Djibouti/Washington - U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with Djiboutian leaders and the president of Somalia in Djibouti on Sunday, marking his first trip to Africa as Secretary of Defense amid continued violence in the region. Later in the week, he will travel to Kenya and Angola.
Djibouti is home to the U.S. military's major base on the continent, and Austin said Camp Lemonnier was "critical" to "countering violent extremism and supporting security throughout the region."
He added that the U.S. is proud to partner with Djiboutian forces and African Union forces in support of neighboring Somalia, where al-Shabab militants are increasingly resistant amid ongoing military operations against the group.
Al-Shabab is the main branch of al-Qaida on the continent.
Somalia faced recent setbacks in its fight against al-Shabab after a deadly attack on the town of Cowsweyne on August 26. The incident left dozens of government soldiers dead and resulted in a hasty retreat from front lines and towns previously captured from the militant group.
The setback was one of the reasons Somalia cited in requesting a "technical pause" to the military drawdown of African Union forces from Somalia. The drawdown, which started last week, is scheduled to see 3,000 AU soldiers transferring their forward operating bases to Somali soldiers by the end of this month.
"Unfortunately, on August 26, 2023 we have suffered several significant setbacks after the attack on our forces in Cowsweyne area, Galgudud region and the subsequent retreats by the forces from several towns that were recently liberated," read the letter written by National Security Adviser Hussein Sheikh-Ali. "This unforeseen turn of events has stretched our military forces thin, exposed our vulnerabilities in our front lines."
A U.S. defense official described al-Shabab as a "difficult challenge" and "not one that is going to stop overnight."
"It's one that's going to continue to require consistent, sustained cooperation between us and our east African partners on this, including Kenya," the official said.
The U.S. military has been "advising and assisting" Somali forces for years in the fight against al-Shabab, including the training of Special Forces and carrying out airstrikes against the group.
On Sunday, a senior U.S. defense official said that AFRICOM did not conduct an airstrike on September 22, 2023. The al-Shabab group via telegram message claimed that an AFRICOM strike killed eight members of the same family, including six children, on the same day. The Somali government reported that a senior al-Shabab commander identified as Isaaq Abdullahi, who was responsible for the group's operations in Bakool region, and seven "bodyguards," were killed in a targeted airstrike.
Meanwhile, the U.S. defense official confirmed that a U.S. contractor and a partner force member were injured after al-Shabab militants fired on a base staffed by Kenyan defense forces on Friday. Al-Shabab claimed the attack injured four U.S. soldiers and nine Kenyan troops. The U.S. defense official said the al-Shabab claim was "overblown."
Thousands of Kenyan troops are in Somalia serving as part of the African Union Transition Mission, ATMIS. Kenya has also faced repeated attacks from al-Shabab, including the high-profile attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi 10 years ago that killed 67 people.
Austin will travel to Kenya and Angola later in the week. According to a senior U.S. defense official, this will be the first time a U.S. defense secretary has ever traveled to Angola and the first time since 1976 that an American defense chief has visited Kenya.