Inside the Secretive US Air Campaign In Somalia

Halimo Mohamed Abdi said the blast broke both her hips, left shrapnel embedded in her thigh, and caused terrible burns that cost her both breasts. Before she lost consciousness, she told me, she saw three boys—ages 9, 10, and 16—die in the explosion, which occurred at night in a field outside Bariire, a village 30 miles west of the Somali capital of Mogadishu. She also said the strike came from the sky and that afterward she had to be hospitalized for three months.

When Abdi was finally able to leave the ward, she found her house in ruins and 25 of her goats dead. Now she lives in Salama camp, one of the 996 squalid settlements lining the 20-mile road that runs from Afgooye to Mogadishu. The camps are filled with tens of thousands of Somalis who have fled American air strikes and the fighting between government militias and Al Shabab, the extremist group linked to Al Qaeda.

Abdi, like many Somali herders, doesn’t follow the Western calendar, so she’s unsure of the exact date of the strike. But she says it was about two weeks before Eid al-Fitr, which began on the evening of June 14 last year.

The United States Africa Command is the only military actor that acknowledges conducting air and drone strikes in this region of Somalia, known as Lower and Middle Shabelle. Located just a few hours outside Mogadishu, both areas are Al Shabab strongholds. On June 1, AFRICOM issued a press release stating that, on May 31, a strike had been conducted 30 miles southwest of Mogadishu, killing 12 “terrorists.” But the AFRICOM statement only raised more questions: Did the American command count the three boys killed as terrorists? Why was Abdi’s farm targeted? Was this even the attack she described?

Such questions have become increasingly common with the escalation of US air operations in Somalia. Since Donald Trump took office, the US military has approximately tripled the number of strikes that it conducts each year in Somalia, according to figures confirmed by the Pentagon, while such actions—and the reasons behind them—have become increasingly opaque.

“It’s hard to know what standards and processes the Trump administration, since taking office in 2017, has been applying to counterterrorism operations in places like Somalia, given the administration’s retrenchment on transparency with respect to the overall policy framework governing counterterrorism strikes,” said Joshua Geltzer, the senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council from 2015 to 2017.

In March of last year, 13 NGOs, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Human Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School, released a statement criticizing the lack of information on the use of armed drones and other lethal force by the Trump administration: “We are deeply concerned that the reported new policy, combined with this administration’s reported dramatic increase in lethal operations in Yemen and Somalia, will lead to an increase in unlawful killings and in civilian casualties.”

Representative Adam Smith (D-WA), the new chair of the House Armed Services Committee, said that the Trump administration hasn’t even shared this information with Congress. The administration, he said, has failed to deliver a report on its military actions in Somalia that was mandated by the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. “We don’t know what the strategy is,” Smith said, “because we required the administration to lay out its long-term strategy… but they have not yet done so, as required by law.”

The White House did not respond to requests for comment.

Over October and November of 2018, I spent five weeks in Somalia investigating the impact of the US air campaign. My goal was to find out whether there were strikes happening that were not being made public and civilian casualties that were not being disclosed. I interviewed 25 Somalis from Lower and Middle Shabelle who had been displaced by the strikes and were now living in camps near Mogadishu. Others who provided me with information or insights included current and former senior Somali security and intelligence officials; current and former senior American security and diplomatic officials and contractors; members of the country’s Federal Parliament; and about a dozen well-connected Somali and American analysts, activists, and aid workers.




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