Defense Department officials said the service member, who was not identified, was killed during an operation in which Americans advised and assisted Somali troops targeting a Shabab compound. Pentagon helicopters delivered Somali forces to the operation near Barii, about 40 miles west of the capital, Mogadishu, officials said. American advisers hung back, per the rules of engagement, while the Somalis carried out the raid.
“We helped bring them in with our aircraft,” said Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman. “We were there maintaining a distance back while they were conducting the operation. That’s when our forces came under fire, which unfortunately resulted in the death.”
The spokesman said the attackers were “quickly neutralized on the ground,” but would not say whether the operation was otherwise considered successful. Officials familiar with the matter separately said the American killed was a member of the SEALs.
The Shabab quickly seized on the commando’s death as a propaganda tool, with a spokesman telling a militant-run radio station that “the enemy returned back to where they came from along with wounds and deaths.”
The combat death and the expanded targeting authority come at a delicate moment for Somalia, where there are hopes that the new president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, may have the potential to achieve stability amid the drought and famine.
Mr. Trump signed a directive on March 30 declaring swaths of Somalia an “area of active hostilities,” which exempted it from rules imposed by President Barack Obama in 2013 for counterterrorism operations away from conventional battlefields. Mr. Obama required high-level vetting of proposed strikes and a standard of near-certainty that no civilians would be killed. Normally in war, the law permits some civilian deaths if deemed necessary and proportionate to a legitimate military aim.
The United States carried out at least 14 airstrikes in Somalia in 2016, but its last one — an operation that was mounted to defend Somali and African Union forces and American advisers during an anti-Shabab operation and that killed no Shabab fighters — was on Jan. 7, according to Africom. And after Chinese state news media reported last month that the United States had carried out a major and successful strike at a Shabab hide-out, Africom protested that it had not.
Since Mr. Trump removed the Obama-era targeting constraints on the military, General Waldhauser and his aides have repeatedly stressed that the United States will continue to follow a similar targeting standard requiring near-certainty of no civilian deaths from strikes.
“It shouldn’t have gone unnoticed that we have not exercised” the enhanced authorities, General Waldhauser said at a news conference in Djibouti on April 23.
General Waldhauser said that when targets and an opportunity are identified, the military will strike. But he emphasized that the tens of thousands of citizens uprooted because of the drought have complicated the military’s tracking and targeting of Shabab militants. Aid organizations also cite reports of Shabab getting involved in at least some food distribution efforts, even if only for propaganda purposes.
As a result, the military is reviewing all its potential targets, examining updated intelligence reports on flows of displaced civilians, and confirming with aid organizations where they are operating in Somalia, as first reported by The Intercept last week.
One expert also noted the adjustment in the military to life under Mr. Trump. Though he has given the Pentagon more freedom to act without first getting White House approval, he also blamed generals when a commando raid he had approved in Yemen in January resulted in numerous civilian killings, the death of another Navy SEAL and the loss of a $75 million aircraft.
“D.O.D. has more cover to act aggressively when the president has a reputation for restraint and less cover when the president has a reputation for aggressiveness, because everything D.O.D. does will be judged through that lens,” said Jack Goldsmith, referring to the Department of Defense. Mr. Goldsmith is a Harvard law professor who dealt with counterterrorism legal policy as a senior Bush administration official.
General Waldhauser himself made the decision to keep constraints in place, said Maj. Audricia Harris, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon.
“This is his prerogative as the combatant commander,” she said. “He is the one who is going to decide how much risk he is going to take.”
Several administration officials said they took General Waldhauser’s explanation at face value: There are military and political reasons to plan extremely carefully before using the broader authorities to strike Shabab.
Security officials say the military in Somalia has shown more restraint in recent years to avoid civilian casualties. In October 2013, for instance, members of the Navy SEALs aborted a mission to capture or kill a top Shabab leader near Barawe in order to avoid killing civilians. It was a small embarrassment for the commandos, but also evidence of the premium that the United States has placed on protecting civilian lives during counterterrorism operations, security officials said.
“While U.S. and other allied intelligence has improved immensely in recent years, the situation remains very fluid on the ground and is likely to become even more so with the famine pushing more and more people to uproot themselves,” said J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center of the Atlantic Council, a policy research group in Washington.
General Waldhauser must also contend with the public-relations fallout that would come from an errant strike that killed civilians and how an accidental strike could undercut the legitimacy of the new civilian Somali government, particularly ahead of an international donors conference on Somalia next week in London.
The Barii area where the SEAL team member was killed is a muddy farming community. Once a part of Somalia’s farming heartland, it has deteriorated into an area of small scattered farms that mostly grow bananas and mangoes, connected by windy, slippery roads. It is the rainy season and much of Barii, a Shabab stronghold for years and home to several Shabab senior commanders, is mud.
Many times during the past year, residents said, elite Somali commandos trained by American special forces have tried to drive the Shabab out of Barii, but the militant group, which is affiliated with Al Qaeda, has fought fiercely to protect it.
American military and diplomatic officials say that given the additional scrutiny from both Congress and the news media on how Africom will use its expanded authorities, General Waldhauser and his top lieutenants are going to proceed judiciously, but eventually decisively.
“As opportunities do present themselves, we will be responsible, selective and methodical before taking any action in Somalia,” said Lt. Cmdr. Anthony J. Falvo, a spokesman for the Africa Command. “We understand the myriad responsibilities that come with these enhanced authorities and we take those responsibilities very seriously.”