Since 2017, the U.S. military has conducted over 100 air strikes in Somalia ostensibly targeting members of the militant group al-Shabaab, which controls much of the country’s rural territory and conducts attacks throughout the region. For years, the U.S. government has insisted that it has not killed any civilians in Somalia, but today, the military’s African Command (AFRICOM) finally admitted that, yeah, maybe they did kill a few civilians.
Here’s the top line of the press release, sent today (bolding mine):
During a commander-directed review of airstrikes conducted in Somalia since 2017, U.S. Africa Command learned an April 1, 2018 airstrike killed two civilians. The commander, U.S. Africa Command directed the review due to a recent increase in airstrikes and continued interest by Amnesty International and Congress on civilian casualties.
This is the first time AFRICOM has admitted to killing civilians in Somalia as part of its air campaign against al-Shabaab. The second sentence refers to a comprehensive report released last month by Amnesty International, which presented evidence that 14 civilians had been killed in just five airstrikes.
Since June 2017, AFRICOM says it has conducted 110 strikes and killed 800 people—all of whom the military claims were terrorists, save the two it has now admitted were not.
“The civilian death toll we’ve uncovered in just a handful of strikes suggests the shroud of secrecy surrounding the US role in Somalia’s war is actually a smokescreen for impunity,” Amnesty International senior crisis advisor Brian Castner said in a release accompanying the report. “Our findings directly contradict the US military’s mantra of zero civilian casualties in Somalia.”
Immediately following the Amnesty report last month, AFRICOM doubled down, continuing to deny that they had killed any civilians. Here’s a press release from March 19:
We take all allegations of civilian casualties seriously regardless of their origin. During research for its report, Amnesty International submitted 13 allegations in October 2018 and February 2019. Our assessments found that no AFRICOM airstrike resulted in any civilian casualty or injury. Our assessments are based on post-strike analysis using intelligence methods not available to non-military organizations.
AFRICOM insists that security concerns in the often sparsely populated rural areas where many of the strikes occur make it difficult for civilian organizations to collect accurate data, something Amnesty also noted in its report. AFRICOM also has claimed that al-Shabaab benefits from reported civilian casualties, alleging that the militant group may be coercing civilians to report deaths that didn’t happen. Amnesty’s report and other independent investigations rely on witness testimony from the tens of thousands of Somalis who have fled Al-Shabaab-controlled areas.
The strike in question occurred over a year ago, on April 1, 2018, and was not one of the case studies in the Amnesty report. At the time, AFRICOM claimed the strike killed five militants and no civilians. It’s now changing its tune, claiming that a “post-strike internal assessment” reported that the attack killed two civilians and four militants.
AFRICOM claims that this “assessment,” which was conducted in April 2018, was “not properly reported” which is why it got lost for a year and allowed AFRICOM officials to testify before Congress that they hadn’t killed a single civilian—when, in fact, they had. From the most recent release:
Consequently, on April 2, 2018, U.S. Africa Command stated in a press release based on an initial post-strike intelligence review the strike killed five al-Shabaab terrorists, and that the command assessed “no civilians were killed in this airstrike.” Unaware of the subsequent assessment and findings, senior leaders later stated during congressional testimony and media engagements that U.S. forces caused zero civilian casualties in Africa.
There have been more than 110 other strikes in the same region. Throughout Trump’s presidency, the Defense department and administration in general has been steadily eroding reporting mandates and transparency while ramping up air strikes. According to Amnesty international, those air strikes have tripled since Trump took office, outpacing direct U.S. strikes in Yemen and Libya combined.
Is it possible that the April 2018 strike is the only one that caused civilian deaths, that one strike out of over a hundred, and two deaths out of over 800 were the only mistakes? Almost certainly not. What’s far more likely is that this is the tip of an iceberg—of uncounted bodies piling up in fields and villages as a direct result of U.S. action, in a country where most Americans have no idea we’re conducting military operations, and with almost no accountability for the people pulling the triggers.