The US military just admitted for the first time that its ongoing war in Somalia has killed civilians — after years of denying that this was the case.
In a statement Friday morning, US Africa Command (AFRICOM) — the military organization responsible for overseeing American operations in Africa — said that it had accidentally killed two civilians, a woman and a child, in an April 1, 2018, airstrike. The revelation came after a mandated review, the military continued, and says their deaths weren’t “properly reported” at the time.
The April 2018 strikes, which AFRICOM also says killed four terrorists, form part of the US war against al-Shabaab — a Somalia-based terrorist organization with ties to al-Qaeda — that began under the Obama administration and has continued until now.
But Friday’s disclosure comes just a month after AFRICOM’s military leadership testified in front of Congress that no civilians have been harmed during the conflict. It also comes after Amnesty International, a human rights group, released a report on March 20 claiming that at least 14 civilians had died due to American airstrikes. The military denied the assertion, but AFRICOM said its review of civilian casualties was prompted in part by the report.
“AFRICOM’s acknowledgement of civilian casualties is an important step forward from their previous denials of any civilian deaths or injuries from US air strikes in Somalia,” Daphne Eviatar, a director at Amnesty International, said in a Friday statement after the military’s acknowledgment of the civilian casualties.
On March 26, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), whose family comes from Somalia, asked a panel of experts during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing if they thought the US military hadn’t killed civilians over years of airstrikes.
“There’s a fog of war in a place like Somalia,” responded Joshua Meservey, an expert on the campaign at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, DC. “It’s very difficult to distinguish there the difference between combatants and non-combatants.”
In a phone call with reporters 90 minutes after the statement, Marine Maj. Gen. Gregg Olson, the director of operations in the area, said his command’s review continues and “should we find additional [information], we’ll be transparent about that.”
The announcement is a big deal, and could draw attention to an ongoing but seldom-discussed conflict.
The US has quietly waged war in the East African country for years with little public pushback. President Donald Trump just weeks into his term issued an order allowing the military to ramp up airstrikes in Somalia, which some critics warned would increase the chance of civilian casualties.
The American military consistently saying it only killed terrorists during the effort — never civilians — surely helping it avoid scrutiny. That gave US troops the space to launch 110 airstrikes with drones and manned aircraft on al-Shabaab targets in Somalia since 2017, according to AFRICOM’s own numbers. The military is on pace to triple its usual rate of airstrikes in Somalia this year.
I spoke to Meservey on Friday about what he thinks the revelation means. His answer: Likely not much will change.
“I don’t think the report of civilian casualties will bring a lot of extra scrutiny,” he told me. “Congress has known these strikes have been going for years, and with so much going on internationally, I think Somalia will remain a backburner issue for most of the US public.”
Why the US is at war with al-Shabaab
Al-Shabaab, a militant group composed of roughly 7,000 to 9,000 fighters, has two main goals.
The first is to control all of Somalia.
The group started fighting an insurgency in the country in 2006 after it split off from a bigger organization that Ethiopian forces eventually defeated. It retreated to the country’s south, regrouped, and began launching attacks.
At its height, al-Shabaab controlled roughly one-third of Somalia, including parts of the capital, Mogadishu. But after years of military pressure from the US-supported African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) coalition, al-Shabaab now controls only about 10 percent of the country, experts say. Washington’s airstrikes have played a part in that decline.
Al-Shabaab remains extremely dangerous, though. In January, four of its militants killed 14 people at a luxury hotel in Nairobi, Kenya, in a siege that lasted more than 20 hours.
In September 2013, it attacked Nairobi’s Westgate mall in a siege that lasted roughly 80 hours. The assailants threw grenades and shot wildly at shoppers, ultimately killing at least 67 people. And in April 2015, the group killed nearly 150 students at Garissa University in northeastern Kenya in what remains the group’s deadliest strike.
It’s worth noting, though, that the group mostly attacks targets in Somalia itself. Last December, a car bomb placed by an al-Shabaab militant killed at least 16 people in Mogadishu.
Al-Shabaab’s second goal is to “liberate” Muslims in the region from so-called apostate rule. Kenya, for example, borders Somalia and has a large Muslim and ethnic Somali population that the group feels it could free and even bring into its ranks. That explains why it’s been such a target in recent years.
Many people reject the group outright, of course, and al-Shabaab’s degradation over the years makes it harder to recruit those who may be on the fence about joining. So big terrorist attacks are a way for the group to show it’s still a powerful fighting force.
The US has an interest in fighting terrorist groups and protecting allies, like Kenya, from harm. The question now is if the Trump administration will decide that it’s worth killing civilians in Somalia to do so.