The US military has acknowledged 27 air strikes in Somalia this year, on track to triple the 47 conducted in 2018. These official figures, though, are likely lowballs; as I discovered earlier this year. Still, US Africa Command, known as AFRICOM, issues a consistent flow of press statements that make public many of the strikes, and each release contains nearly identical language: “At this time, it is assessed no civilians were injured or killed in this air strike.”
But on Tuesday, just hours before Amnesty International released a report that indicated that US strikes were killing civilians, AFRICOM added something new to a press release: “Also, we are aware of reports alleging civilian casualties resulting from this air strike,” it said. “As with any allegation of civilian casualties we receive, U.S. Africa Command will review any information it has about the incident, including any relevant information provided by third parties.”
The last time an AFRICOM press release even mentioned potential civilian casualties in Somalia was in June 2018, after it found claims of noncombatant deaths in an operation in which the United States had played an “advise and assist role,” not credible. AFRICOM has repeatedly and unconvincingly claimed no civilians have been killed in US air strikes.
The Amnesty report, which relied on interviews with 142 survivors of alleged US air strikes, echoes much of my previous report for The Nation, done in partnership with Type Investigations, on the secretive US war in Somalia. Amnesty researchers found credible evidence of 14 civilian deaths from just five strikes.
“Most concerning to us is that we were only able to investigate a small portion of Somalia—Lower Shabelle, near the capital Mogadishu—and we found 14 dead in only five strikes,” Brian Castner, Amnesty International’s senior crisis adviser on arms and military operations, told me in an e-mail. “As AFRICOM has conducted over 100 strikes in the last two years, sometimes claiming as many as 100 dead “terrorists” per strike, I fear the actual civilian casualty toll could be much higher.”
The report goes further than just documenting civilian deaths. It argues that the US air strikes in Somalia could constitute war crimes, as they violate principles of distinction and proportionality.
When asked in a congressional hearing earlier this month if the United States is at war in Somalia, Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, the commander of AFRICOM said, “I wouldn’t characterize that we’re at war. It’s specifically designed for us not to own that.” Amnesty, however, says that, based on the US military’s actions, it considers the United States to be a party to the conflict.
One of the people killed in the March 19 strike was named Abdiqadir Nur. Reuters reported that the man was an employee of Somalia’s largest telecom firm, Hormuud. Nur was killed with three others, including his brother. The men were hit driving in the afternoon through a village in Lower Shabelle, a region near Mogadishu, Somalia’s coastal capital. The strikes was similar to one of the five cases detailed in the Amnesty report, in which another three civilian men were driving with a suspected member of Al Shabab in a rural area. Indeed, one of the men who died in that incident also worked for Hormuud, which told Amnesty that he was a civilian.
In 2017, three months into Donald Trump’s first term as president, The New York Times reported that the administration had made swaths of Somalia “an area of active hostilities.” The United States has been conducting targeted strikes in Somalia since 2011, but this designation expanded the military’s mandate. According to the article, AFRICOM was empowered to carry out offensive strikes in the country on anyone deemed a member of Al Shabab. Previously, a person also had to present a threat to the US. Under Trump, there were also fewer requirements for interagency vetting before an attack could be launched. Waldhauser, the top officer at Africa Command, said he had been advocating for this, because it gave AFRICOM more “flexibility.”
This flexibility, the report says, endangers civilians who live in proximity to Al Shabab or in Al Shabab-controlled areas—still a large portion of the country. This creates conditions where civilians can be misclassified as lawful targets.
When I investigated the easing of US targeting restrictions, AFRICOM was not forthcoming about what threshold makes someone a target. Amnesty had a similar difficulties. “AFRICOM says the right things about wanting to be transparent, but when the rubber hits the road, often claims that they cannot answer questions in any specificity because of operations or security reasons,” Castner wrote in an e-mail to me. “We are not asking for sensitive intelligence. We are asking basic questions about who they broadly consider to be a legitimate target. We would challenge that many policies they call classified now—such as targeting policy, or civilian protection policies—were not restricted only a few years ago.”
I also found that this increased flexibility can be fatal, because the United States does not have the capacity to collect good information on the ground. “There’s not enough intelligence to justify kinetic strikes,” one high-level Somali security official told me last year.
The Office of the President of Somalia did not respond to an e-mail asking for a comment on the Amnesty report. Abdillahi Mohamed Sanbalooshe, the director of Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency in 2014 and again from April 2017 through February 2018, told me that Somalia’s president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, known as a Farmajo, gave the emboldened US military a “blank check” when it came to air strikes.
For its part, AFRICOM disavowed Amnesty’s findings in a statement: “We believe the report does not accurately reflect AFRICOM’s record in mitigating civilian casualties.” AFRICOM, however, maintained it could not share why this was true, because its intelligence methods are not available to the public.
“As far as we can tell,” Castner wrote in an e-mail, “AFRICOM doesn’t do any on the ground investigations, and none of the 150 people we interviewed had ever spoken to a government official, Somali or American, about these attacks.”