In the first seven months of 2020, the Trump administration conducted more air strikes in Somalia than were carried out during the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, combined.
This year alone U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) has acknowledged 43 air strikes in Somalia compared to 42 from 2007 to 2017. It comes as AFRICOM embraces greater transparency, issuing its second ever quarterly “Civilian Casualty Assessment” on July 28. The report acknowledged that a U.S. air strike near the town of Jilib on February 2, 2020 killed a civilian woman and injured three members of her family. The finding substantiated a March report by Amnesty International that the air strike killed Nurto Kusow Omar Abukar, 18, and injured her two younger sisters and grandmother. The target of the attack was a member of al-Shabab, an extremist group linked to Al Qaeda.
The strikes are part of a long-running military campaign to increase security in Somalia by degrading al Shabaab and, to a lesser extent, the Islamic State. The al Qaeda-aligned terrorist group has been active in Somalia since 2006, maintains influence in many areas of the country, and, according to AFRICOM, remains “resilient” despite billions of dollars of U.S. military and humanitarian assistance, ground operations involving Somali forces and U.S. advisors, and five straight years of record-setting numbers of air strikes.
The February 2 strike occurred when U.S. attacks – following an al Shabaab assault on the U.S. military base in Manda Bay, Kenya that killed one U.S. soldier and two Defense Department contractors – were being carried out at a blistering pace, averaging one air strike every two to three days. “[W]e will pursue those responsible for this attack and al-Shabaab who seeks to harm Americans and U.S. interests,” AFRICOM commander General Stephen Townsend announced in January, but experts say this mindset put civilians in peril.
“At the time, General Townsend said they were going to ‘relentlessly pursue’ those who conducted the attack, and in that rush a number of civilians were injured and killed, including those in the single case which AFRICOM just admitted,” Brian Castner, the Senior Crisis Advisor for arms and military operations at Amnesty International told TIME. “We saw the same thing after the massive truck bombing in [Somalia’s capital] Mogadishu in 2017, AFRICOM moves too fast and civilians pay the price.”
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres repeatedly called for a global ceasefire. “The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war,” he said in March. While senior American officials endorsed the universal armistice, the U.S. nonetheless continued attacks in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere. The most recent U.S. air strike in Somalia occurred on July 29
“AFRICOM was initially slow to respond to the pandemic, with its heavy air campaign against al Shabaab continuing into mid-May. However, we did then see a welcome seven week pause, which was only gradually lifted from July 9th,” said Chris Woods, the director of Airwars, a U.K.-based airstrike monitoring group. “It’s worth noting that al Shabaab itself continued to mount terror attacks throughout Somalia’s initial lockdown.”
AFRICOM did not cite calls for the armistice as a reason for the lull in strikes, however. “A variety of factors weigh in to when a strike occurs including pace of partner operations, identification of and opportunity to engage targets and targets of opportunity,” AFRICOM spokesman John Manley told TIME. “Also, weather has a big impact on operations and whether we can conduct strikes.”
U.S. officials have nonetheless expressed support for Guterres’ proposed global armistice in the midst of the pandemic. “It would be phenomenal if there could be a ceasefire,” Tibor Nagy, the State Department’s top Africa policy official, told TIME this spring, while noting that some belligerents would “be opportunistic and use the pandemic to advance their own violent agendas.” Similarly, a senior Trump administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, echoed Guterres’ appeal and amplified it. “We’re hoping that people will adhere to the secretary-general and other leaders’ call for a ceasefire,” they told TIME, despite the fact that the administration has not only failed to adhere to the armistice – from Afghanistan to Iraq – but has, even in the face of the pandemic, exceeded the number of attacks in Somalia carried out by both previous presidents, combined.
Despite AFRICOM’s slowdown in air attacks, the U.S. is still poised to log a record number of air strikes in Somalia for the sixth straight year. “If you look at 2019 strikes, the frequency is similar to this point,” said spokesman John Manley. Last year, the Trump administration conducted 63 air attacks in Somalia, an all-time high.
