The “Collateral Damage” of the U.S.’s Unofficial War in Somalia
“Surgical” U.S. air strikes destabilize villages, drive displacement and fuel al-Shabab recruitment.
December 16, 2019
Nurto Mohamed Nor Issak, 59, doesn’t want to talk about the coconut trees she lost after the U.S. air strike three years ago. She wants to talk about her son who was killed. Who cares about her trees?
Based on Issak’s recollections, the strike was likely one of two carried out April 1 and April 2, 2016, near where Issak lives, in Janale—about 60 miles southwest of Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates as many as 29 people were killed by the air attacks. The Pentagon claims the April 2016 strikes were self-defense against fighters with the militant Islamist group al-Shabab who “posed imminent threats to U.S. and partner nation forces in Somalia.”
Issak is adamant that her son was not with the militants and that she told him “not to mix with al-Shabab.”
The reason I’m speaking with Issak, though, is that—regardless of her son’s alleged association with al-Shabab—her coconut trees are still decapitated and her income depleted, three years hence.
Issak says the strike hit her sugarcane and coconut tree plantation, which stretched about 7 acres. Al-Shabab bans smartphones in the villages it controls, but Issak managed to use one to take photos of the damage. “The coconut trees lost their heads,” she says. In the pictures, the tree trunks are stark against the blue sky, masts without sails.
Before the strikes, Issak had 240 coconut trees whose biweekly harvest brought her about $250—roughly $6,000 a year. Livestock and crops are the main sources of livelihood in Somalia—as they are for Issak, who says less than a quarter of her trees survived. U.S. Africa Command (Africom) generally uses precision-guided munitions—often Hellfire missiles with a 20–80 pound warhead, not large enough to cause mass destruction of a farm. But Issak says the strike set the grass under her trees on fire, causing the trees to decay (which coconut tree experts tell In These Times is plausible).
Issak has lost much with the decimation of her trees, but it’s her son she misses most. He was a strong, supportive son with business plans, she says. He could have done so much with the farm. She still has the bloody T-shirt he was wearing when he died.
The United States began its campaign of “precision” strikes against al-Shabab (and, more recently, ISIS-Somalia) in 2007. In the past three years, Africom says it has carried out 148 strikes, killing between 900 and 1,000 people. Africom long maintained that all of the deaths were targeted “terrorists.” This year, Amnesty International has investigated six U.S. air strikes and concluded they caused 17 civilian casualties. Africom has since admitted that one strike (not one covered by Amnesty) did result in two civilian deaths.
Such strikes—often referred to as “surgical”—can target a specific room in a house from thousands of feet away. But a bomb is still a bomb, and the impacts reverberate physically, psychologically and politically.
Following my own findings that U.S. air strikes were contributing to civilian displacement, along with informal reports from Somali sources and NGOs who said strikes were spurring al-Shabab recruitment, I travelled to Somalia for In These Times to investigate the strikes’ civilian impacts.
I spoke with Somalis living in territories controlled by al-Shabab whose property or villages were hit by air strikes, as well as analysts, activists and policymakers. I found that U.S. air strikes in Somalia have damaged farms, homes and livestock. Strikes have also created a climate of uncertainty and paranoia within the communities they hit, as civilians start suspecting each other of being targeted members of al-Shabab. Al-Shabab has reacted to the strikes by harassing villagers, accusing locals of being U.S. spies or forcing them to choose between fighting for al-Shabab and fleeing home.
“Our research has found that when a Somali’s farm or property is the scene of an air strike, that person is seen as suspicious and can be targeted for reprisals,” weapons investigator Brian Castner, who worked on Amnesty International’s Crisis Team to report on civilian casualties from U.S. air strikes in Somalia, tells In These Times.
U.S. air strikes have driven recruitment for ISIS and the Taliban, and experts say al-Shabab is likely to use them in the same way. Roselyne Omondi, the associate director of research at the HORN Institute in Nairobi, Kenya, told Public Radio International that air strikes feed into al-Shabab’s claims that it is defending the country against foreign invaders. “If this continues, we can expect more radicalization,” she said.
