NAIROBI, Kenya—U.S. Africa Command, known as AFRICOM, has been conducting air and ground operations, mainly targeting the al Qaeda affiliate al Shabaab, in Somalia since 2007. In those 13 years it has admitted to four civilian deaths.
The difference between the number of civilian casualties declared by AFRICOM compared to those recorded by organizations like Amnesty International and Airwars is so vast that it has prompted members of Congress to write directly to the American general in charge.
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn) is leading the initiative. The letter is co-signed by seven other Democratic representatives, all of them chairs of relevant committees and subcommittees, including Eliot Engel (D-NY), the Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and Adam Smith (D-WA), the Chair of the House Armed Services Committee.
The letter, shared exclusively with The Daily Beast, requests that the military clarify how it investigatives civilian casualty allegations. It suggests that an explanation of the research process might help explain the discrepancy between the figures reported by human rights organizations and the numbers acknowledged by the military. It also reminds AFRICOM that providing clarity about the reasons for discrepancies and defining who the military considers a “combatant” is required by recent legislation passed by Congress as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, Section 1703.
Allegations of civilian casualties in Somalia have increased since the Trump administration gave AFRICOM commanders more flexibility to carry out offensive strikes against suspected militants in 2017.
With the loosened restrictions, there’s been a steady drumbeat of reports of civilian deaths documented by international human rights organizations, local and foreign journalists, Somali politicians and officials.
Omar was born in Somalia and there is a significant Somali diaspora in her Minnesota constituency.
AFRICOM’s efforts to degrade the military capabilities of al Shabaab “are greatly welcomed by most Somalis, but they seem to be rushing at targets blindly, without proper intelligence resulting in many civilian deaths and a public outcry,” Hussein Sheikh-Ali, the national security adviser and counterterrorism adviser to the current and former presidents of Somalia, told The Daily Beast.
With testimonial evidence, corroborating accounts and expert analysis of images and video from strike sites, satellite imagery, and weapons identification, Amnesty International has investigated nine airstrikes, and of those nine incidents found 21 civilians dead and 11 injured.
Analyzing all strikes and ground operations via official AFRICOM statements, open-source information on social media and internal military documents obtained by journalists with the Freedom of Information Act, London-based airstrike monitoring group Airwars estimates that up to 142 civilians have been killed in the 227 declared actions the U.S. has conducted since 2007.
“We urge you to, wherever possible and consistent with the need to protect classified information, provide detail on how assessments are made and acknowledge where they may differ from the assessments of credible, independent non-governmental organizations and others,” says the letter, addressed to U.S. Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, the chief of U.S. Africa Command. “When reporting comes from credible and sophisticated NGOs with cultural and linguistic capacity, civilian casualty reports are not easily dismissed.”
At the end of March, the command committed to issuing quarterly reports on civilian casualty allegations in Africa. The announcement was met with cautious optimism. “We welcome this step to provide increased transparency and public accounting of U.S. military operations and as part of our national commitment to minimizing civilian casualties,” the letter reads.
Last week AFRICOM released the first report. It said in the last 14 months it had conducted 91 airstrikes in Somalia and Libya (of those 87 were conducted in Somalia, four in Libya, LT Christina M. Gibson, a spokesperson for AFRICOM explained to The Daily Beast in an email). Of those 91 airstrikes AFRICOM received “70 allegations of about 27 separate possible civilian casualty incidents with approximately 90 alleged civilian casualties.”
Of those 27 incidents, one was acknowledged to have caused civilian casualties. Seven incidents are still under review. The rest AFRICOM considered to be “unsubstantiated.”
The report did not mention any claims of civilian casualties in ground raids. U.S. Special Forces regularly carry out raids with Somali soldiers belonging to the Danab Brigade, who are supposed to be highly trained commandos. AFRICOM told The Daily Beast it does not conduct assessments of civilian casualty claims related to partner forces, although it would investigate if a U.S. service member was directly accused. Airwars has reported 14 incidents with civilian casualty allegations from ground raids.
The response to the first installment of AFRICOM’s report was less enthusiastic in some quarters. “The report was a disappointment,” Sheikh-Ali said. “It fell short of any meaningful engagement with the concerned population.”
As the congressional letter notes, AFRICOM has not explained how it investigates civilian casualty claims, saying for security concerns it cannot go into detail about its methodology. Amnesty International has found the U.S. military does not speak to witnesses, family members, friends or colleagues of the deceased even when their contact information has been shared.
Luke Hartig, the senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council from 2013 to 2017 confirmed that AFRICOM does not speak to witnesses or family members, and said, “This produces a significant gap in their ability to gather local knowledge in support of their assessments.” He noted that organizations like Amnesty and Airwars are not privy to the intelligence that underpins AFRICOM’s assessments and cautioned, “this is a significant gap for outside investigators.”
In Somalia there is a history of international actors, including the U.S., being misled by false intelligence reports used to extract revenge in local disputes.
The letter suggests that the reports “should include a public accounting of basic questions of methodology and the Command’s definitions of combatants and non-combatants.”
AFRICOM has not explained how it defines "combatant.” Without that definition, the military can essentially designate anyone a terrorist. “It is plausible that AFRICOM counts individuals—particularly military aged males in Al-Shabaab controlled locations— as combatants whereas depending on our investigations we could classify such people as civilians, hence the discrepancies,” Abdullahi Hassan, the Somalia Researcher at Amnesty International, told The Daily Beast.
AFRICOM did not provide an answer when The Daily Beast asked if any or every military aged male in Somalia is considered a combatant.
“AFRICOM—and other U.S. military commands—need to be far more transparent about how exactly they are distinguishing between combatants and civilians,” says Priyanka Motaparthy, director of the Project on Armed Conflict, Counterterrorism, and Human Rights at Columbia Law School. “For the communities affected by their operations, this is a life or death question.”
It is not clear if AFRICOM has yet contacted the families of the four civilians it has admitted to killing by mistake. Hartig says this is a particular area of concern, given that ex gratia payments are U.S. policy. He also added, “This is beyond AFRICOM's control, but I think we're still missing a lot of information on the context for U.S. operations in Somalia—the scale of our effort, our objectives, and what policies govern our use of force there. That sort of information should be coming from senior officials at the Pentagon or the White House, but we haven't seen that level of transparency from this administration.”