Three farmers were sleeping under a tree when they were fatally hit by US airstrikes near the rural town of Darusalam, Somalia, in November 2017, according to a new report by Amnesty International.
The farmers were al-Shabab terrorists — according to the United States Africa Command or AFRICOM, which leads US military operations in Somalia.
But Amnesty has argued that overly broad strike criteria are putting young Somali men — some who are farmers living in remote areas — at risk of being indiscriminately targeted by airstrikes.
Under a shroud of secrecy, US military counterterrorism operations in Somalia have surged under Trump administration, along with a lack of transparency in terms of civilian casualties.
The US has killed 800 terrorists and conducted 110 airstrikes in Somalia since June 2017, according to AFRICOM. Many are in the al-Shabab-controlled areas of Lower and Middle Shabelle region of the country.
The new report by Amnesty says the US military could be guilty of war crimes for killing civilians during airstrikes in Somalia. They documented 14 civilian casualties from just five airstrikes conducted between 2017 and 2018. These casualties were not reported by AFRICOM.
They denied any civilian deaths until April 5, when AFRICOM acknowledged at least two civilian casualties in an April 2018 strike after conducting an internal review last month.
“US Africa Command is committed to transparency in its reporting of civilian casualties. While believed to be an isolated occurrence, the reporting error is being addressed,” AFRICOM said in the statement.
In an executive order earlier this month, President Donald Trump revoked an Obama-era policy requiring the government to publish statistics on civilian casualties.
“The fact that [AFRICOM] says they are not killing civilians in these airstrikes needs to be questioned.”
Abdullahi Hassan, researcher, Amnesty International
“The fact that they say they are not killing civilians in these airstrikes needs to be questioned,” said Abdullahi Hassan, a researcher on Somalia at Amnesty International.
Analysts like Hassan worry that the increased airstrikes and lack of transparency about the civilian cost are having unintended consequences on the humanitarian and security situation in Somalia, exacerbating internal displacement and creating the conditions for radicalizing Somali youth.
Despite the rapidly increasing airstrikes, al-Shabab continues to orchestrate deadly attacks in the region.
Between March 21 and March 28, over 40 people were killed in nine explosions in Somalia’s capital of Mogadishu.
Amnesty has called on the US to investigate the claims, but the military has rejected their findings.
The report has brought intense scrutiny to the growing secrecy of US airstrikes in Somalia that have almost tripled since 2017, when President Donald Trump began rolling back Obama-era regulations on airstrikes that were created to protect civilians.
Airstrikes spur radicalization
Hours after the US airstrike in Darusalam killed three farmers, staged photos of the victims were uploaded onto a known pro-al-Shabab website.
While smartphones have long been banned in areas controlled by al-Shabab, pictures of civilians allegedly killed in airstrikes are shared on social media by the terrorist group, often accompanied by text decrying the deaths of Somalis by foreign actors.
This has worried some analysts, who expect the propaganda could be used as a tool for recruitment and radicalization in the future.
“Al-Shabab can use this grievance [of civilian deaths]. … If this continues, we can expect more radicalization.”
Roselyn Omondi, associate director of research, Horn Institute, Nairobi, Kenya
“Al-Shabab can use this grievance,” said Roselyn Omondi, the associate director of research at the Horn Institute in Nairobi. Omondi noted how al-Shabab often presents itself as defending Somalia against foreign intruders. “If this continues, we can expect more radicalization.”
Related: The group behind Nairobi’s recent terror attack recruits young people from many faiths. Officials can’t stop it.
Similarities have also been drawn to how US airstrikes in Iraq and Afghanistan were used by militant groups to radicalize and spread anti-American sentiments.
“It is in the interest of the terrorist group al-Shabab to untruthfully claim civilian casualties,” AFRICOM said in a press statement.
A young Kenyan Somali man looks out as he sits on deck overlooking the town. Abdihakim Bare Hassan, 27, is a Kenyan Somali who works for Eastleighwood, a media company that counters youth radicalization and violence in Kenya and Somalia, April 3, 2019. Credit: Halima Gikandi/The World
Abdihakim Bare Hassan says he is not surprised that al-Shabab is turning civilian casualties from US airstrikes into online propaganda. The 27-year-old Somali Kenyan works for the media company Eastleighwood, which uses media and art to counter youth radicalization in Kenya and Somalia.
Located in the predominantly Somali Eastleigh neighborhood in Nairobi, known as “Little Mogadishu,” the group trains youth who have been or are currently at risk of gang recruitment or extremist radicalization.
They receive referrals from police or local administrators who link the organization with youth identified as at-risk. Eastleighwood has worked with over 6,000 youth since the group started in 2011 — the same year Kenya entered Somalia.
Bare Hassan says that at the end of the day, civilian casualties from airstrikes pales in comparison to those caused by al-Shabab.
Between 2016 and 2017, the UN documented 4,585 civilians casualties in Somalia. Sixty percent were attributed to the terrorist group.
“Now they post dead bodies from US airstrikes?” Bare Hassan said incredulously. “What do you take them for? They kill hundreds of people every month.”
“I don’t think air strikes will end this.”
Abdihakim Bare Hassan, Eastleighwood, Nairobi, Kenya
While Bare Hassan is hopeful in the US military and Somali government, he is skeptical that airstrikes alone will defeat the terrorist group. “I don’t think airstrikes will end this.”