An Amnesty International investigation has revealed further evidence that a U.S. airstrike in southern Somalia last month killed a teenage girl and wounded her two younger sisters and grandmother.
The incident, first reported by The Defense Post, occurred in early February as the family sat down to dinner in their home in the town of Jilib, which is controlled by al-Shabaab militants.
Relatives said they were not aware of any al-Shabaab presence near the home at the time of the strike. Kusow Omar Abukar, a 50-year-old farmer, survived the strike that killed this daughter Nurto Kusow Omar Abukar. Family members say Kusow is not, and has never been, a member of the Islamist militant network which has ties to al-Qaeda.
AFRICOM announced the strike the same day, saying that one “terrorist” had been killed but no civilians. Mohamed Osman Abdi, an editor at a state-run news agency and Nurto’s uncle, later confronted an AFRICOM representative about the incident during a media workshop in Mogadishu.
Personnel are required by AFRICOM policy to report and assess all claims of civilian casualties, regardless of source.
So far, AFRICOM has not revised its statement on the strike. U.S. Air Force Major Karl Wiest said an assessment of the incident is ongoing.
“Our in-depth post-strike analysis relies on intelligence methods that are not available to non-military organizations, including Amnesty International,” Wiest told The Defense Post via email.
Brian Castner, Amnesty’s senior crisis advisor and a former U.S. Air Force explosive ordnance disposal officer, said munition fragments photographed near the Kusow’s home most likely showed pieces of an American-made GBU-69/B small glide munition.
The GBU-69/B carries a 16-kg warhead and can be deployed from unmanned aircraft or manned AC-130 gunships, both of which have been used for U.S. airstrikes in Somalia.
Family members who spoke to The Defense Post and Amnesty International said it was possible the strike was intended to hit al-Shabaab militants elsewhere in the neighborhood.
“Analysis of satellite imagery taken before and after the strike shows damage to several structures in the Waaberi section of Jilib between January and March 2020, a time period in which AFRICOM acknowledges conducting seven air strikes in the city,” Amnesty’s report read.
The U.S. has conducted hundreds of airstrikes against suspected al-Shabaab members and affiliates in Somalia since 2007, but has admitted responsibility for only one incident of civilian casualties across Africa in the command’s 13 year existence.
This lack of transparency, and evidence provided by family members, has led Amnesty to accuse the U.S. of potential war crimes.
Previous reporting has found that even when AFRICOM internally deems a civilian casualty claim “credible,” there is typically no resulting public admission of fault, and no transparency as to the assessment process – including about ground operations.
The U.S. announced it would start training Somali National Army troops in 2014. Three years later, in 2017, President Donald Trump relaxed U.S. military rules of engagement by declaring southern Somalia an “area of active hostilities.”
Somali National Army forces, backed by U.S. Special Operations, have so far struggled to secure a protective territorial belt in the countryside around Mogadishu to support the Somali federal government, and sporadic attacks by the militants continue in the capital.
The al-Qaeda-linked militants have killed hundreds of civilians in vehicle bombings in Mogadishu and run extensive tax systems in rural agricultural regions.
AFRICOM has increased its targeted airstrikes in Shabaab-held rural areas year-over-year since 2014. But despite relatively opaque civilian casualty assessment procedures compared to other U.S. military missions, researchers say there are signs the command is open to reforming its policies.
The command announced Tuesday it would begin regularly reporting allegations of civilian casualties, a first in AFRICOM’s history. One of AFRICOM’s strongest critics among experts, Amnesty researcher Abdullahi Hassan, hailed the progress as “very welcome news” in a post on Twitter.
AFRICOM recently added a link on its website where people can report civilian deaths or injury due to U.S. military activity, despite direct recommendations from NGOs like Amnesty that argued in favor of opening an office in Somalia instead, because most people in al-Shabaab territory do not have internet access. As of publication time, AFRICOM’s civilian casualties web portal was not functioning.
The command has worked with other NGOs such as the the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) and U.K.-based monitor Airwars to review its civilian casualties assessment procedures. AFRICOM and other U.S. combatant commands are planning to adopt standardized Pentagon-wide practices for minimizing and transparently admitting civilian harm later this year.
Despite those reassuring moves, Amnesty’s investigation deemed yet another AFRICOM target in February to have been a civilian. Mohamud Salad Mohamud, an office manager with Hormuud Telecommunications, was killed in a U.S. military strike some 10 km north of Jilib.
Friends and relatives interviewed by Amnesty insisted Mohamud was not a Shabaab member, and that he had once been employed by “a major international NGO.” Two colleagues told Amnesty investigators that Mohamud had been arrested three times by al-Shabaab, claims that were not independently verified by The Defense Post.
AFRICOM’s single admission of civilian casualties came as a result of a March 2019 report by Amnesty that concluded at least 14 civilians had been killed in strikes over the previous two years.
The command initially disputed the groups findings, but then-commander General Thomas Waldhauser initiated a full review of strikes since 2017 due to “continued interest by Amnesty International and Congress.”
The command has since told The Defense Post that the review has concluded. Only two civilian casualties were uncovered – but not ones included in Amnesty’s investigations.
“In civilian casualties resulting from drone strikes, we have not seen a single case where the U.S. military has compensated any civilians,” Abdullahi Hassan, a lead Amnesty researcher told The Defense Post.
The organization concluded last year that a strike on a vehicle in El Buur, in the Middle Juba region, killed a civilian farmer named Ibrahim Hiray and two other passengers in April 2019.
One of the three men worked for Hormuud Telecom, but relatives and friends insisted none were al-Shabaab. AFRICOM has not changed its stance on that strike.
Relatives of Ibrahim Hiray and Kusow told The Defense Post that AFRICOM has not contacted them, despite having been given the phone number of Hiray’s cousin.
“Several factors that I am unable to discuss ultimately led to a decision to not contact the family member,” Wiest told The Defense Post of Hiray’s case in February.
The command has also not reached out to the family of Mohamud Salad, who left behind a wife and eight children, according to Amnesty’s latest report. Nor have U.S. representatives contacted Kusow’s relatives.
“If the casualties of civilians are ignored, this will not help to win the fight against the militants,” Mohamed Osman, Kusow’s brother-in-law, told The Defense Post. “It only helps the militants, because they will take this as propaganda.”