New data shows the U.S military is severely undercounting civilian casualties in Somalia

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DURING THE FIRST six months of 2019 alone, U.S. Africa Command tracked seven reports of American and allied attacks in Somalia that allegedly killed or wounded at least 18 civilians, according to internal AFRICOM documents obtained by The Intercept. But the U.S. does not acknowledge killing or wounding a single civilian in Somalia last year, according to AFRICOM spokesperson John Manley.

In fact, AFRICOM contends that hundreds of airstrikes and commando missions over more than a decade – aimed at members of the terrorist groups al-Shabab and the Islamic State – have caused only two civilian casualties in Somalia: a woman and a child killed in an airstrike near the central Somali town of El Buur on April 1, 2018.

New data released Tuesday by Airwars, a U.K.-based airstrike monitoring group, offers a stark rebuke to AFRICOM’s claims. The group contends that the number of civilian deaths may be as much as 6,800 percent greater than the command asserts.

“Our focus on casualties in Iraq, Syria, and Libya shows the critical importance of listening to local communities affected by conflicts,” said Chris Woods, the director of Airwars. “We’ve also widened our focus to include all U.S. actions — not just the controversial drone strikes, but also a growing number of U.S.-Somali ground operations which can lead to civilian harm.”

Using official AFRICOM statements, local and international news reports, photos, videos, social media posts, and other open-source information, as well as internal military documents obtained by journalists (including myself) via the Freedom of Information Act, Airwars has created an immersive, multimedia website that incorporates mapping, geolocation, interactive timelines, and a searchable database for every known U.S. air and ground action in Somalia since 2007.

The result is nothing less than a redefinition of the scope and contours of America’s long-running, undeclared war in the Horn of Africa.

Airwars places the number of avowed U.S. attacks — airstrikes and ground raids since 2007 — at 204, a 40 percent increase over an earlier estimate by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, whose data Airwars took over and refined before launching the new site. Add alleged kinetic actions that the U.S. military hasn’t confirmed, and the number jumps to 280.

AFRICOM’S TOWNSEND HAS a history of criticizing Airwars’s work. “Assertions by Airwars … are often unsupported by fact and serve only to strengthen the Islamic State’s hold on civilians, placing civilians at greater risk,” he wrote in an opinion piece for Foreign Policy in 2017, when he was the commanding general of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, the American-led coalition battling ISIS in Iraq and Syria. “We conduct a detailed assessment of each and every allegation of possible civilian casualties. We hold ourselves accountable with an open and transparent process to assess allegations of civilian casualties.”
A recent analysis of 228 official U.S. military investigations conducted in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria between 2002 and 2015, found, however, that America generally does a poor job investigating civilian casualties — conducting site inspections in only 16 percent of the investigations reviewed for the study and interviewing civilian witnesses just 21.5 percent of the time, according to researchers from the Center for Civilians in Conflict and the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute.

The CIVIC/HRI researchers also conducted a civilian casualty workshop with AFRICOM personnel that involved reviewing the command’s civilian casualty assessment process. The team found that AFRICOM had evaluated 37 reports of civilian casualties from U.S. airstrikes in Somalia and Libya between 2016 and 2019, but not once was an Army Regulation 15-6 investigation — which are frequently used in civilian casualty investigations — carried out. AFRICOM had also failed to conduct even a single interview with civilian witnesses. “We have not directly engaged civilian victims or witnesses in Somalia for various reasons,” Manley of AFRICOM told The Intercept, “including a lack of access to locations in al-Shabab strongholds and because we are able to assess civilian casualty allegations through multiple methods.”

U.S. Army Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, commander of U.S. Africa Command, arrives at Manda Bay Airfield in Kenya on Feb. 12, 2020. Photo: U.S. Air Force

“Thanks to the work of Somali and international investigators and reporters, more than 60 claimed civilian harm events have been reported to AFRICOM since 2007. Yet it was only last year that the first two deaths were publicly admitted,” said Woods of Airwars. “It’s time for AFRICOM to improve assessment standards to at least the levels we see with the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and Syria, where more than 1,300 civilian deaths have now been officially admitted thanks to pressure from Airwars and others.”

Recently, Townsend has been touting the efficacy of U.S. military efforts in Somalia. “Thanks to our collective security and whole-of-government efforts, we have seen real and tangible progress in Somalia over more than a decade, albeit slower than we would like,” Townsend told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Since the U.S. escalated its air campaign in 2017, al-Shabab has still managed to carry out nearly 900 attacks on civilians resulting almost 2,000 deaths. While security has improved in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, the Defense Department’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a Pentagon research institution, found that “al Shabaab continues to exert widespread influence in outlying areas.” For example, a U.S. drone and training outpost, about 60 miles from the capital, in Baledogle, Somalia, was attacked by al-Shabab last September. And last month, the terror group assaulted the U.S. base at Manda Bay, Kenya, killing one American service member and two U.S. contractors.

A recent inspector general’s report examining U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Africa was even more damning. After more than a decade spent fighting militants in Somalia, the report cites a Defense Intelligence Agency assessment that the threat posed by al Shabaab and ISIS-Somalia in East Africa remains “high,” despite continued U.S. airstrikes and training of Somali security forces. The inspector general further noted that al-Shabab not only “remains a potent threat” due to its “ability to conduct high-profile attacks, recruit fighters, and finance ongoing operations,” but that the group “appears to be a growing threat to U.S. personnel and interests in the region.”

