With a Distracted Public, the Pentagon Tries to Get Away with Killing Innocent Civilians
(May 8, 2020) — The United State’s wars continue to rage in the Middle East and Africa against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic. Even in normal times, these conflicts got little public scrutiny. But with attention more occupied than usual, some US military operations have been escalating even further. In recent years, these conflicts have become even deadlier for innocent people. The Trump administration has shown itself to be not just indifferent, but positively encouraging of the killing of civilians in foreign wars.
If there is a time to get away with killing people with no fear of accountability, it’s now. Yesterday, the Pentagon released its annual report on civilian casualties in its wars for the year 2019. According to the report, 132 civilians were killed by the US military in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Syria.
In Yemen and Libya, countries where the US also carries out airstrikes, the report simply claimed that no civilians were killed last year. “All DoD” — Department of Defense — “operations in 2019 were conducted in accordance with law of war requirements,” the report flatly stated, “including law of war protections for civilians.”
We already know from independent reports that Pentagon official figures on civilian casualties are, in general, woefully underreported. A 2017 investigation published by the New York Times found that, during a US air campaign in Iraq, potentially thousands more civilians were killed than reported in official figures.
In some cases, the military used video footage showing strikes on Islamic State positions as propaganda material, when in reality the footage showed airstrikes hitting homes full of civilians. Independent monitoring groups like Airwars have also documented thousands of civilian deaths from US aerial campaigns that have gone unacknowledged in official figures.
The report issued to Congress this year was in line with new reporting requirements intended to provide more oversight about the impact of US military operations on civilians. But the utility of these reported figures seems questionable: The military conducts almost no on-the-ground investigations of the impact of its strikes and is evidently willing to report figures that are absurdly low — literally incredible — for the sake of political expediency.
“The military often says that they don’t have the capacity to do this type of investigation. If that’s truly the case, they shouldn’t be bombing.”
In the past, the Pentagon suggested that it does not have the resources to conduct on-the-ground investigations in cases in which civilians are alleged to have been killed. Recently, reports surfaced that the military has begun requesting more funds to help track civilian deaths. But independent researchers and nongovernmental organizations have already been carrying out such investigations for years, with far few resources than the Pentagon — with its vast budget — has at its disposal. All this raises the question of who exactly the military has been killing over nearly two decades of war.
“It’s the military’s responsibility, if they’re going to carry out a strike, to have some way of knowing who they’re killing or injuring and what the impact is,” said Daphne Eviatar, director of the Security with Human Rights program at Amnesty International. “In this congressional report, the Pentagon stated that all their operations were in line with the laws of war. But if they don’t even have a basic understanding of the impact of their strikes, it is difficult to see how they can conclude that.”
Slaughter in Somalia
The number of airstrikes carried out by US forces has declined over the last two years, as military campaigns in Iraq and Syria wound down. American forces still carry out periodic operations in those countries, however, as well as undertaking strikes in Yemen and Somalia ostensibly aimed at terrorist groups. In Somalia in particular, US operations have been ramping up heavily in recent months.
While the military maintains that these strikes are not killing any civilians, reports published by The Intercept and elsewhere suggest a deadlier impact on innocent people in the country than the Pentagon is acknowledging. In some cases, the military has dismissed credible reports that its operations have killed Somali civilians.
With loosened targeting rules under President Donald Trump and a public that is even more distracted than usual, the conditions are ripe for negligent behavior that will result in the deaths of innocents. Nongovernmental organizations that devote resources to investigating the impact of US airstrikes have noted with frustration that, despite tighter reporting requirements from Congress, a gigantic budget, and a sprawling organizational footprint, the military is still not giving an honest account of the impact of its actions. The obviously underreported figures provided in this report will do little to change the perception that the ugly truth is still being hidden.
