Earlier this month, President Donald Trump issued an executive order that eliminated any requirement for the government to publicly report civilian casualties and combatant deaths resulting from lethal operations conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Although he couched it as merely eliminating President Barack Obama’s order that had become redundant of reporting requirements Congress subsequently put in place, experts and former government officials have taken issue with that characterization. Luke Hartig, senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council under President Obama, called it “a move that is disingenuous at best, willfully deceptive at worst.”
Now, a new report on civilian casualties from U.S. lethal air strikes in Somalia illustrates just how important honest reporting from the government on civilian casualties really is — regardless of which agency is doing the killing.
Based on first-hand testimony from witnesses and survivors, analysis of satellite imagery and data, and interviews with medical personnel and other experts, researchers from Amnesty International, where I work, have documented 14 civilians killed, and eight injured, by just five U.S. strikes in the Lower Shabelle region of Somalia between April 2017 and December 2018. The Trump administration has dramatically ramped up air strikes targeting the armed group al Shabaab there. Although the Defense Department’s U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) acknowledges tripling the annual rate of attacks since January 2017, it also insists they have not killed a single civilian.
So what accounts for the discrepancy?
There are several plausible explanations: 1) AFRICOM isn’t doing a very good job of investigating the consequences of its air strikes; 2) AFRICOM takes an overly-broad view of who qualifies as a combatant or lawful target under international law; 3) AFRICOM is simply failing to distinguish civilians from combatants, as international law requires, and instead naming everyone who was killed a “militant” and a lawful target without sufficient information to draw such a conclusion; and 4) another US government agency — the CIA — is causing the civilian casualties.
The answer may well be a combination of all four.
AFRICOM acknowledges conducting four of the five strikes Amnesty documented, but denies conducting one of them, and denies their strikes caused any civilian casualties.
In the four acknowledged strikes, it seems, based on Amnesty’s reporting, civilians were killed or injured either because they were near an al-Shabaab target or because they were mistakenly assumed to be al-Shabaab targets.
These are the four acknowledged strikes:
- On October 16, 2017, a U.S. armed drone targeted a suspected Al-Shabaab vehicle travelling between the towns of Awdheegle and Barire. The first of two strikes missed the apparent target, killing two civilians, and injuring five civilians, including two children. The second strike destroyed the vehicle and killed the suspected Al-Shabaab fighters inside. AFRICOM acknowledged conducting “a precision-guided strike that corresponds to the time and location alleged, targeting al-Shabaab fighters.” It denies causing any civilian casualties: “Information gathered before and after the strike indicated that all individuals injured or killed were members or affiliates of al-Shabaab.” AFRICOM does not address the matter of the civilians killed and five injured in the settlement beside the road. It is also not clear why AFRICOM targeted the truck at a time when it was beside a populated settlement, when it appears that the truck had been traveling earlier along a road in an area that is uninhabited.
- On November 12, 2017, three civilian farmers were killed by a U.S. air strike outside the village of Darusalaam as they camped out on the edge of a road. They had been irrigating their farm late into the night, a practice common in the region, where farmers rely on flood irrigation from the nearby Shabelle river. They carried no weapons. AFRICOM responded that this strike hit only members of al Shabaab.
- On August 2, 2018, a U.S. drone strike killed three civilians, including two well-diggers and an employee from Hormuud Telecommunications Company, as they drove a vehicle in a rural area near Gobanle village. A suspected Al-Shabaab member in the vehicle was also killed. AFRICOM acknowledges the strike and notes that a pro-al Shabaab media outlet alleged civilian casualties.AFRICOM said it “conducted a CIVCAS allegation assessment and determined that the allegation was not credible based on the unreliability of the source and the fact that the individuals targeted were members of al-Shabaab.” AFRICOM did not respond to the evidence presented by Amnesty that three of the men killed were civilians.
- In the early hours of December 9, 2018, a U.S. air strike near the village of Baladul-Rahma killed one civilian farmer and injured another, as they irrigated their farm. AFRICOM acknowledged conducting the strikes but did not address whether anyone was killed or injured.
This is the strike AFRICOM does not acknowledge:
- On December 6, 2017, five civilians, including two children, were killed when a vehicle carrying suspected Al-Shabaab fighters in the hamlet of Illimey exploded. The explosion injured two more civilians, including an 18-month-old girl. Everyone in the vehicle was killed, and up to ten structures were partly or completely destroyed. Based on interviews, photographs of casualties taken at a nearby hospital and a burial site, satellite imagery and media reports, and the fact that no other armed forces were engaged in air strikes in that area, Amnesty believes that the explosion was most likely the result of an air attack by U.S. forces. AFRICOM denies it conducted a strike at this location.
