“They were very innocent": civilian victims of American airstrikes in Somalia

Women carrying water next to soldiers searching for IEDs Women carrying water next to soldiers searching for IEDs © Private

International NGO Amnesty International is investigating possible violations of international humanitarian law in the context of US military operations against the terrorist group Al-Shabaab.

For years, a war has been going on in Somalia between Somali government forces and Al-Shabaab. The latter being  a group formed in 2006 in the context of the war against Ethiopia: presenting itself in opposition to the Ethiopian army, it has managed to gather broad popular support. Al Shabaab currently controls the central-southern area of the country. Due to, inter alia, the group’s  affiliation with al-Qaeda, it was designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the US State Department in 2008.

Although the United States has been involved in the conflict for years, the reasons for its presence in Somalia have changed over time. Initially, the US intervention was part of the global war on terrorism. In 2016, the aim shifted to supporting AMISOM, the African Union Mission in Somalia, which is also supported by the United Nations. In 2017, US President Trump declared parts of Somalia “area of active hostilities" (AAH), which led to an intensification of American air strikes. In practice, this directive has resulted in less protection for civilians.

The report presented here is intended to demonstrate that, contrary to US statements, US airstrikes often affect also the civilian population Amnesty International's report focuses in particular on five recent incidents causing a total of 14 deaths and 8 injuries among civilians.

In an interview of Donald Balduc, Commander of USAFRICOM (United States Africa Command) from 2015 to 2017 by Amnesty International, Balduc explains that there are only four criteria an individual has to meet to be considered a legitimate military target in such AAH: age, gender, position, geographical proximity. This implies that all males of enlistment  age, aboding within specific areas with a likely presence of Al-Shabaab affiliates, are potential targets.

Based on the reason for the involvement of civilians in US air strikes, the five incidents covered by the report fall into two categories.

The first category concerns attacks against Al-Shabaab vehicles, which also killed or injured civilians in proximity of the vehicles . This category includes the 16 October and 6 December 2017 attacks. According to Amnesty International, US forces could have averted casualties among civilians through precautions imposed by international humanitarian law: such as not attacking the vehicles within an inhabited area.

The 12 November 2017, 2 August and 9 December 2018 incidents are part of the second category: civilians attacked because they were misidentified as fighters or simply involved by mistake. Amnesty International accuses the US  forces of not having conducted necessary checks, respectively of not having aborted the attack once it had become clear that the objective was incorrect or that the attack was disproportionate.

The report deplores the lack of clarity and transparency in regard to the civilian victims of these attacks and insufficient  investigations to identify the perpetrators, to ensure justice to the victims and compensation to their families.

Amnesty International thus calls on the US and Somali governments to conduct transparent, impartial and independent investigations to shed light on the report’s allegations. The NGO  further recommends to establish a mechanism for families and communities to report attacks on the civilian population. In particular, the report calls on the USA to adhere to international humanitarian law in future military operations.

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Author: Margherita Liverani

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