“Air strikes are without a doubt used as a recruitment tool,” concurs Bill Roggio, a former soldier and senior fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative think tank. He says the air strikes are a “staple” of jihadist propaganda he has seen, including al-Shabaab’s.
Thirteen people told me they lost property, lost assets or were forced from their homes after U.S. air strikes. Some of the displaced had fled because al-Shabab tried to recruit them, sometimes cornering them for hours and returning numerous times over days or weeks. Others felt they could not return because al-Shabab would accuse them of spying, putting their lives at risk.
“Precision weapons with a limited area of effect are able to minimize collateral damage, but it cannot be guaranteed there will be none,” explains Chris Cobb-Smith, a former Royal Artillery officer with the British army who has served as a UN weapons inspector. Cobb-Smith currently sits on the board of Airwars, an organization that tracks civilian harm from air power. “There is always a margin of error—human, mechanical or poor targeting intelligence with a direct or indirect impact on noncombatants. There will invariably be blast and fragmentation damage, with the resulting sociopolitical outcomes.”
I met one man, for example, who is now displaced but originally from a village called Baghdad, who said shrapnel hit a tree, which sent bark flying and injured his eye.
Another man, Abdifatah, in his 20s, described how his life changed after a U.S. air strike hit his village in October 2017. (Abdifatah is a pseudonym, used in fear of retaliation from al-Shabab.)
Before the strike, al-Shabab had already killed Abdifatah’s father. After the strike, al-Shabab tried to recruit Abdifatah and refused to let him clear the brush from his land, the thick foliage offering better protection from aerial assaults. Abdifatah couldn’t use his farmland anymore, couldn’t work, couldn’t do anything. Villagers who refused to join al-Shabab as fighters were required to pay the group increased fines, and were told the money went to ammunition to “defend you from the enemy.”
Abdifatah then moved to a new (undisclosed) location for his own safety. He is staying with extended family, unemployed and bored. Sometimes he sells khat, a chewable stimulant. He sneaks back to visit home about once a month.
Somalia, like Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria, is a front in the many-pronged “War on Terror” that began after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and has continued through three U.S. presidencies. In Somalia (as elsewhere), the attempt has arguably created terrorists where they didn’t previously exist.
In the heady days after 9/11, the Bush administration moved quickly and violently against any organization deemed to be affiliated with al Qaeda, and some in the U.S. foreign policy community became convinced that one al Qaeda ally was the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a coalition of religious courts that had formed amid the chaos of Somalia’s civil war. The ICU implemented Sharia law in the territories under its control and gradually expanded, eventually taking much of Somalia, including Mogadishu in 2006.
But by then the United States was hesitant to send soldiers into another country given the engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was also cautious about the optics of entering Somalia after the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, depicted in the film Black Hawk Down, in which hundreds of Somalis and 18 American soldiers were killed, some of the white bodies dragged through rubbled city streets. So the U.S. decided on a more tangential tactic for Somalia and supported its regional partner, Ethiopia, in an invasion in December 2006.
It is unclear if Ethiopia, a majority Christian nation that had long-term territorial grievances with neighboring Somalia, convinced the United States that the ICU was a friend to al Qaeda, or if the United States strong-armed the Ethiopians into invading. Of the Ethiopia-U.S. dynamic, Hussein Sheikh-Ali, who was the national security adviser and counterterrorism adviser to the current and former presidents of Somalia, says, “I believe it was mutual convincing.” He believes that Ethiopia wanted to stake itself as the key American ally in the region, and Washington wanted to see if there might be more success with a lighter-footprint counterterrorism strategy following the full-on push into Iraq and Afghanistan.
The ICU strongly denied any ties with al Qaeda, and Sheikh-Ali says there was “absolutely no” affiliation, although he says some individuals within ICU were sympathetic to global jihadist movements.
“We’ve made a lot of mistakes, and Ethiopia’s entry in 2006 was not a really good idea,” then-U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia (now ambassador to Somalia) Donald Yamamoto said in 2010.