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The new Airwars data identified 61 individual events in which civilians were allegedly harmed by U.S. military action since 2007. Of these, 31 were either confirmed by AFRICOM or rated “fair” by Airwars, meaning the group has found two or more credible sources for the claim of civilian harm, often coupled with biographical, photographic, or video evidence, along with likely or confirmed military action in the vicinity for the date in question. All told, the monitoring group found that in these 31 cases, between 71 and 139 civilians have been killed, a figure that far exceeds AFRICOM’s official count of two dead.

ON FEBRUARY 2, AFRICOM carried out an airstrike in the vicinity of Jilib, Somalia. “Initial assessment concluded the airstrike killed one (1) terrorist,” the command reported in a press release. “We currently assess no civilians were injured or killed as a result of this airstrike.”

The Airwars database tells a very different story. The group found a tweet from Somali journalist Mohamed Osman Abdi that read: “Very sad to learn that an airstrike Sunday evening killed my brother-in-law’s daughter and injured two of his daughters and his mother who is my aunt and mother-in-law in Jilib… surprised to those saying no civilian casualties.”

Radio Morad, a Somali media outlet, identified the casualties as Nurto Kusow, a 17-year-old killed in the strike, and Fatima Kusow, 15, who was wounded along with an unnamed girl and 70-year-old Khadija Mohamed. Airwars cites multiple local sources that claim civilians were killed and injured in the attack.

AFRICOM continues to claim that it killed no civilians in the strike, but Manley told The Intercept that the command is reevaluating multiple prior attacks in light of Airwars’s findings. “We are working with Airwars and currently are assessing allegations presented to us,” said Manley. “We will provide a response to them on completion of our assessment. Several allegations that we have already assessed are again being reviewed based on their submission.”

Last week, two more civilians, including a child, were reportedly injured in another U.S. airstrike in Jilib, the latest entry in the Airwars database. AFRICOM has acknowledged the strike but not the civilian casualties.

Relaxed U.S. government targeting standards mean that more civilians killed by U.S. airstrikes may be counted as combatants, according to experts.

In March 2017, President Donald Trump reportedly designated parts of Somalia as “areas of active hostilities,” removing Obama-era rules requiring that there be near certainty that strikes will not injure or kill noncombatants. The White House refuses to explicitly confirm or deny this, but retired Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc, who headed Special Operations Command Africa at the time, was more forthcoming. “The burden of proof as to who could be targeted and for what reason changed dramatically,” he told The Intercept. That change, he added, led AFRICOM to conduct airstrikes that previously would not have been carried out.

Since then, U.S. airstrikes in Somalia have spiked, from 14 under President Barack Obama in 2016 to 47 in 2018, and 63 in 2019 under Trump.

Even Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., the first woman in the Air Force to fly in combat and a devoted Trump ally, had pointed questions about AFRICOM’s air campaign in Somalia for Gen. Stephen Townsend, the chief of the command, when he addressed the Senate Armed Services Committee in late January. “Can you share what the impact of those strikes are? And is it whack-a-mole, or what is the strategy here going forward in order to address this growing terrorist threat in East Africa?” she asked.

“I don’t believe that it’s whack-a-mole,” Townsend replied. “What we do is we keep an eye on al-Shabab every day, and we’re looking for ways to reduce their capacity wherever we can.”

In addition to “counterterrorism strikes,” Townsend also noted that U.S. forces are helping train Somali forces, although training is only part of the story. American commandos have also long accompanied local troops in ground operations in Somalia. Such efforts include what are known as “127 echo” programs, named for the budgetary authority that allows U.S. Special Operations forces to use various foreign military units as proxies in counterterrorism missions. In recent years, these have been carried out in Somalia, targeting not only Somalis but also Ethiopians, Kenyans, and Ugandans under the code names Exile Hunter, Kodiak Hunter, Mongoose Hunter, Paladin Hunter, and Ultimate Hunter.

These and other activities involving U.S. and local forces have led to publicly acknowledged U.S. combat deaths and noncombatant casualties. Last year, an investigation by The Intercept revealed that AFRICOM’s internal civilian casualty tracking mechanism turned up evidence of credible allegations of previously unreported deaths and injuries to noncombatants during these types of missions.

On January 18, 2018, American-backed local forces attacked an Islamic school near Jameeco Jilyaile, killing five children and a teacher, according to somalimemo.net, a local Somali media outlet deemed by AFRICOM to be sympathetic to al-Shabab. The Associated Press and CNN reported on the incident too, but characterized it as a joint raid by Somali and U.S. commandos to free child soldiers from an al-Shabab camp. AFRICOM’s civilian casualty files indicate that the command reviewed the allegation and deemed it “credible,” but blamed the deaths on al-Shabab employing “human shields.” AFRICOM has never publicly acknowledged these deaths, but the entry for the attack in Airwars’s database notes that sources allege up to six civilian deaths.

Several months later, on April 1, 2018, the U.S conducted the airstrike near El Buur, Somalia, and AFRICOM issued a press release announcing that the attack killed five “terrorists.” In reality, these “terrorists” included a civilian woman and a child. AFRICOM, however, told the world a different story, saying: “We assess no civilians were killed in this air strike.”

Only a year later did AFRICOM publicly admit to killing the two civilians. Airwars’s database entry for the attack notes that two civilian men are also alleged to have been killed in the strike. It’s not uncommon, however, for all men slain to be classified as militants. According to Bolduc, all military-age males are considered legitimate targets if they are observed with suspected al-Shabab members in locations that the U.S. classifies as supportive of the terrorist group.