Somalia: fresh evidence of US airstrikes killing civilians

Map showing confirmed cases of US airstrikes that have killed and injured civilians in Somalia from April 2017 to March 2020 © Amnesty International/Basemap sources: HOTOSM, UNDP

Teenager and 53-year-old farmer latest civilian casualties in USA’s secret air war

More than double number of airstrikes so far this year compared to 2019

AFRICOM ‘doesn’t seem to care about the fate of the numerous families it has completely torn apart’ - Deprose Muchena

Two recent US airstrikes in Somalia killed two civilians - and injured three more, with US military forces failing to investigate the deaths and instead describing the victims as “terrorists”, revealed Amnesty International today. 

Amnesty is calling on the US military to acknowledge the possibility of civilian deaths from the attacks and properly investigate these and other airstrikes conducted as part of its secret air war in Somalia.

The US military operating in Africa (AFRICOM) has conducted hundreds of airstrikes in the decade-long fight against the armed group Al-Shabaab, but has admitted to killing civilians in just one airstrike carried out two years ago today. This lone admission was prompted by Amnesty’s research and advocacy. 

After the February attacks, AFRICOM issued press releases claiming it had killed an Al-Shabaab “terrorist”, without offering evidence of the victims’ alleged links to the armed group. However, Amnesty found no evidence that those killed or injured were members of Al-Shabaab or otherwise participating in hostilities. Amnesty interviewed the victims’ relatives, community members and colleagues; analysed satellite images, photo and video evidence from the scene; and identified the US munitions used.

On 2 February, at around 8pm, a family of five was having dinner in the town of Jilib, in the Middle Juba region, when an air-dropped weapon - likely to have been a US GBU-69/B Small Glide Munition with a 16-kilogramme warhead - struck their home. Nurto Kusow Omar Abukar, an 18-year-old woman, was struck in the head by a heavy metal fragment from the munition and killed instantly. The strike also injured her two younger sisters, Fatuma and Adey, aged 12 and seven, and their grandmother, Khadija Mohamed Gedow, aged around 70.

The girls’ father, Kusow Omar Abukar, a 50-year-old farmer who was in the house during the strike, described the attack to Amnesty:

“I never imagined it was going to hit us. I suddenly heard a huge sound. It felt like our house had collapsed … The sand and the smoke filled my eyes.”

In the other lethal airstrike, 53-year-old Mohamud Salad Mohamud - a banana farmer and Jilib office manager for Hormuud Telecom - was killed on 24 February when a Hellfire missile hit the Masalanja farm near the village of Kumbareere, outside Jilib. Mohamud Salad Mohamud left behind a wife and eight children.

A senior Hormuud Telecom official expressed disbelief that Mohamud Salad Mohamud had been targeted, since he had previously worked for international humanitarian organisations and had been arrested several times by Al-Shabaab:

“When I heard the news of his death, I thought he was killed by Al-Shabaab. I have never imagined he would be killed by [the] US or by the Somali government. This was very strange. I don’t know how to explain it.”

These two airstrikes were among a string of 20 retaliatory attacks US forces carried out in Somalia after an Al-Shabaab assault on a US airbase in Kenya in January. AFRICOM’s commander, US General Stephen Townsend, said the US would “relentlessly pursue those responsible” for the attack, which killed a US soldier and two contractors. In the first three months of 2020 alone, US forces have conducted a total of 32 airstrikes in Somalia. This, according to the monitoring group Airwars, is double the pace of airstrikes in 2019, when AFRICOM conducted 63 aerial attacks in the country.
 
The recently-bereaved civilian families in Middle Juba region join many more Somali civilians who have lost loved ones to US airstrikes but have seen no accountability or reparation. US forces have made no effort to contact any of the families of those killed.

Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s East and Southern Africa Director, said: 

“The evidence is stacking up and it’s pretty damning. Not only does AFRICOM utterly fail at its mission to report civilian casualties in Somalia, but it doesn’t seem to care about the fate of the numerous families it has completely torn apart.

“We’ve documented case after case in the USA’s escalating air war on Somalia, where the AFRICOM thinks it can simply smear its civilian victims as ‘terrorists’, no questions asked. 

Abdullahi Hassan, Amnesty International’s Somalia Researcher, said: 

“Nothing can excuse flouting the laws of war. Any US or Somali government response to Al-Shabaab attacks must distinguish between fighters and civilians, and take all feasible precautions to avoid harm to civilians.

“Much more must be done to reveal the truth and bring justice and accountability for US attacks which killed so many Somali civilians, some of which amount to apparent violations of international humanitarian law.”

Sole US admission of civilian deaths

Since Amnesty’s The Hidden US War in Somalia report from March last year, Amnesty has carried out in-depth investigations into eight US airstrikes that killed civilians in Somalia’s Lower Shabelle and Middle Juba regions. Along with an airstrike in El Buur in 2018 (see below), these attacks have killed a total of 21 civilians and wounded another 11. In every case, AFRICOM has failed to contact the families of the deceased.

AFRICOM’s sole admission concerning civilian deaths relates to its 1 April 2018 airstrike on a vehicle driving from El Buur, north of Mogadishu. Just over a year later, AFRICOM publicly admitted that the strike had killed a woman and young child. It is its only admission of civilian casualties in an air war in Somalia that has lasted over a decade. Despite the family of the victims of this attack contacting the US Mission in Somalia in April last year, at the time of writing neither US diplomatic staff nor AFRICOM had offered any form of reparation.

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