.
Subscribe to Task & Purpose Today. Get the latest military news, entertainment, and gear in your inbox daily.
The Global War on Terrorism had wrapped a major phase after the U.S. exited Afghanistan in 2021 following more than two decades of fighting. Indeed, the Department of Defense stopped awarding the National Defense Service Medal to troops as of this year due to the fact the U.S. is “no longer conducting large-scale combat operations in designated geographic locations as a result of the terrorist attacks on the United States that occurred September 11, 2001,” per an August 2022 memo from Austin.
Despite this, it’s clear the American military is still involved in combat theaters in Somalia and Syria, as well as Yemen, in the name of counterterrorism. The U.S. has roughly 500 troops in Somalia, and roughly 900 in Syria, with more based in neighboring countries.
The attack against ISIS this week is the first major one against the militant group in Somalia. It also comes amid an uptick in U.S. involvement in Somalia. The Biden administration sent U.S. troops back to the East African country in 2022 following a 2021 withdrawal by the Trump administration. At the time, the U.S. said the returning soldiers would be conducting “an advise and assist and training mission” and not combat operations, although the U.S. quickly resumed bombing al-Shabaab. Since then, American forces have regularly conducted airstrikes in support of Somali troops, carrying out 15 in total in 2022, up from 11 in 2021.
The strikes in Syria have been part of the ongoing U.S.-led anti-ISIS efforts. Although the militants’ final territorial stronghold at Baghouz fell in 2019, the U.S. and coalition partners (mostly the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces) have been hunting its fighters and commanders across Syria since then. Last year, ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi died in an explosion during a firefight with U.S. special operations forces. Months later in November the succeeding leader, the similarly named Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, died in a firefight with Free Syrian Army fighters. In total the U.S. conducted 313 missions against ISIS in 2022 in Syria, according to the U.S. Central Command.
While only “a small number” of U.S. forces are in Yemen for counterterrorism actions against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQIP) and ISIS, per the Biden administration, the U.S. has been providing arms and logistical support to Saudi Arabia as part of its engagement in Yemen’s civil war — which has killed numerous civilians — while also fighting AQIP over the last decade. Some members of Congress have tried to end American support for Saudi Arabia’s offensive citing the documented civilian casualties, introducing legislation to stop both supplying ammunition and carrying out maintenance contracts that help keep Saudi aircraft in operation.
These counterterrorism operations have been carried out under the umbrella of laws that are now old enough to fight in these current battles. They have mainly invoked the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, passed after the attacks in September of that year, as justification for continuing operations. The 2001 AUMF is cited in part because organizations like ISIS and al-Shabaab are seen as growing out of al-Qaeda, or at least heavily associated with it. The Obama administration initially justified several military actions such as engagement in Libya through Article II of the Constitution, but in 2014 began pointing to the 2001 AUMF to explain actions taken against militants.
In a December 2021 paper, the Costs of War project looked at the different authorizations or legal justifications used behind airstrikes and counterterror operations. The U.S. has also invoked the 2002 AUMF — initially passed to give the authority for the Iraq War — in operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. (Austin did not specifically cite that, or any other authorization, for the strike against al-Sudani and others).
Meanwhile, the U.S. has also been using the 127e authority, which lets special operations use local units as proxies or surrogates, as part of justifying involvement in counterterrorism missions mainly in the African continent with no ties to the September 2001 attacks. The U.S. launched more than 20 127e-authorized programs between 2017-2020, per reporting by The Intercept, with U.S. forces working with local commandos in countries such as Niger, Cameroon, Yemen, and Libya. In 2017, U.S. troops and partners in Niger were ambushed by ISIS fighters, killing four American service members. For many, the ambush was the first they heard of U.S. troops in Niger; the Trump administration cited the 2001 AUMF after the fact, not bringing up the 127e program, per The Costs of War project.
Critics in Congress have called for reining in these various authorizations, given the broad scope in which they are invoked, and the history of civilian casualties in strikes in Yemen and Somalia. There have been repeated efforts in the last few years to repeal both the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs, given their now two-decade history, but those have so far failed to pass. As a result, ongoing missions around the world continue to cite those authorizations. The war in Afghanistan might be over, but the Global War on Terrorism is not — and it doesn’t appear to be ending any time soon.