When U.S. Africa Command announced it had conducted an airstrike on an al-Shabaab militant in the southern Somalia town of Jilib on February 2, it included an oft-repeated line: “We currently assess no civilians were injured or killed as a result of this airstrike.”
But Mohamed Osman Abdi, English editor at Somalia National News Agency in Mogadishu, told The Defense Post that the casualty assessment, like many others, is wrong.
“I got a call from a friend in Mogadishu, saying ‘did you know that some of your family were killed and injured in a strike which killed civilians in Jilib?’” Abdi said last week.
Abdi told The Defense Post that his brother-in-law’s two daughters and his mother were sitting down to dinner when an explosion decimated their single-family home.
One of the daughters, Nurto, about 20 years old, was killed, he said. Fatima, 15, was rushed to the local clinic with shrapnel in her right shoulder and chest. His mother-in-law is in critical condition, he says.
Abdi said his family was unable to obtain photo evidence of the incident because Shabaab does not allow smartphones in its territory, but confirmed the identity of his relatives in photos posted on Twitter, and provided The Defense Post with other family photos for comparison.
Abdi is not sure who took the photos that were posted online, but the experienced journalist said it may have been members of al-Shabaab.
He said it was possible the strike may have been targeting Shabaab militants outside the house because the group fully controls Jilib, about 110 km north of Kismayo in Somalia’s Middle Juba region.
Abdi said he approached an American military officer from AFRICOM’s communications office during a conference in Mogadishu and detailed his story hours before the command released a statement assessing that no civilians were killed.
“He only said sorry about your relatives,” Abdi told The Defense Post. “He did not tell me anything further, or ask me.”
“He said we try our best not to damage or hit civilian areas,” he recalled.
Ismael Mukhtar Omar, the Somalia Federal Government’s official spokesperson, corroborated Abdi’s account, saying he was present for the conversation with the AFRICOM officer.
“When warranted, processes and procedures exist that allow for additional information to inform post-strike analysis,” AFRICOM has previously said of civilian casualty claims.
Amnesty International last year slammed AFRICOM’s lack of transparency on civilian casualties in Somalia and accused the command of offering no way for victim’s families to contact it to report such incidents.
The Defense Post reached out to AFRICOM with the account of the incident and asked whether the command intends to open an investigation, and what such an investigation would entail.
“We are aware of a report alleging civilian casualties resulting from this airstrike,” spokesperson Major Karl Wiest replied via email.
“The command will review any information it has about the incident, including any relevant information provided by third parties,” Wiest wrote.
“If the command is able to make a determination that U.S. military forces are responsible for the loss of life, limb, or eyesight, USAFRICOM will then determine the next appropriate step.”
U.S. President Donald Trump eased Obama-era restrictions on targeting combatants in parts of Somalia in 2017 in response to an AFRICOM request. The regulations were intended to minimize civilian casualties.
AFRICOM has admitted to causing only two civilian casualties in more than a hundred airstrikes against Shabaab in Somalia.
U.S. Special Operations Forces train and advise Somali National Army Danab forces in ground operations against the Islamist militants.