Amnesty International on Wednesday accused the United States Department of Defense of underreporting to Congress civilian casualties in Somalia.
“The Defense Department appears to have dismissed out of hand many of the civilian deaths and injuries we have documented in the past two years in Somalia, simply assessing them as “not credible” despite our extensive testimonial evidence and expert analysis of images and video from strike sites, satellite imagery, and weapons identification,” Daphne Eviatar, the director of the Security with Human Rights program at Amnesty International USA, said in response to the Pentagon’s report on U.S. civilian casualties to Congress.
Eviatar said wlthough the Department of Defense’s submission of this year’s report marks some progress in terms of transparency of U.S. military operations, the content of the report suggests that the Pentagon is still undercounting civilian casualties.
Amnesty said the report submitted to Congress “fails to acknowledge hundreds of civilian casualties that Amnesty International’s researchers investigated on the ground in Raqqa, Syria, and assessed from the U.S.-led military operation in 2017.”
“We believe at least some of that disparity is due to the Defense Department failure to conduct its own interviews with witnesses and survivors, and failure to visit the locations of the strikes in places where U.S. forces are present and have access to strike locations, as is the case in Raqqa and parts of Iraq.
“If the U.S. is going to engage in lethal operations abroad, then it must develop a reliable means for investigating and reporting on who it has killed and injured in the process. The difficult work of credibly investigating the aftermath of operations is the responsibility of the governments who engage in lethal actions. It cannot be left to nongovernmental organizations like Amnesty International, which already has provided a vast amount of information on which the Defense Department has so far failed to act.
“These reports can be a crucial accountability mechanism for thousands of families around the world waiting for justice, and a tool for transparency for everyone concerned about what is being carried out by the United States military in its operations every year. But for these reports to meaningfully contribute to the accountability process, they must contain concrete information based on thorough investigations, and must lead to reparations for the families of the victims. So far, that’s not happening,” Eviatar added.
Last March, Amnesty International said it had unearthed evidence that the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) killed two civilians, and injured three more, in two air strikes in February 2020, and branded them terrorists.
Amnesty narrated how at about 8p.m. on February 2, a family of five was sitting down to dinner in the city of Jilib, in Somalia’s Middle Juba region, when an air-dropped weapon – likely a US GBU-69/B Small Glide Munition with a 16-kilogram warhead – struck their home. Nurto Kusow Omar Abukar, an 18-year-old woman, was struck in the head by a heavy metal fragment from the munition and killed instantly. The strike also injured her two younger sisters, Fatuma and Adey, aged 12 and seven, and their grandmother, Khadija Mohamed Gedow, aged around 70.
“I never imagined it was going to hit us. I suddenly heard a huge sound. It felt like our house had collapsed. … The sand and the smoke filled my eyes,” the girls’ father, Kusow Omar Abukar, a 50-year-old farmer who was in the house during the strike, told Amnesty International.
On February 24, 2020, in the middle of the afternoon, a Hellfire missile from another U.S. air strike hit the Masalanja farm near the village of Kumbareere, 10 kilometres north of Jilib, killing 53-year-old Mohamud Salad Mohamud. He was a banana farmer and Jilib office manager for Hormuud Telecom, and he left behind a wife and eight children.
After both strikes, AFRICOM issued press releases claiming it had killed an Al-Shabaab “terrorist,” without offering any evidence of the victims’ alleged links to the armed group.
A senior Hormuud official expressed disbelief that Mohamud Salad Mohamud had been targeted, since he had previously worked for international humanitarian organizations and had been arrested several times by Al-Shabaab.
“When I heard the news of his death, I thought he was killed by Al-Shabaab. 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.”
Amnesty International said it found no evidence the individuals killed or injured were members of Al-Shabaab or otherwise directly participating in hostilities. To reach that conclusion, the organization interviewed the victims’ relatives, community members and colleagues; analyzed satellite images, photo and video evidence from the scene of the strikes; and identified the U.S. munitions used.
These two air strikes were among a string of 20 retaliatory attacks U.S. forces carried out in Somalia after anAl-Shabaab assault on a U.S. airbase in Manda Bay, Kenya, in early January. AFRICOM’s commander, U.S. General Stephen Townsend, vowed to “relentlessly pursue those responsible” for the attack, which killed a U.S. soldier and two contractors, and destroyed five aircraft, including two rare and valuable spy planes.
AFRICOM has conducted hundreds of air strikes in the decade-long fight against the armed group Al-Shabaab, but has only admitted to killing civilians in a single strike that took place exactly two years ago today. That lone admission was prompted by Amnesty International’s research and advocacy.
The two air strikes unearthed by Amnesty International provide a glimpse into AFRICOM’s operations in Africa, and how civilians often pay with their lives without accountability from the Pentagon.
“The evidence is stacking up and it’s pretty damning. Not only does AFRICOM utterly fail at its mission to report civilian casualties in Somalia, but it doesn’t seem to care about the fate of the numerous families it has completely torn apart,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa.
