U.S. Troops 'Not on the Frontline' Against Al-Shabab in Somalia: Official

U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon speaks during the Leadership for the Americas Awards Gala hosted by the Inter-American Dialogue at the Four Seasons Hotel November 16, 2016 in Washington, D.C. The event honored Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who won the 2016 Leadership for the Americas Award. ZACH GIBSON/AFP/Getty

American troops will not take a frontline role against Al-Shabab militants in Somalia despite a recent loosening of the rules of engagement by President Donald Trump, the State Department's acting deputy tells Newsweek.

Trump signed a directive in March designating part of Somalia as an "area of active hostilities," making it easier for U.S. security advisers in the country to call in drone strikes against Al-Shabab, an Al-Qaeda affiliate that has recruited Americans and called for attacks in the West.

The Trump administration also recently sent several dozen regular U.S. troops to Somalia for the first time since the early 1990s. The United States suffered its first military casualty in more than 20 years on May 5, when a U.S. Navy SEAL, Kyle Milliken, was killed in a joint U.S.-Somali operation targeting Al-Shabab.

Thomas Shannon, Under Secretary of State and Acting Deputy to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, tells Newsweek that Milliken's sacrifice is proof of how much importance Washington gives to peace in Somalia.

"Losing an American serviceman is a terrible thing under any circumstances, but our presence there and the fact that we're prepared to make that sacrifice underscores how serious this is for us," says Shannon, speaking exclusively to Newsweek on the sidelines of a global summit on Somalia in London.

Following Milliken's death, a senior U.S. general in the military's Africa command (AFRICOM) told The New York Times that the U.S. forces deployed were on an "advise, assist and accompany" mission and were operating alongside Somali troops, rather than behind them as suggested by the Pentagon. The mission was aborted after the troops came under fire from Al-Shabab; Milliken was killed, while two other U.S. personnel were injured. No Somali forces were injured.

But Shannon says that despite the broadening of military powers under Trump's directive, U.S. forces remain in the background in Somalia. "I'm not going to go into the details of the mission, but advise and assist is sometimes from a distance and sometimes not," he says.

Delegates from more than 40 countries gathered at the U.K.-hosted conference on Somalia Thursday to consolidate support for the Horn of Africa state. Civil war broke out in Somalia in the early 1990s, and the country has battled insurgency, drought and famine since.

British Prime Minister Theresa May opened the conference, which was also attended by heads of state from Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda; U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis led the American delegation.

Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, a U.S. dual national elected in February, says he held a bilateral meeting with Mattis at the London conference and that the United States has a crucial role to play in fighting Al-Shabab.

"We spoke [about] how the United States can be very helpful to eradicate and fight against Al-Shabab, and he's very committed," says Farmajo in response to a question from Newsweek at the conference. "The United States is really committed to help Somalia stand on its own feet."

Prior to the recent deployment, the last batch of U.S. troops left Somalia in 1994 following the infamous Battle of Mogadishu, in which Somali militiamen shot down two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters and killed 18 U.S. soldiers.

U.S. counter-terrorism and security advisors have been present in Somalia for at least the past decade and have carried out at least 42 drone strikes since 2007, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

The expansion of military powers in Somalia authorized by Trump means that U.S. strikes will not be restricted by the same criteria as under the Obama administration, which required high-level interagency vetting to authorize attacks. Criteria under the previous U.S. administration included that strikes must target suspects that posed a threat to American interests and a near-certainty that civilian bystanders would not be killed. Up to 28 civilians have been killed in U.S. drone strikes in Somalia in the past decade, according to data from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

"We are only there in an advise and assist role; we are not doing the fighting. We will do the occasional drone strike, but on the ground it is the Somalis and AMISOM that are busy doing the fighting," says Shannon.

He adds that the election of Farmajo signals an "opening" to exploit "fissures" in Al-Shabab. The Somali president announced a 60-day amnesty in April, calling upon Somalis who had been "misled" by Al-Shabab to disarm, and declaring war on those who failed to do so. At the London conference, Farmajo said that he had put a two-year timeframe on defeating the militants, who control much of the countryside in southern Somalia.

"What a two year deadline does is it focuses the president and his government, but it also requires the international community to focus, and that's a good thing," says Shannon.