February 2, 2024

The US Military Ignores and Neglects the Civilian Victims of Its Air Strikes

The United States can find time to issue orders for new air strikes but not to issue apologies for past errant attacks.

Nick Turse
American military helicopter wreckage in Mogadishu
Children play on American military helicopter wreckage in Mogadishu, Somalia. (Scott Peterson / Getty Images)

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In war, people die for absurd reasons or often no reason at all. They die due to accidents of birth, the misfortune of being born in the wrong place—Cambodia or Gaza, Afghanistan or Ukraine—at the wrong time. They die due to happenstance, choosing to shelter indoors when they should have taken cover outside or because they ventured out into a hell-storm of destruction when they should have stayed put. They die in the most gruesome ways—shot in the street, obliterated by artillery, eviscerated by air strikes. Their bodies are torn apart, burned, or vaporized by weapons designed to destroy people. Their deaths are chalked up to misfortune, mistake, or military necessity.

Since September 2001, the United States has been fighting its “War on Terror”—what’s now referred to as this country’s “Forever Wars.” It’s been involved in Somalia almost that entire time. US Special Operations forces were first dispatched there in 2002, followed over the years by more “security assistance,” troops, contractors, helicopters, and drones. American airstrikes in Somalia, which began under President George W. Bush in 2007, have continued under Presidents Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden as part of a conflict that has smoldered and flared for more than two decades. In that time, the United States has launched 282 attacks, including 31 declared strikes under Biden. The US admits it has killed five civilians in its attacks. The UK-based air strike monitoring group Airwars says the number is as much as 3,100 percent higher.

On April 1, 2018, Luul Dahir Mohamed, a 22-year-old woman, and her 4-year-old daughter. Mariam Shilow Muse. were added to that civilian death toll when they were killed in a US drone strike in El Buur, Somalia.

Luul and Mariam were civilians. They died due to a whirlwind of misfortune—a confluence of bad luck and bad policies, none of it their fault, all of it beyond their control. They died, in part, because the United States is fighting the Somali terror group al-Shabaab even though Congress has never declared such a war and the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force on which the justification for the conflict rests predates the group’s existence. They died because Somalia has limited options when it comes to rural public transport and they caught a ride with the wrong people. They died because the United States claims that its brand of drone warfare is predicated on precision strikes with little collateral damage despite independent evidence clearly demonstrating otherwise.

In this case, members of the American strike cell that conducted the attack got almost everything wrong. They bickered about even basic information like how many people were in the pickup truck they attacked. They mistook a woman for a man and they never saw the young girl at all. They didn’t know what they were looking at, but they nonetheless launched a Hellfire missile that hit the truck as it motored down a dirt road.

Even after all of that, Luul and Mariam might have survived. Following the strike, the Americans—watching live footage from the drone hovering over the scene—saw someone bolt from the vehicle and begin running for her life. At that moment, they could have paused and reevaluated the situation. They could have taken one more hard look and, in the process, let a mother and child live. Instead, they launched a second missile.

What Luul’s brother, Qasim Dahir Mohamed—the first person on the scene—found was horrific. Luul’s left leg was mutilated, and the top of her head was gone. She died clutching Mariam whose tiny body looked, he said, “like a sieve.”

In 2019, the US military admitted that it had killed a civilian woman and child in that April 1, 2018, drone strike. But when, while reporting for The Intercept, I met Luul’s relatives last year in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, they were still waiting for the Pentagon to contact them about an apology and compensation. I had obtained a copy of the internal US military investigation which the family had never seen. It did acknowledge the deaths of a woman and child but concluded that their identities might never be known.

Expendable People

The Pentagon’s inquiry found that the Americans who carried out the strike were both inexperienced and confused. Despite that, the investigation by the very unit that conducted the attack determined that standard operating procedures and the rules of engagement were followed. No one was judged negligent, much less criminally liable, nor would anyone be held accountable for the deaths. The message was clear: Luul and Mariam were expendable people.

“In over five years of trying to get justice, no one has ever responded to us,” another of Luul’s brothers, Abubakar Dahir Mohamed, wrote in a December 2023 op-ed for the award-winning African newspaper The Continent. He continued:

When I found out later that the US admitted that they killed civilians in the attack, I contacted them again, telling them that the victims were my family members. I am not sure if they even read my complaint.

In June 2020, [US Africa Command] added a civilian casualties reporting page to their website for the first time. I was very happy to see this. I thought there was finally a way to make a complaint that would be listened to. I submitted a description of what happened and waited. No one got back to me. Two years later, in desperation, I submitted a complaint again. Nobody responded. I now know that the US military has admitted not only to killing Luul and Mariam, but doing so even after they survived the first strike. It killed them as Luul fled the car they targeted—running for her life, carrying Mariam in her arms. The US has said this in its reports, and individual officers have spoken to journalists. But it has never said this to us. No one has contacted us at all.

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Late last month, a coalition of 24 human rights organizations called on Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to make amends to Luul and Mariam’s family. The 14 Somali groups and 10 international nongovernmental organizations devoted to the protection of civilians urged Austin to take action to provide the family with an explanation, an apology, and compensation.

“The undersigned Somali and international human rights and protection of civilians organizations write to request that you take immediate steps to address the requests of families whose loved ones were killed or injured by US airstrikes in Somalia,” reads the letter. “New reporting illustrates how, in multiple cases of civilian harm in Somalia confirmed by the US government, civilian victims, survivors, and their families have yet to receive answers, acknowledgment, and amends despite their sustained efforts to reach authorities over several years.”

