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Civilians pay with their lives in USA’s secret war in Somalia

Storyline:Archive, Opinions

By Abdullahi Hassan and Ella Knight

The USA doesn’t like to admit it’s at war in Somalia.

“I wouldn’t characterize that we’re at war,” General Thomas David Waldhauser, the commander of US Africa Command, told Congress in March 2018. “It’s specifically designed for us not to own that.”

But the USA is in denial. It launched at least 81 air strikes in Somalia between 2017 and 2018 and is on track for at least 140 more in 2019 if it continues at its current pace, yet it claims to have killed zero civilians.

Amnesty International investigated five alleged US air strikes across the Lower Shabelle region that took place between April 2017 and December 2018. We found credible evidence that 14 civilians, including children, were killed. The USA carried out at least 76 more air strikes in other regions in Somalia within this period, which suggests that the real number of casualties is significantly higher.

The US Africa Command has repeatedly classified these casualties as “militants” “combatants” and “terrorists”, insisting “no civilians were killed or injured”.

Alongside the Somali government, the USA is fighting Al-Shabaab, an armed group which controls large swaths of the country, regularly and deliberately attacking civilians.

In March 2017, US President Trump approved the designation of parts of southern Somalia as an “area of active hostilities”, making it easier, under US policy, for its forces to carry out air strikes on a broader range of people and with less certainty of, and concern for, the consequences for civilians.

Despite a tripling of US air strikes, Al-Shabaab continues to brazenly attack civilians in Somalia and beyond. On 28 February 2019, the group killed at least 25 people and injured 131 when it attacked hotels and restaurants along Makka Al-Mukarama road, one of Mogadishu’s busiest streets. On 15 January 2019, the group claimed responsibility for the DusitD2 hotel attack in Nairobi, Kenya, where at least 21 people were killed.

General Waldhauser can call it what he likes, but it is the Somali people who are living under the double threat of Al-Shabaab’s severe repression and US-supported government air and ground attacks, bearing the brunt of the violence.


In hundreds of hours of interviews, during a research mission to Mogadishu in October 2018, and dozens of phone calls since, we’ve heard devastating stories of lives shattered by Al-Shabaab attacks and US air strikes.

A young mother described losing her husband in a US drone strike on a tiny settlement between two Al-Shabaab strongholds, days after they had fled clashes near Mogadishu. The relative of a well-digger killed in a strike on a vehicle he was travelling in, choked up as he told us of his struggle to take care of the deceased’s wife and children alongside his own large family. And we heard of a three-year-old girl lost her father and sister in an explosion in her village and can no longer walk properly because she was injured by debris from the blast.

Each of the people we spoke to said that the Somali and US governments never enquired about their losses, offered an apology or any compensation. They all live in Al-Shabaab controlled areas where smart phones are banned, and permission must be sought just to leave their villages. Anyone spotted talking to a foreigner is labelled a spy and accused of colluding with the USA to direct planes to attack the Al-Shabaab.

Clearly, the USA is not conducting on-the-ground investigations following its air strikes in Somalia. And neither have the US or Somali governments put in place any mechanism to enable people to safely report deaths and injuries.

If the USA were to investigate the impact of its strikes, it would find that the suspected Al-Shabaab fighters travelling in a vehicle one October afternoon in 2017, along the road connecting the towns of Awdheegle and Barire, were not the only casualties. Eight-year-old Mohamed and six-year-old Khalif were also injured, and their civilian relatives killed after the first US strike missed the targeted vehicle and landed near their makeshift homes in the Farah Waeys settlement.

The USA would also discover that three young men targeted and killed in their farm in Darusalaam in November 2017 were not Al-Shabaab fighters, but farmers who worked all night irrigating their fields, taking breaks to drink tea and watch Bollywood movies.

“We lost these boys, and no one is talking about it,” a relative told Amnesty International. “It seared into our flesh… We are farmers… weak people and trust no side. We will tell the truth and ask God to save us.”

By denying civilian deaths, and failing to investigate properly, the US and Somali governments are exacerbating the suffering of survivors and families of victims.

The USA and Somalia must investigate all credible allegations of civilian casualties resulting from their operations and provide justice for the families of victims of violations. All these families deserve to know the truth.

Abdullahi Hassan and Ella Knight are researchers at Amnesty International.