Editor’s note: This article is part of a mini-forum on U.S. military operations in Somalia and civilian casualties. Other articles include analysis by Luke Hartig and Daniel Mahanty.
While much of the world tries to fight a global pandemic that has already killed thousands, the U.S. military has been secretly stepping up its war in Somalia, killing civilians in the process.
Soon after President Donald Trump took office in 2017, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) began ramping up its air war. Since then, it’s only increased its tempo. In the first few months of 2020, the U.S. has already conducted at least 39 airstrikes in Somalia. To put that in perspective, AFRICOM carried out 63 air strikes during the entirety of 2019.
The U.S. says these airstrikes are to assist the government of Somalia in its war against the non-state armed group al-Shabaab and “increase the security of the Somali people as these terrorists indiscriminately attack and extort innocent civilians.” Yet the increase in strike activity has not fulfilled its purpose on the ground. Al-Shabaab was driven out of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, by a multinational force led by the African Union Mission to Somalia, or AMISOM, in 2011, but still controls vast swaths of the Somali countryside. Even if al-Shabaab was pushed out of this territory, the government of Somalia appears to be incapable of securing and governing those parts of the country. On top of that, al-Shabaab’s lethal attacks on civilians in Somalia have only increased even as the U.S. ramps up its bombing.
In the meantime, the U.S. continues to kill a growing number of civilians with these airstrikes, without acknowledgement or accountability. A year ago, Amnesty International — where I work — reported the deaths of 14 civilians in just five air strikes that it was able to investigate. The U.S., at that point, had acknowledged 131 lethal air strikes in Somalia since early 2017, but claimed that all of those killed were “terrorists.” AFRICOM says it investigates claims of civilian casualties, but it does not contact witnesses, family or community members to determine who the victims were. In the past year, the U.S. has acknowledged civilian deaths occurred in two cases, but even then, it never contacted the family or offered them assistance.
Then in February, it happened again.
According to new research by Amnesty International, on February 2, around 8 p.m. in Somalia, a family of five was having dinner in the city of Jilib, when an air-dropped weapon struck their home. Nurto Kusow Omar Abukar, an 18-year-old woman, was struck in the head and killed instantly. Her two younger sisters, Fatuma and Adey, ages 12 and 7, and their grandmother, Khadija Mohamed Gedow, 70, were all injured.
Then on February 24, a Hellfire missile from another U.S. airstrike hit a farm near the village of Kumbareere, 10 kilometers north of Jilib. It killed 53-year-old Mohamud Salad Mohamud, a banana farmer and office manager for Hormuud Telecom. He left behind a wife and eight children.
A senior Hormuud official expressed shock that his employee had been targeted, since Mohamud had previously worked for international humanitarian organizations and had been arrested several times by al-Shabaab, the armed group the U.S. is fighting in Somalia.
“When I heard the news of his death, I thought he was killed by al-Shabaab,” the official told Amnesty. “I have never imagined he would be killed by [the] U.S. or by the Somali government. This was very strange. I don’t know how to explain it.”
At a time when the U.S. public is beginning to take a hard look at the operations, impact and costs of federal government functions in all areas, the U.S. military’s strategy for fighting non-state armed groups abroad should be no exception. Since 9/11, the U.S. government has spent or obligated $6.4 trillion dollars on the wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq alone, according to Brown University’s Costs of War project. The costs of the U.S. war in Somalia, both monetary and in terms of civilian lives, remain largely unknown. But The Costs of War project concludes that “the political costs of US interventions in Somalia post-9/11 include the creation and expansion of Al-Shabaab as an effective organ of terror in the Horn of Africa, with international connections to Al-Qaeda.”
In one sign of progress, following Amnesty’s most recent report, AFRICOM announced it would begin publishing quarterly data on its assessments of civilian casualties allegations. That’s a good first step, but if the data simply reflects shoddy investigations or inaccurate assumptions, it won’t tell us much.
The Department of Defense and Congress have a role to play here. The Department of Defense needs to ensure that AFRICOM is conducting meaningful investigations of all claims of civilian casualties, which should include interviews with witnesses, family and community members of those killed. AFRICOM cannot simply be allowed to claim, based on secret intelligence, that all of its victims were “terrorists,” with no questions asked. Intelligence sources may not be reliable, may have limited information themselves, and may have ulterior motives, particularly in a country like Somalia with many longstanding conflicts and rivalries. The growing evidence that U.S. strikes have killed many more civilians than the U.S. has acknowledged demands a better response.
Congress, for its part, can insist that AFRICOM provide all of the information needed to make an honest assessment of who U.S. forces are killing and injuring. Are they members of armed groups who pose an actual threat to the United States? Or are they civilians struggling to survive in a zone of conflict beyond their control? It makes a huge difference. We all deserve better answers.