War on Terror: Trump Administration Doubles Airstrikes on Extremists in Africa and Middle East

A man walks past graffiti denouncing strikes by U.S. drones in Yemen, painted on a wall in Sanaa, Yemen, on November 13, 2014. There have been twice as many strikes in Somalia and three times as many in Yemen under President Donald Trump. Reuters/Khaled Abdullah

U.S. air strikes aimed at countering extremist organizations in Africa and the Middle East more than doubled under President Donald Trump, according to a new report.

On Tuesday, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism released its annual report, which showed that strikes under Trump have dramatically increased since he took over from his predecessor Barack Obama. The airstrikes have taken place in Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen, where the military is battling the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda.

In Yemen, strikes tripled in 2017 compared with the previous year. The 125 strikes represented more targeted operations than the preceding four years in the country. The U.S. military is conducting operations against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the most powerful arm of the militant group once led by Osama bin Laden, in the country.

Strikes in Somalia focused on combating extremists doubled in the same period from 14 to 31. The Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Shabab remains the dominant militant group in Somalia, but ISIS has also gained a foothold in the country.

Luke Hartig, a former counterterrorism adviser in the Obama administration, told the bureau that it was troubling that the Trump administration had given no justification for the increase in strikes in Somalia.

"We don't have any real basis to assess, for example, why strikes have doubled in Somalia, or if any of these operations are being conducted in direct support of partner forces on the ground rather than as unilateral actions against the threats we face as a nation," he said.

Trump has increased the U.S. troop presence in Somalia to the highest level since the 1993 Black Hawk Down episode that left 18 Americans dead.

Drone attacks also increased in Pakistan, where Al-Qaeda militants and the Taliban have previously found a haven in the borderlands with Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, like in Somalia, Trump has given his commanders greater authority to strike targets, such as drug labs used by the Taliban for its lucrative opium production, which the Pentagon believes raises Taliban funds to the tune of more than $200 million per year.

U.S. troop numbers have also increased from 8,000 to 14,000 in Afghanistan since Trump's inauguration under his new policy of military expansion in the country.

Trump's administration has effectively permitted a greater number of strikes in these countries by designating them as areas of "active hostilities." Strikes in countries such as Yemen and Pakistan had to pass through a stringent sign-off process under the Obama administration, a process that has been bypassed by Trump through this new designation.

Rights groups have warned that the intensification of air raids could play into the hands of extremist groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS. With the increased likelihood of civilian casualties, such raids can heighten anti-U.S. sentiment and play a role in the recruitment of jihadis to the ranks of extremist groups.

"The Yemeni branch of Al-Qaeda is stronger than it has ever been," the International Crisis Group said in a February report. "The first military actions by the Trump administration in Yemen bode poorly for the prospect of smartly and effectively countering AQAP."