U.S. Africa Command on Monday, April 27 said it inadvertently killed two civilians and wounded three others more than a year ago near Kunyo Barrow, southern Somalia, in an airstrike that it said also killed two suspected members of the terrorist group al-Shabaab.
The strike, which occurred on February 23, 2019, killed a baby and its father, according to local Somali media reports cited by Airwars, a U.K.-based NGO that tracks civilian casualty reports. AFRICOM at the time said it assessed no civilians were harmed and that two Shabaab militants had been killed.
The rare acknowledgement is only the second of its kind by U.S. AFRICOM, which has overseen U.S. military operations across the continent since the command’s founding in 2007.
AFRICOM has now admitted responsibility for accidentally killing a total of four civilians despite hundreds of local allegations resulting from more than 200 strikes in Somalia alone over the past 13 years.
Monday’s announcement was included in AFRICOM’s first ever quarterly civilian casualties assessment report, part of a new push towards transparency in reporting civilian casualties.
The report examines 97 conducted strikes between February 1, 2019 and March 31, 2020. AFRICOM said it assessed claims of civilian casualties pertaining to 27 of those strikes. It acknowledged killing civilians in one incident, denied doing so in 20 others and said seven cases remain under inquiry.
AFRICOM’s admission about the 2019 Kunyo Barrow strike came after a “foreign non-government organization” provided further information in January 2020 on the incident, the command said in the press release. Airwars on its website suggested it was the source of the evidence.
NGO researchers who have met with AFRICOM staff and Pentagon officials have told The Defense Post that the command, citing security concerns, has resisted pressure from NGOs to set up a field office in Somalia where civilians can present in-person claims of harm to their relatives and neighbors by U.S. military activity.
Researchers also have said AFRICOM has a history of outright dismissing civilian casualty allegations reported by pro-al-Shabaab websites, even though the al-Qaeda-linked militant group does not allow civilians in its territory to possess smartphones, making the collection of evidence from non-Shabaab sources very difficult.
The command added a English-language link on its webpage in February where people can report allegations of civilian harm.
AFRICOM first admitted in April 2019 to inadvertently killing civilians in an airstrike near the Somali the town of El Buur one year prior. That incident was re-examined retroactively after Amnesty published an investigation into the military’s casualties in Somalia. The command later blamed an internal “reporting error” for the oversight.
AFRICOM’s prior commander, U.S. Marine Corps General Thomas D. Waldhauser, had ordered a full review of strike casualties dating back to 2017 “due to a recent increase in airstrikes and continued interest by Amnesty International and Congress on civilian casualties.”
U.S. Air Force Major Karl Wiest, an AFRICOM spokesperson, told The Defense Post in February that that review had concluded and that no other civilian casualty allegations had been deemed substantiated.
AFRICOM on Monday said it considers a “substantiated” assessment to mean that, based on all reasonably available information, taking into account the totality of the circumstances, U.S. Africa Command determines that U.S. military operations more likely than not resulted in the death or injury of civilians. Deeming an allegation “unsubstantiated” is not intended to deny the possibility that a civilian casualty incident occurred, nor is it intended as a comment on the credibility of the source of the allegation, the command said.
“While we follow very precise and rigorous standards, in instances where we fail to meet our expectations, we will admit the mistake,” said AFRICOM’s current commander, U.S. Army General Stephen Townsend.
“There is no secret air or shadow war as some allege,” Townsend said, adding, “How can there be when the whole world knows we are assisting Somalia in their fight against al-Shabaab terrorists? When we publically [sic] announce every single airstrike we conduct? When we publically admit to our mistakes?”
“Unlike al-Shabaab we do everything in our power to avoid civilian casualties and that is not changing on my watch,” he said.
The general previously commanded Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led multinational military effort against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. OIR went to greater lengths to assess civilian casualties and even organized a body of investigators who were independent of the strike process, researchers and military personnel involved in OIR say.
The discrepancy between OIR and AFRICOM’s mission in Somalia has drawn criticism from experts and observers. But researchers say the command is slowly moving in the right direction.
Rights watchdog Amnesty International praised Monday’s announcement as “a welcome glimmer of transparency.”
Among the seven cases still open is that of a U.S. military airstrike that killed a teenage girl and wounded her grandmother and two sisters in the southern Somali town of Jilib in early January. AFRICOM in report cites, among others, “an online media source” that reported the incident on February 10, same day The Defense Post released its exclusive story about the allegations.
Eleven of the 20 claims deemed unsubstantiated by the military in Monday’s report were judged as such because “no U.S. military strike occurred at that location,” suggesting CIA strikes, which are never announced, may be responsible for a portion of reported civilian casualties.
In eight other incidents, AFRICOM deemed the individuals killed to be al-Shabaab or Islamic State members, or in one case, a “facilitator.”
Amnesty has accused the U.S. of possible war crimes in part because AFRICOM itself has suggested it targets “affiliates” of al-Shabaab in Somalia, a potential violation of the international law of war, which limits targeting to combatants.
“In many cases, the command’s information collection efforts are based on layered and reliable intelligence sources that are not available to the public to preserve operations security,” Townsend said in Monday’s press release.
“This may ultimately lead to perceived discrepancies between the command’s findings and those of others,” Townsend said.