The Surge Nobody’s Talking About: The U.S. War in Somalia

One witness said he had heard a drone overhead. “It is the ‘oooooooo’ sound,” he told investigators. “Everyone recognizes it because they live in an al-Shabab place.”

Another witness described hearing the blast and seeing “huge dark smoke going up.” He said that he received a phone call informing him that Maalim Abdiyow Fillow Mudey, a close friend of his for many years, had been killed, so he hopped on his motor bike and sped to the scene of the attack. “The whole village was burnt,” the witness remembered. “All the trees were also burnt. There was a big hole where the car was hit.”

The destruction didn’t end there.

“I saw pieces of flesh all over the place,” the man continued. “I was looking for the body of Maalim Abdiyow. He had a big beard, but I could not find him.”

Maalim Abdiyow Fillow Mudey was a 45-year-old teacher and the father of 10 children. On Dec. 6, 2017, he was near the small shop and restaurant he owned in a little hamlet called Illimey when a military-style vehicle carrying up to three suspected fighters from al-Shabab, a terrorist group, was attacked. Maalim Abdiyow was killed along with his 17-year-old daughter, Amina Abdow Fillow Mudey.

U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles, from the 335th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, drop 2,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions on a cave in eastern Afghanistan, Nov. 26. Photo by Staff Sergeant Michael Keller, courtesy of U.S. Air Force.

U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles, from the 335th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, drop 2,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions on a cave in eastern Afghanistan, Nov. 26. Photo by Staff Sergeant Michael Keller, courtesy of U.S. Air Force.

All told, five Somali civilians—including two children—died that day in 2017, according to an investigation conducted by human rights organization Amnesty International, which in recent years has begun to shine a light on the human cost of U.S. airstrikes in Somalia, a long-hidden part of America’s ongoing wars. With a rising death count of civilian bystanders, human rights groups are now calling on the U.S. government to account for its actions.

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For the better part of two decades, U.S. military operations in Somalia have been shrouded in secrecy. In 2002 or 2003, President George W. Bush sent Special Forces and CIA officers to Somalia to capture or kill members of al-Qaeda believed to be responsible for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. In January 2007, the Bush administration carried out its first airstrike against suspected members of al-Qaeda in Somalia using an AC-130 gunship.

Four and a half years later, after the architect of the 1998 embassy bombings had been killed, the United States, under President Obama, launched its first publicly acknowledged drone strike in Somalia, wounding two senior members of al-Shabab, which ultimately declared its allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2012.

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From 2012 to the end of the Obama administration, the U.S. Africa Command, known as AFRICOM, which oversees operations in Somalia, publicly declared it had conducted a grand total of 33 airstrikes in Somalia (15 more strikes have also been alleged, though not confirmed). This data was compiled by Airwars, a UK-based conflict-monitoring group. The highest number of strikes was 19 in 2016, likely in an effort to counter the violence caused by al-Shabab, including when it attacked a forward operating base in Somalia on Jan. 15, 2016, that killed as many as 141 Kenyan troops stationed there.

Also in 2016, The New York Times reported that the Obama administration had “quietly broadened the president’s authority for the use of force in Somalia by allowing airstrikes to protect American and African troops” fighting al-Shabab. Moving forward, the U.S. military no longer needed to prove that a potential target’s actions posed an immediate threat to an American, though it was still necessary to certify the identity of the targeted person and ensure that civilian bystanders would not be injured or killed by an attack, among other requirements.

All of that changed after Donald Trump became president. On March 30, 2017, The New York Times reported that President Trump signed a directive declaring parts of Somalia an “area of active hostilities,” which gave AFRICOM commanders more freedom to carry out airstrikes and conduct ground raids against al-Shabab.

Retired Army Brigadier General Donald Bolduc was the commander of U.S. Special Operations Forces in Africa from April 2015 until June 2017. In an interview with The Daily Beast, he said that the former “near certainty” standard during the Obama administration required greater substantiation before an airstrike could be launched. This included the use of informants, full-motion video, surveillance intercepts, and various sources of intelligence across several platforms. After President Trump signed his directive, however, “The burden of proof on the target was changed to a lesser burden of proof, and so that automatically opens up the aperture when you’re looking at intelligence and you have a probability factor, or a reasonable one, that your target is there.”

In 2017, the U.S. launched at least 38 airstrikes—manned and unmanned—in Somalia, more in one year than were launched in the previous eight years combined. The next year, at least 48 airstrikes were launched, and in 2019, there were 61. In the first five months of 2020, at least 40 airstrikes have been launched, which means the United States is on track to more than double the number of airstrikes it launched in 2019.

An MQ-9 Reaper sits in a hanger during a sandstorm at Joint Base Balad, Iraq, Sept. 15, 2008. Photo by Senior Airman Jason Epley, courtesy of U.S. Air Force.

An MQ-9 Reaper sits in a hanger during a sandstorm at Joint Base Balad, Iraq, Sept. 15, 2008. Photo by Senior Airman Jason Epley, courtesy of U.S. Air Force.

Perhaps the most notable airstrike of 2020 occurred on Feb. 22, in the vicinity of Sakow, when Bashir Mohamed Mahamoud was killed. AFRICOM claims he was responsible for planning an attack in Kenya that resulted in the deaths of three Americans.

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Over the last 13 and a half years, AFRICOM has launched at least 228 airstrikes in Somalia and has reportedly killed between 1,807-2,422 al-Shabab fighters, according to data compiled by Airwars. At the same time, however, AFRICOM claims it has killed only four civilians: a woman and a child in an airstrike near the central Somali town of El Buur on April 1, 2018, and a 20-day-old child and his father near Kunyo Barrow on Feb. 23, 2019.

