Inside the Secretive US Air Campaign In Somalia
This article was reported in partnership with Type Investigations.
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.
My investigation identified strikes that went unreported until they were raised with AFRICOM, but also others that AFRICOM could not confirm—which suggests that another US agency may also be launching air attacks in the region. The investigation also tracked down evidence that AFRICOM’s claim of zero civilian casualties is almost certainly incorrect. And it found that the United States lacks a clear definition of “terrorist,” with neither AFRICOM, the Pentagon, nor the National Security Council willing to clarify the policies that underpin these strikes.
The relationship between the United States’ and Somalia’s security apparatuses evolved with the new presidents who took office in both countries in early 2017. In March of that year, The New York Times reported that President Trump had signed a directive that designated parts of Somalia as areas of “active hostilities” for at least 180 days. This designation granted AFRICOM greater flexibility to launch strikes in those regions. During most of President Obama’s time in office, suspected members of Al Shabab could only be targeted if they were judged to be threats to the United States. The new directive allowed AFRICOM to kill anyone deemed to be a member of Al Shabab, and it also required less coordination between military and intelligence agencies before a strike could take place.
Nearly two years later, the United States Africa Command will not say whether the declaration of “active hostilities” is still in place or what parts of Somalia it applies to. Nor would AFRICOM comment on which agencies were helping to vet the targets or had done so in the past, instead referring me to a spokesperson at the Department of Defense. That person told me that a member of the National Security Council was better placed to answer my questions. The NSC said they would look into my queries but did not respond in time for publication.
Changes were afoot in Somalia as well. The rules of engagement between the two countries have always been informal, according to Abdillahi Mohamed Sanbalooshe, the director of Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency in 2014 and again from April 2017 through February 2018. Sanbalooshe told me that little was written down, less was signed, and nothing was concrete. There was “no military agreement; there is only gentleman’s agreement,” he recalled of the operational arrangements regarding intelligence and security.
But the cooperation went from informal to optional when, a month after Trump’s inauguration, Somalia elected Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, a dual US-Somali national better known as Farmajo, as president. A senior adviser to Somalia’s previous and current presidents, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his safety, told me that Farmajo gave the Pentagon a “blank check” when it came to deciding where and when to strike. (AFRICOM maintains that strikes are coordinated with the Somali government.)
Despite all the comments, analyses, and educated guesses that I was offered, the only certain facts are these: Since the inaugurations of Trump and Mohamed, drone attacks and bombings have spiked.
The Pentagon reported 45 “precision strikes” in Somalia in 2018, up from 35 in 2017 and 14 in 2016. But this may not represent the full extent of the US air campaign.
Under both the Obama and Trump administrations, AFRICOM’s policy has been to publicly acknowledge the strikes through a press release or the “responses to questions” (RTQ) policy, which means that a mission will be avowed if AFRICOM is specifically asked about an occurrence that happened on a precise date; otherwise it may go unannounced.”We acknowledge whatever we’ve done,” said John Manley, the Africa Command’s media-relations chief. “If we say, ‘No, it did not happen,’ then no, it did not happen from US AFRICOM.”
Candice Tresch, a Pentagon spokesperson, explained the policy further: “When AFRICOM limits their acknowledgement to ‘response to query,’ it is because of a realistic operational-security concern, a significant force-protection matter, or potential diplomatic sensitivities.”
Complicating this picture is the very real possibility that another US agency is also conducting strikes in Somalia. In March 2017, The Wall Street Journal reported that, according to unnamed officials, Trump had granted the CIA permission to launch drone strikes on its own. Under the Obama administration, the CIA had been used to gather intelligence and locate the targets, but the Pentagon was supposed to make the actual strike.
Daniel Mahanty, the US program director for the nonprofit Center for Civilians in Conflict, told me: “As far as we know, the CIA could be executing people through secret air strikes just about anywhere, and for reasons only known to some in the government. Nothing would prevent it under this administration’s expansive interpretation of domestic and international law or what we know about its still-secret drone policy.”
This lack of transparency has produced an almost total sense of confusion over what the United States is doing with its air attacks in Somalia. Three previously unreported strikes came to light as I investigated the story of an attack relayed by Khadija Hassan Ali, a mother of three from Marka, a city about 60 miles south of Mogadishu.
Ali said that her husband, Abdullahi Sheikh Hassan, died in late July from what she believes was a heart attack after nighttime strikes hit her village amid fighting between Al Shabab and government-led militias. She is certain of the timing because, in Somali culture, a wife formally mourns for four months and 10 days after the death of her husband, so she had the dates in mind when I talked with her in late November.
AFRICOM did not publicly announce any strikes in July, but a document leaked to me by an international human-rights organization indicated an attack on July 25 in Qalimow, a village to the north of Mogadishu and about 95 miles from Ali’s home. I approached AFRICOM and asked if any strikes had occurred between July 22 and 27. Applying RTQ, a spokesperson acknowledged a strike on July 23 but would not specify the location. After weeks of pressing, AFRICOM said the strike happened 30 miles north of Kismayo, Somalia’s southern port city, which is hundreds of miles from both Qalimow and Marka.
This information only makes the situation more puzzling: When asked to avow a strike that a major international organization noted on July 25, AFRICOM admitted a strike in an entirely different location on July 23, and neither of these strikes match Ali’s recollections. In other words, there may have been three different strikes—one acknowledged by AFRICOM, one noted by the international organization, and one recalled by Ali—all around the same time, none of which were previously made public, and only one of which came to light via RTQ.
