This article is the latest in a new series we are producing in partnership Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute that features the voices of experts and advocates from countries affected by U.S. national security policies. Earlier pieces in this series are here.
On a clear afternoon in December 2017, five alleged civilians, including a five-year-old child, were killed in an apparent airstrike in Ilimeey, a small village in southwestern Somalia. Eyewitnesses to the incident believe the attack came from a U.S drone. Two of those believed to have been killed in the strike were members of the same family, leaving a three-month-old without a father and a brother.
Robleh* a clan elder from Ilimeey, and a witness to the strike, recalled the painful details of the attack when he came to visit the Mogadishu offices of my NGO, the Somali Human Rights Association (SOHRA), an independent human rights and humanitarian organization that investigates, documents, and monitors the human rights situation in Somalia since April 2002. As part of its work to advance human rights protections in Somalia, SOHRA has a team of six field researchers and three volunteers that document civilian harm on the ground.
Robleh was outside his home in Ilimeey on December 6, 2017, when he heard a steady, humming sound overhead. He looked to see what was causing the sound and noticed a strange plane. It was a little after Islam’s midday Dhuhr prayers when he saw the plane fire a missile. Robleh then heard what sounded like the roar of thunder, followed by the screams of his neighbors.
“I rushed to the site of impact and saw that the bomb caused a hole as deep as a watering well and destroyed six homes. The bomb melted like steel. I looked closer, and all I saw was death in the destruction,” recalled Robleh.
While Ilimeey is located in an area that Al-Shabaab controlled, village residents say the air assault that December afternoon claimed the lives of five civilians. Among them were five-year-old Osman Hussein, his 43-year-old father, Osman Hussein Abdi, and a 17-year-old girl, Amina Abdow. Osman Hussein Abdi’s three-month-old daughter, Safiya Osman Hussein, was also injured, together with Mohamed Nuur Hussein, 23, who was following his goats for grazing when he was unfortunate enough to pass the village tea shop that was struck.
Robleh told me that the survivors, Safiya and Mohamed Nuur, were taken to Medina Hospital in Mogadishu to be treated for shrapnel injuries, receiving treatment for nearly a month before they returned to Ilimeey.
No power to raise their case
Most of the residents in Ilimeey are poor farmers, or earn a living by tending to their herd. Unlike the survivors of other, well-documented, U.S. actions in Somalia, such as the August 2017 raid in Bariire, residents from Ilimeey hail from a small village of just 156 families, all members of the Garre clan – a group with no political influence or power to raise the profile of the incident. In the Bariire case, survivors and families hailed from an influential clan and were able to challenge U.S. government claims that no civilians were killed by raising media and public pressure, which forced the U.S. government to re-open an investigation to assess the claims of civilian casualties. (To date, it is not clear whether the results of the Bariire investigation will be released to the public.)
But for clans and families in areas with less influence, or in areas with no government control, there is less attention and public pressure when civilians are allegedly killed. With little or no acknowledgment, families in these areas feel there is no way to obtain justice for the harm they suffer.
Who was responsible for the Ilimeey strike?
The alleged strike in Ilimeey coincides with a surge in U.S. strikes in Somalia that has occurred over the last several months. In an attempt to understand what Robleh saw, SOHRA showed him photos of different aircraft after our interview. He viewed photos of a Kenyan military aircraft, which operate in Somalia, as well as several different types of aircraft used by the U.S. government in its military operations. He pointed to the MQ-9 Reaper drone, identifying it as the strange pilotless plane he saw and heard.
While the U.S. military has acknowledged carrying out operations in the same Lower Shabelle region in the past, it denied carrying out strikes the day of the December 2017 Ilimeey attack. When asked by the Guardian about Kenyan operations in Somalia, Francisco Madeira, a spokesperson from the African Union Peacekeeping Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), claimed that Kenya had “not been responsible for strikes in Somalia in 2017.” (Kenyan armed forces have been conducting operations against Al-Shabaab in Somalia since October 2011 and were officially integrated into AMISOM operations in 2012.)
Investigations and Transparency are needed
If indeed carried out by the United States, the strike in Ilimeey would be one of several recent U.S. operations in the country that have allegedly led to civilian deaths. As the Bariire raid demonstrates, these strikes and military operations may not be killing members of Al-Shabaab, but the innocent civilians trapped under Al-Shabaab’s control.
Al-Shabaab is responsible for significant civilian harm in Somalia, including through explosive weapons, suicide attacks, targeted assassinations, and public executions. It is also responsible for restricting the movement of Somalis from accessing goods and assistance. We want them to be stopped. But Somalis are afraid that the tactics used to defeat Al-Shabaab are not effectively protecting civilians.
Somalis see foreign troops in the country as a necessary evil: at least until the weak Somali government and army become strong enough to maintain security. At the same time, Somalis are growing resentful that the foreign actors meant to be protecting the security of the Somali people are actually causing further harm – harm, which is unacknowledged, or at the worst, not believed.
Robleh came to SOHRA to find someone who could speak on behalf of his case and to recognize the harm that members of his clan have suffered. When I asked him what he would want to tell the American government, he said: “We want the U.S. government to fight Al-Shabaab and protect us without treating all of us as the enemy.”
The lack of information about airstrikes in Somalia is the single greatest obstacle to accountability. For most Somali victims of Al-Shabaab attacks, they seek protection and stability, as well as an acknowledgment of their loss. But ineffective U.S. military operations that result in civilian harm will only breed further resentment toward the U.S. and the West, especially if there continues to be no accountability.
If the Americans did carry out the Ilimeey strike which allegedly killed five civilians, including two children, then they need to at a minimum, publicly acknowledge responsibility for the strike, investigate the incident, and offer assistance to the families and victims. If the Americans did not carry out the strike, they need to explain so publicly.
*Not his real name.