“We’ve documented case after case in the USA’s escalating air war on Somalia, where the AFRICOM thinks it can simply smear its civilian victims as ‘terrorists,’ no questions asked. This is unconscionable; the U.S. military must change course and pursue truth and accountability in these cases, in line with its obligations under international humanitarian law (the laws of war).”
Abdullahi Hassan, Amnesty International’s Somalia Researcher said “nothing can excuse flouting the laws of war. Any U.S. or Somalia government response to Al-Shabaab attacks must distinguish between fighters and civilians and take all feasible precautions to avoid harm to civilians,”
According to the Human Rights organization, the recently bereaved civilian families in Middle Juba region join many more Somali civilians who have lost loved ones to U.S. air strikes but have seen no accountability or reparation to date.
In one key example, on April 1 2018, a U.S. air strike hit a vehicle driving from El Buur, north of Mogadishu.
Just over a year later, AFRICOM publicly admitted that the strike had killed a woman and young child. It was its sole admission of civilian casualties in an air war in Somalia that has lasted over a decade. Despite the family of the victims of this strike contacting the U.S. Embassy in Mogadishu in April last year, at the time of writing, neither the Embassy nor AFRICOM had reached out to them to offer reparation.
U.S. ramps up air strikes
In the first three months of 2020 alone, U.S. forces have conducted a total of 31 air strikes in Somalia, according to the monitoring group Airwars. This is double the pace of 2019, when AFRICOM conducted a record 63 strikes in the country.
Since Amnesty International’s ground-breaking March 2019 report The Hidden US War in Somalia, the organization said it has carried out in-depth investigations into eight U.S. air strikes that killed civilians in Somalia’s Lower Shabelle and Middle Juba regions. Along with the El Buur strike, they killed a total of 21 civilians and wounded 11. In every case AFRICOM has failed to contact the families of the deceased.
“The U.S. military should not be allowed to continue to paint its civilian victims as ‘terrorists’ while leaving grieving families in the lurch. Much more must be done to reveal the truth and bring justice and accountability for U.S. attacks which killed so many Somali civilians, some of which amount to apparent violations of international humanitarian law,” said Abdullahi Hassan.
On Tuesday, March 31, AFRICOM released a statement, pledging to begin, by the end of April, public reporting on civilian casualties resulting from its military operations in Somalia, Libya and elsewhere in Africa.
It said “issuing a quarterly report is part of an effort to increase transparency and to further expand reporting mechanisms. It is an opportunity to gain feedback and provide updates on the status of assessments.”
“By the end of April, U.S. Africa Command intends to issue a new quarterly report on the status of ongoing civilian casualty allegations and assessments. Each quarter, AFRICOM will issue an update providing any new allegations and updating the status of assessments that have been closed or remain open. This initiative is designed to increase transparency regarding civilian casualty allegations that are reported to the command and will demonstrate the U.S. military’s constant commitment to minimizing collateral damage in the pursuit of military operations,” AFRICOM public affairs wrote.
“Since I took command last year, we have been reviewing and revising our CIVCAS tracking, assessment and reporting procedures,” said U.S. Army General Stephen Townsend, commander, U.S. Africa Command. “To demonstrate our transparency and commitment to protecting civilians from unnecessary harm, we plan to publicize our initial report by the end of April and we will provide quarterly updates thereafter.”
According to AFRICOM, the destructive and growing threat in Africa from violent extremist organizations is significant and impacts not only Africans, but also the U.S. and international allies.
U.S Africa Command said it continues to conduct operations to counter terrorist networks to enhance regional security in Somalia, Libya, and other African nations in conjunction with African partners.
AFRICOM added that it remains committed to supporting African partners as they work to establish and maintain security and stability throughout Africa, conditions which are important to advancing U.S. interests in the region.
“It is critically important that our partners and the public understand our commitment to minimizing collateral damage while achieving precision effects. Where this does not occur, we’ll look to be the first to the truth.” said U.S. Army Maj. Gen. William Gayler, U.S. Africa Command director of operations. “Our kinetic operations in Africa follow a strict, disciplined, and precise process. Nobody is more devoted to the preservation of innocent life than the U.S. military, and our actions and processes reflect that fact.”
Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa, welcomed the development.
“This is a welcome, though long overdue, step towards providing truth and accountability for the victims of US air strikes and their families in Somalia and beyond. It’s shocking that it has taken more than a decade of AFRICOM’s secret air war in Somalia for this to happen,” Deprose Muchena said in a statement.
“We continue to stand in solidarity with families of civilians who have been killed or injured in US attacks, only to have their loved ones smeared as ‘terrorists’ and have their plight ignored. The truth must come out and they deserve transparency, accountability and reparation – all of which have been sorely lacking from the US military to date.
“We denounce violations of international humanitarian law by all sides and will continue to provide AFRICOM with the findings of our in-depth independent investigations into credible reports of civilian deaths and injuries and violations of international humanitarian law. And we will continue to push for thorough, independent and impartial investigations into credible allegations of violations.”