Ethiopia’s push into Somalia excited the ICU’s armed wing, al-Shabab, which, in 2012, pledged allegiance to al Qaeda. Opposition to the Ethiopian occupation helped al-Shabab radicalize and grow into a full-blown insurgent movement in opposition to the UN-, African Union- and U.S.-backed Somali government. Eventually, al-Shabab captured most of the south of Somalia, including Mogadishu and key ports. With U.S. and international support, the African Union army in Somalia (Amisom) was organized in 2007 to defeat the insurgents, retaking Mogadishu in 2011.
The Obama administration waged a campaign of air strikes on al-Shabab from 2012 to 2016, in the name of fighting al Qaeda. In 2013, Sheikh-Ali, then Somalia’s counterterrorism advisor, worked with U.S. government officials to identify and strike “high-level targets” in al-Shabab, with the aim of debilitating operations and sowing distrust among leadership. A September 2014 U.S. strike succeeded in killing al-Shabab’s leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, but “we were wrong” about the effects, Sheikh-Ali says. The group has shown “unbelievable resilience.”
Sheikh-Ali still believes American air support is a necessary tool for pressuring the militants, but he’s concerned there is no strategy to limit al-Shabab’s political influence. “I don’t believe [the U.S. nor the Somali government has] the vaguest idea of how al-Shabab operates,” he says.
The efforts of Amisom and the Somali National Army (particularly its special forces unit, Danab), combined with the U.S. strikes, appear to have geographically contained al-Shabab—but I have not found anyone willing to suggest al-Shabab has been defeated.
The consensus is that al-Shabab simply reacts and morphs in accordance with its environment, using havoc and confusion to its own advantage.Al-Shabab continues with a steady drumbeat of bombings in Mogadishu and elsewhere in Somalia—and occasionally in neighboring countries, especially Kenya.
Two months after inauguration, in 2017, President Donald Trump signed a directive designating parts of Somalia as “areas of active hostilities” (AAH) for six months—a policy shift which the Pentagon had been advocating. According to Africom’s top officer, Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, the “AAH” designation is intended to give the military “a little more flexibility” to respond more quickly by air to movements on the ground, instead of going through a chain of interagency vetting before an attack. It also widens the scope of its targets. Previously, a target had to present a direct threat to the United States to warrant a strike; with the new designation, Africom could target anyone it considered a member of al-Shabab.
No monitoring group has been able to provide a full tally of air strikes, but a survey of press releases on Africom’s website—where some (but not all) U.S. strikes are listed—is telling. Before 2017, the statements announcing strikes are few and far between. By mid-2017, they start coming fast. Africom reported 35 precision strikes in Somalia in 2017, up from 14 in 2016. By 2018, the number increased to 45. To date in 2019, Africom has reported 54.
As U.S. strikes have increased, so have explosions and assassinations by al-Shabab; the group has adapted to the uptick by planting more bombs, assassinating politicians and business leaders, and engaging in less extensive ground fighting. Al-Shabab is considered responsible for one of the worst terrorist attacks in history: two truck bombs that killed between 500 and 1,000 people at a busy intersection in Mogadishu on Oct. 14, 2017. The group was responsible for a hotel bombing this July that killed the mayor of Mogadishu.
Analysts across the political spectrum have become critical of the War on Terror in general and air strikes in particular. “After 18 years of the War on Terror, there is no evidence that U.S. military operations lead to a decrease in terrorism,” says Khury Petersen-Smith, a Middle East fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. “What we do have evidence of is the fact that organizations like al-Shabab, like ISIS, like al Qaeda, emerge or flourish in the context of political instability. U.S. military operations only contribute to that.”
But U.S. operations in Somalia have largely escaped scrutiny. “The mistakes the U.S. has made in Iraq and in Afghanistan are well known,” says Roggio of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which strongly supported the Bush administration’s War on Terror. “The U.S. is also making mistakes in Somalia, but it’s not going noticed because we don’t have a significant presence on the ground.”