“We do lots of research on the impact of airstrikes, visiting places they’ve taken place, interviewing survivors, analyzing satellite imagery, and working with weapons experts,” said Eviatar, noting that even limited investigations have turned up far more civilian casualties than the military acknowledges. “The military often says that they don’t have the capacity to do this type of investigation. If that’s truly the case, they shouldn’t be bombing places if they don’t even have the ability to know who they’re killing.”
(February 25, 2020) —During the first six months of 2019 alone, US Africa Command tracked seven reports of American and allied attacks in Somalia that allegedly killed or wounded at least 18 civilians, according to internal AFRICOM documents obtained by The Intercept. But the US does not acknowledge killing or wounding a single civilian in Somalia last year, according to AFRICOM spokesperson John Manley.
In fact, AFRICOM contends that hundreds of airstrikes and commando missions over more than a decade — aimed at members of the terrorist groups al-Shabab and the Islamic State — have caused only two civilian casualties in Somalia: a woman and a child killed in an airstrike near the central Somali town of El Buur on April 1, 2018.
New data released Tuesday by Airwars, a UK-based airstrike monitoring group, offers a stark rebuke to AFRICOM’s claims. The group contends that the number of civilian deaths may be as much as 6,800 percent greater than the command asserts.
“Our focus on casualties in Iraq, Syria, and Libya shows the critical importance of listening to local communities affected by conflicts,” said Chris Woods, the director of Airwars. “We’ve also widened our focus to include all US actions — not just the controversial drone strikes, but also a growing number of US-Somali ground operations which can lead to civilian harm.”
Using official AFRICOM statements, local and international news reports, photos, videos, social media posts, and other open-source information, as well as internal military documents obtained by journalists (including myself) via the Freedom of Information Act, Airwars has created an immersive, multimedia website that incorporates mapping, geolocation, interactive timelines, and a searchable database for every known US air and ground action in Somalia since 2007. The result is nothing less than a redefinition of the scope and contours of America’s long-running, undeclared war in the Horn of Africa.
Airwars places the number of avowed US attacks — airstrikes and ground raids since 2007 — at 204, a 40 percent increase over an earlier estimate by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, whose data Airwars took over and refined before launching the new site. Add alleged kinetic actions that the US military hasn’t confirmed, and the number jumps to 280.
The new Airwars data identified 61 individual events in which civilians were allegedly harmed by US military action since 2007. Of these, 31 were either confirmed by AFRICOM or rated “fair” by Airwars, meaning the group has found two or more credible sources for the claim of civilian harm, often coupled with biographical, photographic, or video evidence, along with likely or confirmed military action in the vicinity for the date in question. All told, the monitoring group found that in these 31 cases, between 71 and 139 civilians have been killed, a figure that far exceeds AFRICOM’s official count of two dead.
ON FEBRUARY 2, AFRICOM carried out an airstrike in the vicinity of Jilib, Somalia. “Initial assessment concluded the airstrike killed one (1) terrorist,” the command reported in a press release. “We currently assess no civilians were injured or killed as a result of this airstrike.”
The Airwars database tells a very different story. The group found a tweet from Somali journalist Mohamed Osman Abdi that read: “Very sad to learn that an airstrike Sunday evening killed my brother-in-law’s daughter and injured two of his daughters and his mother who is my aunt and mother-in-law in Jilib… surprised to those saying no civilian casualties.”
Radio Morad, a Somali media outlet, identified the casualties as Nurto Kusow, a 17-year-old killed in the strike, and Fatima Kusow, 15, who was wounded along with an unnamed girl and 70-year-old Khadija Mohamed. Airwars cites multiple local sources that claim civilians were killed and injured in the attack.
AFRICOM continues to claim that it killed no civilians in the strike, but Manley told The Intercept that the command is reevaluating multiple prior attacks in light of Airwars’s findings. “We are working with Airwars and currently are assessing allegations presented to us,” said Manley. “We will provide a response to them on completion of our assessment. Several allegations that we have already assessed are again being reviewed based on their submission.”
Last week, two more civilians, including a child, were reportedly injured in another US airstrike in Jilib, the latest entry in the Airwars database. AFRICOM has acknowledged the strike but not the civilian casualties.