Airwars disagrees.

Using a combination of official statements from AFRICOM, Somali news reports, photos and videos, social media posts, and other forms of open-source information—as well as internal military documents obtained by journalists via the Freedom of Information Act—Airwars has identified 29 separate incidents in which civilians were allegedly harmed by U.S. military action. All told, Airwars believes that those 29 incidents resulted in the deaths of between 68 and 140 Somali civilians, a figure that far exceeds AFRICOM’s official count of four.

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Why such a stark disparity?

“They either don’t know who they are killing,” says Abdullahi Hassan, Amnesty International’s Somalia researcher, or AFRICOM is “afraid of admitting responsibility because once they do that they will have to compensate people and deal with accusations of war crimes.”

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, anyone who is suspected of belonging to an armed group must not be targeted on the basis of “abstract affiliation, family ties, or other criteria prone to error, arbitrariness or abuse.”

In other words, for AFRICOM to lawfully target someone with an airstrike, regardless of presidential directive it seems, that person must be directly participating in hostilities. Therefore, as Amnesty International points out in its report on the “hidden U.S. war” in Somalia, “Direct attacks against the civilian population and individual civilians not directly participating in hostilities are prohibited and constitute war crimes.”

When everyone you kill is a bad guy, however, all those problems melt away.

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Two years before he became the commander of AFRICOM, Stephen J. Townsend wrote an op-ed for Foreign Policy in which he claimed that the reports of civilian casualties coming out of Somalia were “vastly inflated.” He also claimed that AFRICOM investigates every allegation of civilian casualties to ensure accountability.

“There is no secret air or shadow war as some allege,” Townsend said in an AFRICOM press release. “How can there be when the whole world knows we are assisting Somalia in their fight against al-Shabab terrorists? When we publicly announce every single airstrike we conduct? When we publicly admit to our mistakes? Unlike al-Shabab we do everything in our power to avoid civilian casualties and that is not changing on my watch.”

But how transparent are the investigations AFRICOM conducts?

An Airman assigned to the 386th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron sets parking chalks on an MQ-9 Reaper on the flightline of Ali Al Salem Air Base, Kuwait, June 10. Photo by Senior Airman Kevin Tanenbaum, courtesy of U.S. Air Force.

An Airman assigned to the 386th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron sets parking chalks on an MQ-9 Reaper on the flightline of Ali Al Salem Air Base, Kuwait, June 10. Photo by Senior Airman Kevin Tanenbaum, courtesy of U.S. Air Force.

Researchers at the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) and the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute (HRI) recently uncovered some shortcomings in AFRICOM’s investigative process. During a workshop with AFRICOM personnel led by CIVIC/HRI to better understand AFRICOM’s process for assessing civilian casualties, the researchers discovered that while AFRICOM had evaluated 37 reports of civilian casualties resulting from U.S. airstrikes in Somalia and Libya from 2016 to 2019, it had not interviewed even a single civilian witness.

“Civilians injured in U.S. military attacks, and the families of those who are killed, have endured long and painful struggles trying to find out why they or their loved ones were harmed, and whether their communities are still at risk,” Priyanka Motaparthy, director of the Project on Counterterrorism, Armed Conflict, and Human Rights at HRI, said in a press release accompanying a report her organization published in February 2020. Thorough investigations are necessary, she continued, so that the victims’ loved ones, and the general public, know the deaths didn’t occur unlawfully.

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Al-Shabab continues to be a threat, despite all the United States has done the past three years to degrade and defeat them. On Feb. 7, 2020, the lead inspector general for East Africa and North and West Africa Counterterrorism Operation submitted a report to Congress on counterterrorism efforts in Africa. During the last quarter of 2019, the report stated al-Shabab launched “multiple high-profile attacks,” including one on Kenya’s Manda Bay Airfield. In fact, during the first three years of Donald Trump’s presidency, al-Shabab managed to launch 929 attacks on civilians, resulting in 2,247 deaths.

“Despite continued U.S. airstrikes in Somalia and U.S. assistance to African partner forces,” the inspector general continued, “al Shabab appears to be a growing threat that aspires to strike the U.S. homeland.”

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It’s not clear whether AFRICOM’s tactics in Somalia will change in light of all the evidence showing that drone strikes targeting al-Shabab fighters are having a negligible effect at best. Since the beginning of April, AFRICOM has acknowledged conducting seven airstrikes, all without injuring or killing any civilians. One thing that will change moving forward is that AFRICOM, at the behest of Amnesty International, will issue quarterly reports on the “status of ongoing civilian casualty allegations and assessments” in order to “demonstrate the U.S. military’s constant commitment to minimizing collateral damage in the pursuit of military operations.”

“This is a welcome news,” says Abdullahi Hassan, “and we hope the reporting will be done in a transparent manner that will provide justice for the families.”

On April 27, 2020, as the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in Somalia continued to rise exponentially, AFRICOM published its first Civilian Casualty Assessment Quarterly Report. From Feb. 1, 2019, to March 31, 2020, the report claims, AFRICOM conducted 91 airstrikes in Somalia and Libya and received 70 allegations of possible civilian deaths or injuries. Investigations into 20 of those alleged incidents were launched and as of March 31, 2020, 13 have been closed; AFRICOM says only one of those was substantiated.

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David Chrisinger

David Chrisinger is the executive director of the Public Policy Writing Workshop at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy and the director of writing seminars for The War Horse. He is the author of several books, including The Soldier’s Truth: Ernie Pyle and the Story of World War II and Stories Are What Save Us: A Survivor’s Guide to Writing about Trauma. In 2022, he was the recipient of the 2022 George Orwell Award.

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