3 July 2014
Last updated at 16:59
African Union troops look to US contractors for training and supplies
The United States has for the first time in recent years given details of its military presence inside Somalia.
US officials told Reuters news agency that there were “up to 120 troops on the ground”.
The BBC has seen some of these soldiers, who work with African Union and Somali government troops fighting al-Shabab Islamist insurgents.
The total number of armed Americans on the Somali government side, including contractors, is probably much higher.
US officials in Washington told Reuters the plan was to deepen military involvement with the Somali National Army.
This follows several years of US military and financial backing for the 22,000-strong African Union force Amisom, which fights on behalf of the relatively weak Somali government.
I saw about a dozen of the US soldiers earlier this year.
They were travelling with, and advising, the commanders of an Amisom military convoy in central Somalia. The Americans were clearly well armed and operational.
African Union police undergoing training in vehicle checks in Mogadishu last month
But the now-acknowledged “official” US soldiers are not the full extent of the armed American presence in Somalia.
The US government also pays US military contractors to help supply and train Amisom. Many of these men – there are certainly scores, if not hundreds of them – are also armed.
The contractors are officially civilian but many look remarkably like soldiers.
They fulfil a crucial function for Amisom.
The African troops and the Somali government army rely largely for the transport, food and accommodation that allow them to operate on a United Nations agency called the UN Support Office for Somalia (Unsoa).
But the mainly civilian Unsoa staff do not tend to go outside well-guarded military bases. So the armed US contractors support the African troops in the battlefields.
In addition to this, there are a number of Americans in Somalia operating surveillance drones.
Some come into Somalia briefly from a US airbase just outside the country, in Djibouti. Others are based in the heavily guarded airport in the capital Mogadishu.
When I was in the central Somali town of Baidoa earlier this year I saw a brand-new looking plane arrive at the airport (it stood out because most planes one sees in Somalia are battered and ancient).
It parked at the far end of the runway, away from prying eyes.
“That’s the American drone people coming for the day,” an airport official told me.
It is known that in the past year armed Americans have engaged with al-Shabab several times.
On one occasion US forces tried but failed to capture an al-Shabab commander in the Islamists’ coastal stronghold of Barawe.
On another occasion, several Americans joined a hot pursuit operation against suspected al-Shabab fighters who had attacked an African Union convoy.