U.S. Promises Public Assessment Of Civilian Casualties In Somalia Airstrikes

The U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) has announced that it will begin publishing quarterly reports of civilian casualty allegations and assessments. AFRICOM, which is responsible for U.S. military operations and relations on the African continent, has faced mounting criticism that civilian casualties resulting from U.S. airstrikes in Somalia are consistently under-reported. Commander of AFRICOM General Stephen Townsend said the Civilian Casualty Status Report Initiative, which will be first published by the end of April, will “demonstrate [AFRICOM’s] transparency and commitment to protecting civilians from unnecessary harm.”


Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa, Deprose Muchena called the plan “a welcome, though long overdue, step towards proving truth and accountability for the victims of U.S. airstrikes and their families in Somalia and beyond”. He added “It’s shocking that it has taken more than a decade of AFRICOM’s secret air war in Somalia for this to happen.”


Muchena is one of many critics who have accused AFRICOM of failing to investigate, report and recompense a myriad of alleged civilian casualties during its 13-year bombing campaign in Somalia. U.S. military intervention began in 2007, primarily targeting the Al-Qaeda affiliated terror organisation Al-Shabaab.  Airstrikes have ramped up significantly since the commencement of President Trump’s administration in 2017. The New York Times cites the declaration of parts of  Somalia as “areas of active hostilities,” revoking an Obama-era policy that required higher threat credibility and certainty that no civilians would be harmed before launching an attack. According to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, AFRICOM carried out 11 and 14 strikes in 2015 and 2016 respectively. In 2017 this rose to 35, 45 in 2018 and 63 in 2019. As of March, there have already been 32 reported airstrikes this year. In all this time, AFRICOM acknowledges the deaths of two civilians: a woman and child killed in a drone strike in April 2018. Amnesty International, alongside the non-profit airstrike tracker Airwars, estimates the real number to be much higher.  The latter, which investigates and archives alleged civilian casualties resulting from coalition military operations, reports credible evidence for 76-149 civilian deaths in Somalia by U.S. Forces. Most recently, Amnesty International has documented the deaths of an 18-year-old woman and a 50-year-old man from two separate airstrikes in February. The NGO interviewed relatives, colleagues and the local community and analysed photo and video evidence. AFRICOM acknowledges the airstrikes but asserts that only militants were killed.


A quarterly review of AFRICOM’s standing on alleged civilian casualties is a necessary step towards transparency and accountability. Per the Department of Defence’s own ‘Annual Report on Civilian Casualties in Connection with United States Military Operations’ which was distributed to congressional defence committees in 2019: scrutinizing incidents involving civilian casualties is an important measure to mitigate the likelihood of future loss of innocent life. The U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), responsible for operations in the Middle East, Egypt and Central Asia, already publishes a monthly civilian casualty report assembled by the Combined Joint Task Force. It is not yet clear whether the proposed AFRICOM reports will offer a complete retrospective of suspected civilian casualties since 2007, but the Department of Defence claims it reviews all allegations put forward by NGOs, media and witnesses, and AFRICOM spokesperson John Manley previously told The Intercept it’s reviewing multiple prior attacks.


General Townsend has been openly critical of Airwars’ methods in the past. Writing in the Foreign Policy after a year as acting Commander of US-led coalition forces against the Islamic State, Townsend characterized the scale of claims as “often unsupported by fact” based on “unsubstantiated allegations”, affirming that the Coalition “conducts a detailed assessment of each and every allegation of possible civilian casualties.” A subsequent report by the Center for Civilians in Conflict and the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute conversely found that in 228 official U.S. military investigations conducted in the Middle East, 16% prompted site investigations and 21.5% featured civilian witness interviews. Although this data-set concerns a different conflict, it resonates with proceedings in Somalia; Manley told The Intercept in February that AFRICOM had not yet “engaged civilian victims or witnesses in Somalia for various reasons” citing a “lack of access to locations in Al-Shabaab strongholds” and the ability to “assess civilian casualty allegations through multiple methods.”


A further explanation for the sizable disparity between AFRICOM’s assessment of civilian casualties and those by NGOs could be owed to current U.S. threat categorizations. The now-retired Brigadier General Donald Bolduc, former head of Special Operations Command Africa, told The Intercept that any military-age males observed with suspected Al-Shabaab members in areas considered to be supportive to the group are deemed credible militant targets. It is accepted that AFRICOM holds classified intelligence advising the airstrikes it orchestrates, but the optimistic estimates of their precision reflect the ambiguity in its criterion.


While there is certainly merit in AFRICOM’s commitment to transparency, the actuality of these assessments remains to be seen. AFRICOM should adhere to its commitment to revisit past incidences, and continue to work alongside the vigilant scrutiny of NGOs and other monitoring organizations. There would also be value in reviewing its operational policies, re-establishing guidelines originally put in place to preserve human life. If AFRICOM can truly create a fair and accurate assessment of its actions in Somalia, we may see a progression of its accountability, which is vital to minimize future fatalities and bring justice and reparations to the bereaved.