Isaak Osman (an alias to protect his safety) told me about another air strike that AFRICOM says doesn’t match its records. Osman said the strike killed his brother and almost certainly his uncle as well, and he insists that neither he nor his family members were part of Al Shabab.
Osman is from O’wdhiile, a village about 55 miles south of Mogadishu in Lower Shabelle. Around 5 pm in early July 2017, Osman said he heard an explosion. He waited until it seemed safe, and then ran to the farm that was hit—only to find the body of his 38-year-old brother. Osman said his brother was picking fruit with his uncle, 42-year-old Abdullahi, whom he has not seen since and presumes was killed in the blast.
A day later, Osman said, government soldiers came and inspected the scene. After they left, Al Shabab arrived and accused villagers of feeding the government information. Six members of the group interrogated Osman for seven days. He said they blindfolded him, beat him with their rifles, and shot him repeatedly in the leg.
After a local emir negotiated his release, Osman continued, he was tossed in a vegetable cart and left on the side of the road. Still suffering from the wounds of his torture, he took a four-hour minibus ride to Mogadishu, where he spent four months recovering at Medina Hospital. He said that during this time, Al Shabab kept threatening his father and surviving brother. Today, Osman lives in Geedweyne camp, a settlement near Afgooye. He has to stay there, he told me, because between the strikes and Al Shabab, “there is no space to live.”
AFRICOM doesn’t list any strikes near his location in July 2017, but in November 2017, it confirmed three previously unreported strikes on July 15, 20, and 21 to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a British nonprofit newsroom. After repeated questioning, AFRICOM released the location of the three strikes to me; none are near Osman’s home. When approached with Osman’s story, AFRICOM stated that it didn’t match any of its records. This raises the possibility that it was a CIA strike; the CIA has not responded to any press inquiries for this article.
Aside from the mystery surrounding such strikes, there’s another critical area where transparency has decreased: civilian injuries and deaths. As mentioned earlier, AFRICOM maintains that its air strikes have not caused a single civilian casualty in Somalia.
I asked retired Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc, who served as the head of Special Operations Command Africa from April 2015 to June 2017, if he thought that civilian casualties could have gone unrecorded. He said that he did, but in a follow-up message, he clarified: “There is a possibility. But I also know there are established procedures to avoid civilian casualties.”
In November, The Daily Beast reported, based on conversations with former counterterrorism officials and experts, that the review process after a strike involves planes making a second pass over the area hit to determine the extent of the damage. When asked about its procedures, AFRICOM said that it would not comment on its intelligence or surveillance methods.
What happens if civilian casualties are suspected is also muddy. Within AFRICOM, a Civilian Casualty Allegation Team is designated to investigate, and it works with other agencies, NGOs, and governments, as well as media reports, to assess the claims.
However, two former Somali security officials—including Sanbalooshe, the former head of the National Intelligence and Security Agency—as well as a Somali legal expert and activist said the Somali government does not have the capacity to help investigate these strikes.
Sagal Bihi, a member of Parliament and the former chair of Somalia’s Human Rights, Gender, and Humanitarian Committee, told me that she had raised the issue of civilian casualties with the Ministry of Defense in 2017 and was told that the military “investigates as needed” into any such allegations. But the national military is barely functioning, and the clans that once controlled pockets of the country have complicated relationships with the government and may be reluctant to share information with it. Additionally, according to my interviews, Al Shabab bans the use of smartphones in the territories it holds, which makes taking photographs and sending information difficult. All of these factors make civilian casualties hard to investigate, but nearly every Somali I spoke with was certain that people with no connection to Al Shabab were being killed in the air strikes. “Civilian casualties will always exist,” Bihi said, “because we are talking about an enemy that really takes ‘human shield’ to the next level.”
Felix Horne, the senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, told me in an e-mail that his organization “is concerned about ongoing allegations of civilian casualties caused by US drone strikes in the Middle Shabelle and Lower Shabelle regions, where much of the fight against Al Shabab is taking place.” He added, “The federal government of Somalia has not taken any known measures to investigate these claims.”
Somalia’s Office of the Prime Minister and Office of the President did not respond to queries about civilian casualties.
Further, two high-level former Somali security advisers say civilian casualties are all the more likely because the United States doesn’t have the ability to collect solid information on the ground. “There’s not enough intelligence to justify kinetic strikes,” said one. “They [the US military] don’t have enough linguists. Even the CIA doesn’t go out [of the Green Zone],” an area of tight security in Mogadishu.
“There are very few people in the Pentagon that can even explain to you what is going on in East Africa off the top of their head,” General Bolduc admitted. “They have to have a scheduled meeting so they can read ahead and sound intelligent about it.”
I asked AFRICOM, the Pentagon, the CIA, and the National Security Council about their methods for determining whether the people killed in air strikes were members of Al Shabab, as well as the United States’ intelligence capabilities in Somalia. None responded to such questions.
Of the 25 Somalis displaced by air strikes that I interviewed, only one said that he was seeking answers to what happened. He’s speaking to human-rights organizations and the media, but most of the others communicated a sense of pain and bewilderment about why their villages had been hit. Osman, the man from O’wdhiile who lost his brother and uncle, said he assumed the attack didn’t intend to target civilians, that it had all been a mistake. But until the US government opens up about these strikes, it will be almost impossible for Osman or anyone else to learn who the United States is killing in Somalia and why, or what lethal errors we’re making.
Amanda Sperber is an East Africa–based freelance journalist.