The strikes continue due to the failure of the U.S. and its Somali and African Union allies to defeat al Shabaab despite nearly a decade of military operations. A report by the Defense Department’s Inspector General, issued on July 16, noted that AFRICOM concedes al Shabaab maintained its capability to conduct hit-and-run attacks, ambushes, and improvised explosive device (IED) operations and “remains adaptive, resilient, and capable of attacking U.S. partner interests in Somalia and East Africa.”
AFRICOM has launched hundreds of air and ground attacks in Somalia since 2007, but the command has admitted to killing only five civilians in three separate attacks over the last 13 years. An investigation by Amnesty International found that in just nine of those airstrikes, 21 civilians were killed and 11 others were injured. According to Airwars, evidence suggests that as many as 15 Somali civilians have been killed by U.S. strikes in 2020 alone. Airwars – whose database incorporates local and international news reports, photos, videos, social media posts, mapping, and geolocation, and other data for every known U.S. air and ground action in Somalia – contends that between 72 and 145 civilians have been killed in U.S. attacks since 2007.
AFRICOM’s Townsend, who previously commanded Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, America’s effort to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, vociferously pushed back on allegations of civilian casualties in that conflict. “I challenge anyone to find a more precise air campaign in the history of warfare,” he wrote in a Foreign Policy opinion piece in 2017. That same year, a New York Times Magazine investigation of nearly 150 U.S.-led coalition airstrikes targeting ISIS in Iraq found that 1 in 5 of the coalition strikes resulted in civilian deaths, a rate more than 31 times that acknowledged by the coalition. “Our reporting, moreover, revealed a consistent failure by the coalition to investigate claims properly or to keep records that make it possible to investigate the claims at all,” journalists Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal wrote. The command has since admitted killing close to 1,400 civilians in that campaign. Airwars says the true toll could be as high as 13,135.
“We work hard to prevent civilians from getting hurt or killed during these operations,” said Townsend on the release of AFRICOM’s Civilian Casualty Assessment on July 28. “We are committed to minimizing civilian casualties and will continue to thoroughly assess all allegations.”
In 2019, researchers from Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute and the Center for Civilians in Conflict conducted a civilian casualty workshop with AFRICOM personnel. A review of the command’s civilian casualty assessment process revealed that, between 2016 and 2019, AFRICOM failed to conduct even a single interview with civilian witnesses of its airstrikes. Nothing has changed in the time since. “We have not interviewed any witnesses or victims,” spokesman John Manley told TIME.
“The fact that AFRICOM has still, at this point in time, not interviewed any witnesses or survivors of its strikes, is deeply disappointing,” said Priyanka Motaparthy of Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute. “By not interviewing those affected, they have chosen not to seek out valuable information about the effects of their operations in Somalia–despite the fact human rights groups have been calling on them to conduct these interviews for years.”
A new Pentagon report on ex gratia payments for death, injury, and property damage in America’s wars shows that no assistance or compensation has been provided to Somali victims of U.S attacks. “Congress has explicitly authorized the Defense Department to make payments to families for their losses, and international law requires reparations if the strike was unlawful,” said Daphne Eviatar, director of the Security with Human Rights program at Amnesty International USA. “It’s time for the U.S. to develop a better and more humane response to the harm it’s causing — and to do more to prevent that harm.”
Amnesty’s Brian Castner fears that the lull in air strikes caused by Somalia’s rainy season may soon evaporate and noncombatants will pay the price. “The fact that civilians are still dying, sometimes unlawfully, and not a single family of the victims has yet been compensated, means that, after 13 years, the U.S. government still hasn’t figured out how to fight a war that prioritizes the needs of the people they say they are defending,” he told TIME. “If the U.S. government can’t fulfill its obligations to civilians while fighting a remote war of airstrikes, then it needs to reconsider its methods.”