U.S. Africa Command, known as AFRICOM, has been conducting air and ground operations, mainly targeting the al Qaeda affiliate al Shabaab, in Somalia since 2007. In those 13 years it has admitted to four civilian deaths.
The difference between the number of civilian casualties declared by AFRICOM compared to those recorded by organizations like Amnesty International and Airwars is so vast that it has prompted members of Congress to write directly to the American general in charge.
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn) is leading the initiative. The letter is co-signed by seven other Democratic representatives, all of them chairs of relevant committees and subcommittees, including Elliot Engel (D-NY), the Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and Adam Smith (D-WA), the Chair of the House Armed Services Committee.
The letter, shared exclusively with The Daily Beast, requests that the military clarify how it investigatives civilian casualty allegations. It suggests that an explanation of the research process might help explain the discrepancy between the figures reported by human rights organizations and the numbers acknowledged by the military.
It also reminds AFRICOM that providing clarity about the reasons for discrepancies and defining who the military considers a “combatant” is required by recent legislation passed by Congress as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, Section 1703.
Allegations of civilian casualties in Somalia have increased since the Trump administration gave AFRICOM commanders more flexibility to carry out offensive strikes against suspected militants in 2017.
With the loosened restrictions, there’s been a steady drumbeat of reports of civilian deaths documented by international human rights organizations, local and foreign journalists, Somali politicians and officials.
Omar was born in Somalia and there is a significant Somali diaspora in her Minnesota constituency.
AFRICOM’s efforts to degrade the military capabilities of al Shabaab “are greatly welcomed by most Somalis, but they seem to be rushing at targets blindly, without proper intelligence resulting in many civilian deaths and a public outcry,” Hussein Sheikh-Ali, the national security adviser and counterterrorism adviser to the current and former presidents of Somalia, told The Daily Beast.
With testimonial evidence, corroborating accounts and expert analysis of images and video from strike sites, satellite imagery, and weapons identification, Amnesty International has investigated nine airstrikes, and of those nine incidents found 21 civilians dead and 11 injured.
Analyzing all strikes and ground operations via official AFRICOM statements, open-source information on social media and internal military documents obtained by journalists with the Freedom of Information Act, London-based airstrike monitoring group Airwars estimates that up to 142 civilians have been killed in the 227 declared actions the U.S. has conducted since 2007.
“We urge you to, wherever possible and consistent with the need to protect classified information, provide detail on how assessments are made and acknowledge where
they may differ from the assessments of credible, independent non-governmental organizations.