For one, the official said, the Taliban have not expressed an intention of attacking the United States, and other militant groups in Afghanistan do not control significant enclaves of territory from which to operate and plan.
Given that Al Shabab appears to pose a more significant threat, the administration concluded that more direct engagement in Somalia made sense, the official said. The strategy would focus on disrupting a few Shabab leaders who are deemed a direct peril to “us, and our interests and our allies,” and maintaining “very carefully cabined presence on the ground to be able to work with our partners.”
Intelligence officials estimate that Al Shabab has about 5,000 to 10,000 members; the group, which formally pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda in 2012, has sought to impose its extremist version of Islam on the chaotic Horn of Africa country.
While Al Shabab mostly fights inside Somalia and only occasionally attacks neighboring countries, some members are said to harbor ambitions to strike the United States. In December 2020, prosecutors in Manhattan charged an accused Shabab operative from Kenya with plotting a Sept. 11-style attack on an American city. He had been arrested in the Philippines as he trained to fly planes.
Mr. Biden’s decision followed months of interagency deliberations led by the White House’s top counterterrorism adviser, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, over whether to accept the Pentagon plan, maintain the status quo or further reduce engagement in Somalia.
In evaluating those options, Ms. Sherwood-Randall and other top security officials visited Somalia and nearby Kenya and Djibouti, both of which host American forces, in October.
The administration’s deliberations about whether and how to more robustly go back into Somalia have been complicated by political chaos there, as factions in its fledgling government fought each other and elections were delayed. But Somalia recently elected a new parliament, and over the weekend, leaders selected a new president, deciding to return to power Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who led the country from 2012 to 2017.