US ‘war on terror’ fuels terrorism in Somalia

A groundbreaking report on the deaths and catastrophic damage caused to civilians by US airstrikes in Somalia has uncovered a shocking array of suffering – including the alleged killing of children – and called for an end to the current targeting practices employed by US forces outside conventional war zones.

The new report by Dutch NGO Pax focuses specifically on Jubbaland, Somalia’s southernmost state, where the majority of US airstrikes have taken place since the first public US counter-terrorism attack in the East African country in 2007. Jubbaland is the only one of Somalia’s six states that contains a region entirely controlled by the Islamist group Al Shabab. The impact of US operations against the group on the civilian population of Jubbaland has been largely overlooked in reporting on Somalia until now.

While years of US strikes have killed several key Al Shabab leaders, they have not broken the militant group’s grip on Somalia or ended its ability to commit atrocities. In fact, testimonies cited in the Pax report suggest that the strikes may even be counterproductive, serving as a recruitment tool for militants as US airstrikes become propaganda. While Al Shabab is detested by those who have to live under the group’s rule, Somali civilians interviewed for the report question whether US airstrikes are actually serving their security interests. As one civilian quoted in the report says, the cost of the strikes may be “too high to kill three or four Al Shabab. It’s excessive.

While official figures from Africom, the US military command in Africa, acknowledge that its operations have killed five Somalis and wounded 11, estimates by independent monitoring groups have put the true number of casualties at much higher. Airwars, a British non-profit organisation, estimates that between 78 and 154 Somali civilians have been killed in attacks confirmed or probably carried out by US forces.

The new report – based on interviews with Somali civilians affected by airstrikes, Somali officials and Al Shabab defectors – suggests that civilian deaths are only part of the broad tapestry of damage caused by US strikes. Displacement, property damage, loss of livelihoods and lasting psychological trauma were also identified as unintended consequences of the operations. The bulk of the report concerns airstrikes carried out during the Trump administration.

The report raises questions about the US military’s targeting and reporting practices, as well as the current rules authorising airstrikes in Somalia. Amanda Sperber, a researcher and reporter who wrote the Pax report, says the particularities of the situation in Jubbaland, where Al Shabab is the only form of government, creates a particularly dangerous situation for civilians. “Under Africom’s definition of ‘combatant’, it would be difficult to see who is not a legitimate target, given that Al Shabab has imposed itself on Somali society and runs a shadow government and tax system in areas it does not directly control,” Sperber explained.

Given the extent to which the group is entrenched in the region, many low-ranking Al Shabab members have joined out of a need to make a living. Others are forced to join under threat of torture. Even so, members of the group may perform non-combatant functions, such as collecting taxes or tending Al Shabab’s livestock, but they continue to live in fear of being targeted by US air strikes.

Previous reports have sought to shed light on how the US grants permission to conduct counterterrorism airstrikes in regions considered outside conventional war zones. Under the Trump administration, the rules around who could be subject to “direct action” – lethal force – in these areas were relaxed to such an extent that the ACLU described them as an “unchecked licence to kill”. In October, the New York Times reported that Biden had signed a classified policy – referred to as a presidential policy memorandum – to formally replace Trump’s guidelines that had been paused by temporary limits put in place on the day of Biden’s inauguration. “The fact that this required a review makes me think it was a problem to begin with,” says Sperber.

But while the basis for who can be targeted by US counter-terrorism strikes in places like Somalia remains opaque, the effects that strikes can have on affected civilians are unambiguous.

Most of the cases of injured civilians in Jubbaland examined for the Pax report involved people injured by shrapnel and debris from missile strikes, resulting in death and disability. Six children were among those presumed dead or injured. One person interviewed for the report said that an attack at 2 a.m. on the outskirts of the Berhani settlement claimed the lives of a mother and child, while another spoke of her neighbours’ house being flattened by an airstrike that reportedly killed two children inside the building.