At least some of these attacks apparently failed to take reasonable precautions to protect civilians or failed to adequately verify that their targets were not civilians.
To some extent, such mistakes, if that’s what they were, can be traced to a directive President Trump reportedly (and secretly) issued in March 2017, designating parts of Somalia an “area of active hostilities” (AAH). This directive loosened restrictions on lethal targeting that had been put in place by the Obama administration, in part to protect civilians.
President Obama’s 2013 “Presidential Policy Guidance” (PPG) had established procedures for action “against terrorist targets outside the United States and areas of active hostilities” and governed air strikes in Somalia until President Trump’s 2017 directive. For an air strike to be approved there, the U.S. previously needed “near certainty” that the target – “an identified HVT [high-value target] or other lawful terrorist target” – was present and civilians would not be killed or injured, absent “extraordinary circumstances.”
Trump’s 2017 AAH directive superseded the PPG and reportedly gives U.S. forces the greatest latitude to carry out strikes allowable under the United States’ interpretation of international humanitarian law (IHL). As a result, the Trump administration’s standards permit U.S. officials to target anyone who they are “reasonably certain” is formally or functionally a member of a non-state armed group. This status-based targeting approach does not require assessing whether the individual is directly participating in hostilities, let alone of “high-value” given his or her particular role.
This was a major policy change that seems to allow for an unlawfully broad interpretation of targeting rules, if it is applied to allow targeting of individuals who are not directly participating in hostilities without sufficiently verifying that they are combatants.
As Amnesty’s report notes, retired Brigadier General Donald Bolduc, who was Commander of the Special Operations Command in Africa from April 2015 to June 2017, said that since the Trump directive, AFRICOM considers individuals lawfully targetable based solely on a) age, b) gender, c) location, and 4) geographical proximity to Al-Shabaab. (Bolduc did not oversee any of the specific instances addressed in the report.) As a practical matter, then, according to General Bolduc, all military-aged males observed with known Al-Shabaab members in areas where the U.S. military believes the population is supporting or sympathetic to Al-Shabaab are now considered legitimate military targets.
AFRICOM denies Bolduc’s assertion. But this is certainly not the first time we’ve heard that standard: it was reportedly precisely the standard used back in 2012, before President Obama issued his PPG. And it goes a long way toward explaining at least some of these newly-documented civilian deaths and injuries caused by U.S. strikes.
When I asked officials at the U.S. embassy in Nairobi last year about civilian casualties from U.S. air strikes in Somalia, they dismissed all such reports as al Shabaab propoganda. But Somalis in the Lower Shabelle region where al Shabaab is active know the difference between al Shabaab fighters and local farmers and children. A policy that acknowledges that difference is required by international law. It’s also in the United States’ own strategic interest to acknowledge when local farmers are killed, leaving their neighbors terrified and destitute.
As Amnesty’s report documents, Adan Hassan Yarow, a 58-year-old well-digger and the breadwinner of his family, left behind a wife and nine children when he was killed by a U.S. drone strike. “We are living hand to mouth, that is the situation,” his friend told Amnesty’s researchers.
Liban, a resident of Darussalam village, heard the explosion from a U.S. air strike that hit nearby farms, killing three civilian men who were sleeping under a tree. “The noise of the plane was louder than before,” Liban said. “The weeks before it used to come and leave, only that night it was not leaving. It was coming and coming and coming… when the noise [of an airstrike] happened everything ceased…I was so frightened. I couldn’t keep watch on the farm at all. I went under the shelter of the tree and hid…These three young men were not expecting to be killed by a plane, and we did not expect the world to be silent.”
This new report breaks that silence and makes clear the U.S. government needs to do a much better job of investigating whom it’s killing and whether those killings were lawful. It needs to be transparent about how it’s distinguishing between combatants and civilians. And the U.S. government, no matter whether the military or the CIA is responsible, needs to report honestly and publicly when they’ve killed civilians, and make amends as best they can. For now, Congress can at least fill the accountability gap that’s been left by President Trump’s recent executive order by legislating the reporting requirement that he revoked.
IMAGE: A military drone replica is displayed in front of the White House during a protest against drone strikes on January 12, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)