Days later, the Pentagon unveiled its long-awaited “Instruction on Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response,” which clarified “the Department’s enduring policies, responsibilities, and procedures for mitigating and responding to civilian harm” and laid out “further steps to protect civilians and to respond appropriately when civilian harm occurs.” Under the DoD-I or “dody,” as it is known at the Pentagon, the military is directed to take steps including:

(1) Acknowledging harm suffered by civilians and the U.S. military’s role in causing or otherwise contributing to that harm.

(2) Expressing condolences to civilians affected by military operations.

(3) Helping to address the harm suffered by civilians.

Under the DoD-I, the military is instructed to “acknowledge civilian harm resulting from U.S. military operations and respond to individuals and communities affected by U.S. military operations.… This includes expressing condolences and helping to address the direct impacts experienced.”

The mandate seems clear. The implementation is another story entirely.

Phoning It In

Since the letter from the humanitarian organizations was sent to Austin, the defense secretary has been both everywhere—and nowhere to be found. In December, he traveled to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar to thank American military personnel for their “selflessness and service.” He met with the king and crown prince of Bahrain to discuss their “enduring defense partnership” with the United States. On December 20, he paid a visit to the USS Gerald R. Ford carrier strike group in the Mediterranean Sea to thank the sailors for their “patriotism and professionalism.”

A couple days later, Austin underwent surgery without informing his deputy Kathleen Hicks, much less his boss, President Biden. On January 1, Austin was rushed back to the hospital, in “intense pain,” but that information, too, was withheld from the White House until January 4, and from Congress and the American public for an additional day.

Austin reportedly worked from his hospital room, monitoring American and British air attacks on Houthi rebel targets in Yemen—more than 150 munitions fired from the sea and air on January 11, alone—and conducting meetings by phone with military officials and the National Security Council. He was released from the hospital four days later and began working from home. “Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III spoke by phone today with Ukrainian Minister of Defense Rustem Umerov to discuss the latest on the situation on the ground,” Pentagon spokesman Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder announced on January 16. Two days later, he had a call with Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant. And on the 19th, he talked shop with Swedish defense minister Pål Jonson.

Austin has had plenty of time for phone calls, travel, and elective surgery. He’s been around the world and is now hunkered down at home. But what he hasn’t done, since the letter from those 24 humanitarian groups was sent to the Pentagon more than a month ago, is make any apparent effort to contact Luul and Mariam’s family.

“Since the strike, our family has been broken apart. It has been more than five years since it happened, but we have not been able to move on,” wrote Abubakar in December. It’s been a common story. In Yemen, where the United States has recently ramped up air strikes, victims of past US attacks wait—just like Luul and Mariam’s family—for acknowledgment and apology.

Between 2013 and 2020, for example, the United States carried out seven separate attacks in Yemen—six drone strikes and one raid—that killed 36 members of the intermarried Al Ameri and Al Taisy families. A quarter of them were children between the ages of 3 months and 14 years old. The survivors have been waiting for years for an explanation as to why it happened while living in fear. In 2018, Adel Al Manthari, a civil servant in the Yemeni government, and four of his cousins—all civilians—were traveling by truck when a US Hellfire missile slammed into their vehicle. Three of the men were killed instantly. Another died days later in a local hospital. Al Manthari was gravely wounded. Complications resulting from his injuries nearly took his life in 2022. He beseeched the US government to dip into the millions of dollars Congress annually allocates to compensate victims of US attacks. They ignored his pleas. His limbs and life were eventually saved by the kindness of strangers via a crowdsourced GoFundMe campaign.

The United States has a long history of killing civilians in air strikes, failing to investigate the deaths, and ignoring pleas for apology and compensation. It’s a century-old tradition that Austin continues to maintain, making time to issue orders for new strikes but not to issue apologies for past errant attacks. Through it all, Luul and Mariam’s family can do nothing but wait, hoping that the US secretary of defense will eventually respond to the open letter and finally—almost six years late—offer amends.

“My sister was killed, and she won’t be back again—but doesn’t she have the right to get justice, and for her family to at least be compensated for the loss of her life?” Abubakar wrote in his op-ed. He and his relatives find themselves endlessly grappling with their loss as the Pentagon puts out press releases filled with high-minded and (as yet) hollow, rhetoric about “improving the Department’s approach to mitigating and responding to civilian harm,” while promising to make amends under the DoD-I.

It isn’t the only War on Terror pledge to be broken. President Joe Biden entered the White House promising to end the “forever wars.” “I stand here today for the first time in 20 years with the United States not at war,” Biden announced in 2021. “We’ve turned the page.” It wasn’t remotely true.

Instead, the Forever Wars grind on from the Middle East to the African Sahel. And despite assertions to the contrary, America’s conflict in Somalia grinds on, too, without apology—from Biden for the broken campaign promise and from the Pentagon for Luul Dahir Mohamed and Mariam Shilow Muse’s deaths.

“The US claims that it works to promote democracy, social justice, the rule of law, and the protection of rights around the world,” Abubakar wrote. “As we struggle to get them to notice our suffering, we hope the US will remember what they claim to stand for.”

Nick Turse

Nick Turse is a fellow at Type Investigations and the author of Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan.

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