One woman – listed in the report under the pseudonym Amburo – now lives in a displacement camp in Jubbaland’s capital, Kismayo, after her house in a village near Berhani was hit by an attack about five years ago. She says she heard the sound of a plane overhead while she was washing clothes when the explosion occurred. Her children – a two-year-old and an even younger, still-infant son – were fatally injured by shrapnel. Amburo was also injured, and is now permanently blind in one eye.

Another woman, named Jamilah, was injured in a 2018 airstrike in the Hosingow area of Lower Jubba. It is unclear whether the US or another actor, such as the Kenyan military, carried out the attack. She still has shrapnel embedded in her back, thighs and arms, and now struggles with mobility problems. Jamilah also now lives in a camp for displaced people. Her first-born son, who Jamilah says suffered psychological changes as a result of the airstrike, is also in the camp. Mentally ill people in Somalia are known to be shackled to prevent them from harming themselves or others, and Jamilah says her son is now immobilised for long periods.

In addition to physical and mental harm, Pax claims that US airstrikes in Jubbaland also cause other harm to civilians. Interviewees claim to have lost livestock and crops in the blasts, destroying their livelihoods. Victims say they have also faced economic hardship from medical bills following the attacks, as well as suspicion of being Al Shabab members – even when they insist they are not – as neighbours believe they must have been targeted for some reason. Worse, the victims of the attacks claim they have been actively targeted in Al Shabab’s recruitment efforts in the wake of the attacks, as the group hopes to capitalise on resentment towards the US.

“Any airstrikes that kill, injure or cause casualties among the civilian population will help Al Shabab. Of course, Al Shabab will use it as a propaganda tool,” explains Mohamed Osman Abdi. He is well aware that US counter-terrorism operations in Somalia can produce catastrophic results. In February 2020, a US airstrike in Jilib killed his niece, Nurto Kusow Omar Abukar, who was about 18 years old at the time. The attack also injured his mother-in-law, Khadija Mohamed Gedow, and two other nieces, Fatuma Kusow Omar and Adey Kusow Omarand.

Africom admitted responsibility for killing Abdi’s niece and injuring his other relatives, who the Americans said were “not visible” during an attack on a “targeted individual”.

Abdi, who works as a journalist for the Somali National News Agency, attended a conference the day after the airstrike, where he spoke to an Africom official. “I told them what happened, that I am a victim of that airstrike,” says Abdi. He says the official told him that Africom always tries to “avoid civilian casualties”. After posting the airstrike on social media, Abdi claims that Somali government officials contacted him and pressured him to keep quiet.

When friends and family advised him to stop talking, Abdi recalls telling them: “This is what happened to my family. Even if they kill me, I will tell the truth. I will explain what happened. I will explain to anyone who wants to talk to me”.

To this day, Abdi says his niece Fatuma, who was 14 at the time of the attack, struggles with her injuries. “When you ask her to lift or bring you five or four litres of water from somewhere else, she is in pain,” he says, adding, “Sometimes she has mental problems.” His youngest niece, Adey, who was about 10 years old at the time of the attack, suffered from nightmares. “She used to wake up in the middle of the night to cry or scream because of what happened that night,” says Abdi. “That was mostly his problem. We had given him therapy. His mother-in-law, now in her 80s, needed treatment for eye and leg injuries. Abdi says: “Now her eyes are fine, but she still has pain in her leg.

In the two years since the attack, Abdi says he has received no formal apology or compensation for the horror inflicted on his family. “It’s very shocking,” he says. “To be honest, it totally broke my heart to experience and see such a [terrible] reaction from Africom, which was behind this horrible attack on innocent civilians who are not affiliated to any group or Al Shabab.”

In light of the damage caused by the attacks on Somali civilians, the Pax report calls on Africom to consider temporarily ceasing its airstrikes in Somalia, conduct an independent review of its ability to distinguish between Al Shabab militants and civilians, and provide compensation in the form of payments to civilians who have been harmed by the attacks. The report also recommends that the Department of Defence suspend its operations in the country – especially in light of reports that they are being used as a recruitment tool by Al Shabab – and calls on the US government to be more transparent about the recent Biden Presidential Policy Memorandum guiding the use of counterterrorism drone strikes outside conventional war zones.

Dan Ladden-Hall

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