President Donald Trump reportedly has asked the Pentagon for plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Somalia. But any potential drawdown of the 650 to 800 troops on the ground does not necessarily mean an end to U.S. military action in the country. And regardless of whether they stay or leave, any decision will be cold comfort to the many Somali civilians who suffer the consequences of the U.S. military’s deadly air strikes, many of which originate from bases outside of Somalia.
So far this year alone, there have been at least 47 air strikes, according to Airwars — a new record, and adding to nearly 150 in the first three years of the Trump presidency. Amnesty International, has investigated nine of these air assaults since 2019 and has determined that 21 civilians were killed and 11 injured. We have documented strikes that appeared to violate international humanitarian law, failing to take feasible precautions to spare civilians, and in some cases directly targeting persons Amnesty International has determined are civilians.
U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), which carries out the Somalia strikes, publicly states its main goal is to bring stability to the country and acknowledges this will not be achieved through purely military means. But AFRICOM’s words do not match its actions.
While the command says the United States wants to enhance governance and economic development, and address the root causes of instability, its air strikes have shattered key elements of Somalia’s society and economy that would be needed to achieve such progress. The air assaults have killed or injured prominent businessmen, doctors, and farmers; destroyed orchards and irrigation canals; and created new waves of internally displaced persons (IDPs). The strikes have killed and injured important members of Somalia’s fragile civil society.
Every week, relatives of victims of U.S. air strikes contact me for advice on how to pursue justice for the deaths or injuries of their loved ones. Since April 2019, AFRICOM has admitted killing five Somali civilians and injuring six others in three separate air strikes. However, none of those families or victims have been compensated by AFRICOM or by the government of Somalia.
In terms of prospective economic development, farming is one of Somalia’s main livelihoods. Since 2017, Amnesty International has documented at least eight farmers killed during U.S. air strikes, most in or around their farms.
One strike that appeared to violate international humanitarian law occurred near Baladul-Rahma village in December 2018. It killed a civilian farmer and seriously wounded another man, Omar Abdi Sheikh, who goes by the name ‘Rambow’ and is an important community figure and revered traditional healer in the Lower Shabelle region.
Mohamud Salad Mohamud, a prominent businessman, banana farmer, and an office manager for the Hormuud Telecom company, was killed at his farm in February 2020. A video recorded at his Masalanja farm, near Kumbareere village, shortly after the attack shows the farm’s banana trees and the irrigation canal were destroyed.
While AFRICOM maintains he was an al-Shabaab operative, his relatives and colleagues insist he was simply a businessman working for Somalia’s largest telecommunications company. Clan elders described him as one of their community’s most productive members, who had also worked for humanitarian organizations – a detail that Amnesty International corroborated. Two other Hormuud employees were also killed in U.S. air strikes.
U.S. air assaults also have destroyed houses and community shelters. For instance, on Dec. 6, 2017, a vehicle carrying suspected al-Shabaab fighters exploded in Illimey hamlet in Lower Shabelle. The blast destroyed half the village and killed five civilians, including two children. The attack also injured two more, including an 18-month-old girl.
Earlier this year, the house of Kusow Omar Abukar was significantly damaged in an air strike in Jilib on Feb. 2 that the U.S. military has admitted killed his daughter, and injured his elderly mother and two other daughters. The father, a 50-year-old farmer, was in the house at the time and described the attack to Amnesty International.
The U.S. air strikes also create perpetual uncertainty and fear, several Somalis told me in interviews. According to the U.N., more than 180,000 people have left Lower Shabelle so far this year, many of them fleeing conflict and insecurity. Most end up in IDP camps in Mogadishu or nearby, where they risk exploitation and abuse, including sexual violence. Women and children are particularly vulnerable to abuse, marginalization, and exclusion.
In July, Amnesty International found that displaced people in the Mogadishu area are disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and are also grappling with forced evictions, lack of jobs, and inadequate water and health services.
AFRICOM insists its aim is to ‘degrade’ al-Shabaab. But in reality, this campaign is taking a heavy toll on civilians and civilian infrastructure. Air strikes that kill and injure civilians, destroy farms and irrigation canals, and increase IDPs are not the answer.
Despite AFRICOM recently acknowledging a handful of civilian casualties and establishing a means for relatives to report civilians killed by U.S. air strikes – both welcome steps – much more remains to be done to protect civilians, own up to the full scale of casualties caused, and ensure reparations for victims and their families.
Whether or not U.S. troops are withdrawn – and Bloomberg News reports that “all or almost all were sent during Trump’s presidency” — AFRICOM must immediately implement a strategy to ensure that any progress made towards accountability for U.S. military actions in Somalia is not abandoned. To comply with its obligations under international humanitarian law – and live up to its own stated goals – AFRICOM must ensure it does right by Somali civilians.
IMAGE: A Somali woman walks in an internally displaced people (IDP) camp as hundreds of people recently fled from US’s airstrikes against al-Shabaab, in Baidoa in southwest Somalia, on Dec. 18, 2018. The US military said on Dec. 17, 2018, that it had killed 62 militants from the jihadist Shabaab movement in six air strikes in Somalia. The air attacks, in a coastal region south of Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, were the deadliest in the country since November 2017, when the US said it had killed 100 militants. (Photo by MOHAMED ABDIWAHAB/AFP via Getty Images)