Maggie Seymour, a former U.S. Marine Corps major and intelligence officer who wrote her dissertation on U.S. counterterrorism policy since 9/11, says, “Precision air strikes are much like the overall wars in the Middle East: little relative effort on behalf of the U.S. and almost no public knowledge, but major impacts on the public of whatever country we are striking.” Seymour goes on, “I’d venture to say that the overwhelming majority of U.S. residents’ knowledge of Somalia extends no further than what they’ve seen in Black Hawk Down. ... I suspect that our administration(s) know that and that further enhances the appeal of strikes—low political risk.”
Information about what apparatus is tracking the collateral damage of U.S. air strikes in Somalia is hard to come by. Neither Africom nor the State Department replied to the question, “Does the U.S. government have any mechanism to track how people are impacted by air strikes, i.e., track displacement, loss of live-stock, etc.?”
Former Obama administration officials told me that, in theory, various departments in State, intelligence agencies and the military would be following the impact, at least by reading reports from think tanks and local and international media, but they couldn’t say more. From interviews with other sources, I began to suspect that no agency is systematically watching the effects.
“We have asked [Africom], both in person and through a formal written request, for what steps they do to investigate the results of their strikes generally,” says Amnesty’s Castner. “In both cases, they have referred us to their general, publicly available manuals for how to determine whether civilian casualty allegations are credible. As far as we can tell, they don’t follow up on the ground, with victims’ families or with villages generally.”
Africom spokesperson Desiree Frame told In These Times that Africom “complies with the law of armed conflict and takes all feasible precautions during the planning and targeting process to minimize any risk of civilian casualties and collateral damage,” noting that al-Shabab uses civilian areas as shields. Frame added that the strikes “have disrupted al-Shabab command and control, limited freedom of movement and disrupted credible terrorist plots.” In regards to reports of property destruction, increased al-Sha-bab recruitment and displacement, Frame responded, “We don’t have anything to corroborate this information.”
According to Joshua Geltzer, a White House National Security Council senior director for counterterrorism under Obama from 2015 to 2017, it appears “from the outside” that, under Trump, interagency communication about the potential for backlash from air strikes has decreased. “If anything, [former National Security Advisor] John Bolton appears to have deliberately shriveled that process by favoring direct appeals to [Trump] for favored policy outcomes over a deliberative, White House-coordinated series of interagency conversations,” Geltzer says.
Monica Matoush, the House Armed Services Committee majority spokesperson, notes there has been “a string of departures, leaving a gap in leadership” in U.S. Special Operations, the American forces on the ground in Somalia.
While Petersen-Smith agrees the U.S. military should be more transparent and accountable, he warns that “focusing on accountability alone assumes that the U.S. will continue these ongoing operations, which shouldn’t be happening.”
Another man I meet, Ibrahim, a former motorbike driver, is on the verge of tears throughout our interview. He can’t live at home anymore because al-Shabab has been pressuring him to join since he was hurt in an air strike in 2016. “They would say, ‘You see what these people did to you, you better work with us,’ ” he recalled. Ibrahim spent a month recovering from his wounds.
Three months after the strike, al-Shabab approached Ibrahim at the Janale market while he was looking for work. Eventually they told him he could no longer ride the motorbike if he wouldn’t join. He sold the bike and moved to Mogadishu, where he’s lived since. As recently as a month ago, the group tried to approach him again.
Another man, Hassan (whose name has been changed for security), tells me, “[al-Shabab has] become more like hyenas,” describing how al-Shabab became intense and paranoid after the strike on the farm that killed his father. Before the strikes, Hassan says, it was rare for al-Shabab to accuse people of being spies; afterward, it happened regularly.
A day after Hassan’s father was killed, three al-Shabab members called Hassan to offer their condolences. Hassan became worried; he didn’t know the men and didn’t want their sympathy. Four days later, he was called to an al-Shabab office with many soldiers stationed outside. Inside, he says a man with a pistol told him, “Your father was innocent. He was just a citizen. They targeted him because of his faith, because of his Somali-ness. ... In order to recall the blood of your father and revenge for him, you work with us, you fight with us and for the cause of Islam.”
Hassan said he wouldn’t join. He was given an hour to leave home. It was clear he had to make a choice, “either work with us or leave,” Hassan recalls.
