What rules is the US applying to its Somalia drone strikes?

CNN today provided the most detailed account yet of the latest U.S. drone strike, carried out this past weekend in Somalia. US officials (quoted  anonymously by CNN) said the strike targeted al-Shabaab suspect Ahmed Abdi Godane.  The report also notes that the strike was carried out by the Defense Department, and that officials said that it was unclear yet whether Godane was killed in the attack.

The report also contains a detail that raises questions about what rules the U.S. applies to its strikes in Somalia.

According to CNN:

 “The military was authorized to try to kill [Ahmed Abdi] Godane because of current intelligence indicating he posed an ‘imminent threat’ against U.S. interests in the region, one official said.”

The President’s Policy Guidance, publicly released in summarized form in May 2013 when the President delivered his important NDU speech, sets out the U.S. rules for the use of force in counter-terrorism operations outside areas of active hostilities. It provides, among other restrictions on the U.S. use of lethal force:

 “[T]he United States will use lethal force only against a target that poses a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons.” (emphasis mine)

That policy restriction — that the threat be against U.S. persons — is at odds with the much broader construction — U.S. interests – in the CNN report. Does this mean that separate rules are being applied in Somalia? Is Somalia considered inside areas of active hostilities, and thus excluded from the Policy Guidance (like Pakistan and Afghanistan)? Or was this particular strike exempted from the Policy Guidance because of “extraordinary circumstances”? Or is this simply imprecise reporting or a poorly-worded official explanation of a strike? 

About the Author(s)

Sarah Knuckey

Associate Clinical Professor of Law at Columbia Law School, Director of the Human Rights Clinic, Co-Director of the Human Rights Institute, Former Special Advisor to the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions (2007-2016) Follow her on Twitter (@SarahKnuckey).