Washington — The escalating American military engagement in Somalia has led the Obama administration to expand the legal scope of the war against Al Qaeda, a move that will strengthen President-elect Donald J. Trump’s authority to combat thousands of militants in the chaotic Horn of Africa nation.
The administration has decided to deem the Shabab, the militant group in Somalia, to be part of the armed conflict that Congress authorized against the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to senior American officials. The move is intended to shore up the legal basis for an intensifying campaign of airstrikes and other counterterrorism operations, carried out largely in support of African Union and Somali government forces.
The executive branch’s stretching of the 2001 war authorization against the original Al Qaeda to cover other groups in countries far from Afghanistan — even ones, like the Shabab, that did not exist at the time — has prompted recurring objections from some legal and foreign policy experts.
The Shabab decision is expected to be publicly disclosed next month in a letter to Congress listing global deployments. It is part of the Obama administration’s pattern of relaxing various self-imposed rules for airstrikes against terrorist militants as it tries to help its partner forces in several conflicts.
In June, the administration quietly broadened the military’s authority to carry out airstrikes in Afghanistan to encompass operations intended “to achieve strategic effects,” meaning targeting people impeding the work of Afghan government forces, officials said. Previously, strikes in Afghanistan were permitted only in self-defense, for counterterrorism operations targeting Qaeda or ISIS forces, or to “prevent a strategic defeat” of Afghan forces.
Later in the summer, the administration deemed Surt, Libya, an “area of active hostilities,” after the Libyan prime minister asked for assistance in dislodging ISIS militants from that city. The move exempted the area from 2013 rules that restrict drone strikes and other counterterrorism operations away from battlefield zones, which President Obama had announced in a major speech that year that sought to turn a page in the long-running war against Al Qaeda.
As of last week, the Pentagon had carried out 420 airstrikes against militants in Surt since August.
In Somalia, the 2013 rules limiting airstrikes away from “areas of active hostilities” still apply for now. But in practice, restrictions are being eased there in another way: Over the past year, the military has routinely invoked a built-in exception to those rules for airstrikes taken in “self-defense,” which can include strikes to help foreign partners even when Americans are not at direct risk.
The Shabab grew up as an insurgency after 2007, when Ethiopia, with American support, invaded Somalia to overthrow an extremist council that had briefly taken control of much of the long-chaotic country.
The officials familiar with the internal deliberations spoke on the condition of anonymity. In a statement, Lisa Monaco, Mr. Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, emphasized that the terrorist threat “is constantly evolving and requires an adaptable response.”
The administration’s strategy, Ms. Monaco said, “recognizes that we must more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks take hold, enabling and empowering these partners to share the burden of combating these threats to our mutual interests.”
“Because the threats and enemies we face evolve and adapt,” she continued, “we must be flexible in confronting them where they are — always doing so consistent with our laws and our values.”
But some experts criticized the administration for using a 15-year-old congressional authorization as a justification to go to war with the Shabab.
“It’s crazy that a piece of legislation that was grounded specifically in the experience of 9/11 is now being repurposed for close air support for regional security forces in Somalia,” said Micah Zenko, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Under the 2001 authorization, the United States is engaged in an armed conflict with a specific organization, not every extremist militant in the world. But that authority has proved elastic.
In 2014, for example, Mr. Obama declared that the 2001 law authorized him to battle the ISIS in Iraq and Syria. An Army captain rejected that claim and argued that the ISIS war was illegal because Congress had never explicitly approved it. Last week, a judge dismissed that lawsuit, without ruling on its merits.
In Somalia, the United States had long taken the position that a handful of Shabab leaders, as individuals, had sufficient ties to Al Qaeda to make them wartime targets. But it has debated internally for years whether the Shabab as a whole, including their thousands of foot soldiers, can or should be declared part of the enemy.
To qualify as an “associated force,” a group must be an organized armed body that has aligned with Al Qaeda and entered the fight against the United States or its partners. Officials declined to discuss whether there were specific new reasons to justify declaring that the Shabab could meet that standard.
The New York Times