Today, Hassan lives in a makeshift house in a mostly government-controlled town outside Mogadishu. He still pays taxes to al-Shabab if he passes through an area they control. Since he’s left his farm, he works as a porter. The work is unpredictable and money is tight. His children attended Quranic school in his old village. Now, they don’t go to school at all.
Another young man told me that, after strikes, al-Sha-bab has started “persuading” children to join. Because people don’t want their neighbors to know they have children in al-Shabab, they say their offspring have gone to Mogadishu to find work.
Dahir Abdi Qoriyow, 47, operated the generator on 51-year-old Dr. Tahiil’s (name changed for security) farm in Basra, a community about 20 miles outside of Mogadishu. Qoriyow was killed in a U.S. air strike that hit the farm Dec. 8, 2018.
After the attack, Africom released a statement and international media covered the strike. Amnesty International also investigated, interviewing 18 people who knew Qoriyow, concluding he was not a combatant. Africom has denied the entirety of Amnesty’s findings.
Shrapnel struck Dr. Tahiil in the head and hand, and he spent the following three months in a hospital. Today, he lives in a small place in Mogadishu, near the hospital. He says he can’t go home, even though he wants to.
Dr. Tahiil says he was the only doctor in his village, but he is worried that al-Shabab considers him a spy because he left. He used to see four to five patients per day, seven days a week.
“Many people left. ... The people are afraid,” he says. “They expect a war. These people are not fighting people; they are peaceful people.”
Since the increase in air strikes exacerbated the conflict, people are abandoning productive farms in al-Shabab-controlled areas, such as the fertile territory of Lower Shabelle, where Issak and Dr. Tahiil are from.
Air strikes turn residential areas into war zones. “The place becomes a front line,” says Abbas Hassan Osman, a community elder, of his own village. “The people cannot live there. They were forced to leave.”
In These Times obtained video footage of the largely abandoned village of Baghdad. In the two grainy videos, the small mobile phone camera scans around over-grown brush that’s almost as tall as the fragile houses, leaning over.
“If you go to my farm, the small grass will become like trees,” Nurto Abdulle Malas tells me, explaining how high it would have grown in the village she fled. Three of Malas’ cows were killed by flying shrapnel in a strike. Al-Shabab had previously looted 70 of her cows. Each cow had a name, Malas says. For her, their deaths illuminate the senselessness of the strikes. “The cows were killed like the humans,” she told me. “You can accuse the human, but not the animal.
“These people who make the air strike have no idea the impact they will have on us,” Malas adds.
According to the UN Human Rights Council and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in 2018 and 2019, the number one cause of displacement in Somalia from areas where the U.S. is conducting strikes is “conflict/insecurity,” although the NRC does not differentiate between general conflict and U.S. air strikes.
“Our values in foreign policy must be guided by the same ideals we have at home: respect for human rights, equality under the law and peace,” Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, tells In These Times. “Whether in Somalia or around the world, we must prioritize diplomatic and economic engagement—not air strikes and violence. I am very concerned that an overemphasis on military engagement and lack of accountability will alienate leaders on the ground and undermine U.S. standing in the region.”
“Directly or indirectly, the United States has been carrying out deadly military operations in Somalia for over a decade and gained nothing substantive,” Sadia Ali Aden, a humanitarian and activist, tells In These Times. “By all accounts, the U.S. al-Shabab-based policy in Somalia is a failure. Though many of their leaders are killed, al-Shabab is more lethal today than ever before.”
Issak, who lost her son and her coconut trees, is pensive when asked whether she thinks air strikes will get rid of al-Shabab. She’s not sure. The militants are everywhere—you couldn’t possibly carry out enough strikes to kill them all, she reasons. Issak told me she thinks Somalia would be much better without al-Shabab, but she notes there were “enough problems” before they came. She compares the situation in Somalia to trying to put out a fire: You stamp it out one place and it pops up somewhere else.
Skyler Aikerson contributed fact-checking.
This story was supported by a grant from the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting.
is a journalist who travels between Mogadishu, Nairobi and New York.
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