The US military targeted a training camp run by the Somali Islamist group al Shabaab over the weekend, the Pentagon announced on Monday, killing more than 150 people.
"It was a successful strike," said Pentagon spokesperson Captain Jeff Davis, revealing that the drone had destroyed "Raso Camp," located roughly 120 miles north of Mogadishu. He added that US intelligence had indicated that the group was preparing for a "large-scale attack" and posed a threat to US and African Union forces in Somalia.
"Initial assessments are that more than 150 terrorist fighters were eliminated," he noted.
Peter Cook, the Pentagon's press secretary, said in a statement that the strike was conducted using manned and unmanned aircraft. The "removal" of those fighters, he said, "degrades al Shabaab's ability to meet the group's objectives, including recruiting new members, establishing bases, and planning attacks on US and AMISOM forces" — the latter an acronym for the African Union Mission in Somalia.
Whether all 150 people killed in the strike were actually al Shabaab militants, as the government was quick to estimate, is unclear. During its first term, the Obama administration changed the definition of "militant" to mean "all military-age males in a strike zone" — an adjustment that could mitigate the number of civilian deaths in such a setting.
If the death toll is accurate, Micah Zenko, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), said it would be "the most lethal counterterrorism strike" by the US that he is aware of. According to his own data, the weekend's strike killed more targets than any preceding counterterrorism operation in Somalia by the US to date.
The al Qaeda-affiliated al Shabaab was pushed out of Mogadishu by African Union peacekeeping forces in 2011 but has remained a potent antagonist in the region, launching frequent attacks in its bid to overthrow the Western-backed government in Somalia.
The group has over the years waged a number of high-profile attacks, including a massacre of 148 people at Garissa University in Kenya last year and the detonation of a bomb on board a Somali commercial aircraft last month, which forced the plane to make an emergency landing in Mogadishu.
Last year, a US drone strike in southern Somalia killed Adnan Garaar, an al Shabaab leader who was believed to be behind the group's assault on Nairobi's Westgate shopping mall that killed 67 people in 2013.
Around the time that the US drone strike was announced on Monday, Australia's navy said it had seized a huge cache of weapons near the coast of Oman from a fishing boat bound for Somalia. The arms recovered from the vessel included almost 2,000 AK-47 rifles, 100 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, 49 PKM machine guns, 39 PKM spare barrels, and 20 mortar tubes. They were found hidden under fishing nets.
The United Nations has a decades-long arms embargo in place against Somalia, which has been mired in conflict since civil war broke out in 1991.
One Western security source said that the street value of the Australian navy haul appeared to be more than $2 million.
The Australian navy did not indicate who was the intended recipient of the weapons. Besides al Shabaab, some regional states in Somalia operate and equip their own militias without the approval of the central government.