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Since April 2019, the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) has launched about eight airstrikes against Islamic State militants hiding in northern Somalia, killing approximately 20 militants, including the group’s second-in-command.

According to AFRICOM’s new analysis of the group’s force strength however, the ISIS-Somalia are recruiting fighters fast enough to equalize the battlefield losses despite the rise in U.S. airstrikes in the country. The command says the group could be larger than what some security analysts have estimated in the past as being between 100 and 200 fighters.

“ISIS-Somalia probably has up to 300 adherents, with the majority of fighters operating across northern Puntland,” said AFRICOM spokeswoman Samantha Reho, referring to the country’s northeastern region. “Although airstrikes have removed ISIS-Somalia terrorists from the battlefield, recruitment efforts in the region may offset some of the terrorist group’s losses.”

Concentrated in the Bari Region of Puntland, a semi-autonomous region on the tip of the Horn of Africa, the ISIS-aligned militants have had a small but tenacious presence in Somalia for several years. It is far much smaller than the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabaab, which has an estimated 5,000 fighters and has for long attempted to overthrow Somalia’s weak central government.

All of AFRICOM’s airstrikes in Somalia have been targeting al-shabaab rather than the ISIS elements until recently in April. The ISIS group emergence has further complicated security operations in the country and has prompted the U.S.-backed Somali military to take intensive action against them.

According to AFRICOM, Somalia’s military, with the help of “partner forces,” has made a push into the territory where ISIS operates. The command says ISIS-Somalia is able to take advantage of the clan ties of its key leaders to gain influence and recruit members.

“In addition to clan loyalty, segments of the local population likely support ISIS-Somalia, and in some cases, join the group for a range of other reasons, including monetary, and a belief in ISIS’s ideology,” Reho said. “These factors provide ISIS-Somalia a potential pool of recruits,” she added.

Despite being small, ISIS-Somalia is strong and is just as successful in recruitment like the larger Islamic State affiliate, ISIS-West Africa, which operates in Nigeria and the larger Lake Chad region. ISIS-West Africa has made frontline gains in northeast Nigeria, sprung cross-border attacks in places like Niger and begun laying the groundwork for a proto-state. AFRICOM now says the group is attempting to replace the role of the Nigerian state in places where the population is under its control.

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