Until now the U.S. military had only been able to employ airstrikes against al Shabaab militants in self-defense situations when African Union or Somali government troops accompanied by U.S. advisers came under attack.
"The President has approved a Department of Defense proposal to provide additional precision fires in support of African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali security forces operations to defeat al-Shabaab in Somalia," said Captain Jeff Davis, the Pentagon spokesman, in a statement.
"This authority is consistent with our approach of developing capable Somali security forces and supporting regional partners in their efforts to combat al-Shabaab," he added.
"Somali and AMISOM forces have already achieved significant success in recapturing territory from al Shabaab, and additional U.S. support will help them increase pressure on al Shabaab and reduce the risk to our partner forces when they conduct operations," Davis said. "The additional support provided by this authority will help deny al Shabaab safe havens from which it could attack U.S. citizens or U.S. interests in the region."
The southern part of Somalia has been designated an "active area of hostilities" for 180 days, according to a U.S. official. The designation, approved by President Trump on Wednesday, applies to active combat zones like Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, parts of Libya, parts of Yemen and now Somalia.
In these countries the U.S. military is authorized to conduct airstrikes if there is “a reasonable certainty” that no civilians will be hurt. This is less stringent than the “near certainty” standard issued by the Obama administration in 2013 as a Presidential Policy Guidance that is still applied elsewhere.
The U.S. conducts airstrikes, typically drone strikes, in Somalia under the authority for self-defense and collective self-defense when American advisers accompany AMISOM and Somali government military forces.
Over the past year, American advisers have accompanied AMISOM and Somali government forces on raids targeting al Shabaab but remain away from potential combat. If the forces they were working with came under al Shabaab fire, they would call in self-defense airstrikes. Now, they will be able to call in offensive airstrikes.
U.S. Africa Command had sought the expanded authorities to enable offensive operations against al Shabaab.
The official stressed that the U.S. will not be able to make unilateral decisions for airstrikes, they will be done in consultation with AMISOM and the government of Somalia.
Last week U.S. Africa Command’s General Thomas Waldhauser told Pentagon reporters that he had sought the greater authority
“It's very important and very helpful for us to have a little more flexibility, a little bit more timeliness, in terms of decision-making process” against al Shabaab said Waldhauser. He added that if approved the new permissions and authorities "will be very helpful to us.”
Waldhauser also emphasized that the U.S. military's stringent standards to ensure the safety of civilians would remain in place.
In late January, President Trump designated three provinces in Yemen as active areas of hostilities enabling further airstrikes against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Since then, the U.S. military has carried out 45 airstrikes in Yemen, more strikes than have ever been conducted in any calendar year in that country.