Relaxed US government targeting standards mean that more civilians killed by US airstrikes may be counted as combatants, according to experts.
In March 2017, President Donald Trump reportedly designated parts of Somalia as “areas of active hostilities,” removing Obama-era rules requiring that there be near certainty that strikes will not injure or kill noncombatants. The White House refuses to explicitly confirm or deny this, but retired Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc, who headed Special Operations Command Africa at the time, was more forthcoming. “The burden of proof as to who could be targeted and for what reason changed dramatically,” he told The Intercept. That change, he added, led AFRICOM to conduct airstrikes that previously would not have been carried out.
Even Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., the first woman in the Air Force to fly in combat and a devoted Trump ally, had pointed questions about AFRICOM’s air campaign in Somalia for Gen. Stephen Townsend, the chief of the command, when he addressed the Senate Armed Services Committee in late January. “Can you share what the impact of those strikes are? And is it whack-a-mole, or what is the strategy here going forward in order to address this growing terrorist threat in East Africa?” she asked.
“I don’t believe that it’s whack-a-mole,” Townsend replied. “What we do is we keep an eye on al-Shabab every day, and we’re looking for ways to reduce their capacity wherever we can.”
In addition to “counterterrorism strikes,” Townsend also noted that US forces are helping train Somali forces, although training is only part of the story. American commandos have also long accompanied local troops in ground operations in Somalia. Such efforts include what are known as “127 echo” programs, named for the budgetary authority that allows US Special Operations forces to use various foreign military units as proxies in counterterrorism missions.
In recent years, these have been carried out in Somalia, targeting not only Somalis but also Ethiopians, Kenyans, and Ugandans under the code names Exile Hunter, Kodiak Hunter, Mongoose Hunter, Paladin Hunter, and Ultimate Hunter.
These and other activities involving US and local forces have led to publicly acknowledged US combat deaths and noncombatant casualties. Last year, an investigation by The Intercept revealed that AFRICOM’s internal civilian casualty tracking mechanism turned up evidence of credible allegations of previously unreported deaths and injuries to noncombatants during these types of missions.
On January 18, 2018, American-backed local forces attacked an Islamic school near Jameeco Jilyaile, killing five children and a teacher, according to somalimemo.net, a local Somali media outlet deemed by AFRICOM to be sympathetic to al-Shabab. The Associated Press and CNN reported on the incident too, but characterized it as a joint raid by Somali and US commandos to free child soldiers from an al-Shabab camp.
AFRICOM’s civilian casualty files indicate that the command reviewed the allegation and deemed it “credible,” but blamed the deaths on al-Shabab employing “human shields.” AFRICOM has never publicly acknowledged these deaths, but the entry for the attack in Airwars’s database notes that sources allege up to six civilian deaths.
Several months later, on April 1, 2018, the U.S conducted the airstrike near El Buur, Somalia, and AFRICOM issued a press release announcing that the attack killed five “terrorists.” In reality, these “terrorists” included a civilian woman and a child. AFRICOM, however, told the world a different story, saying: “We assess no civilians were killed in this air strike.”
Only a year later did AFRICOM publicly admit to killing the two civilians. Airwars’s database entry for the attack notes that two civilian men are also alleged to have been killed in the strike. It’s not uncommon, however, for all men slain to be classified as militants. According to Bolduc, all military-age males are considered legitimate targets if they are observed with suspected al-Shabab members in locations that the US classifies as supportive of the terrorist group.
US Army Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, commander of US Africa Command, arrives at Manda Bay Airfield in Kenya on Feb. 12, 2020. (Photo: US Air Force)
AFRICOM’S TOWNSEND HAS a history of criticizing Airwars’s work. “Assertions by Airwars … are often unsupported by fact and serve only to strengthen the Islamic State’s hold on civilians, placing civilians at greater risk,” he wrote in an opinion piece for Foreign Policy in 2017, when he was the commanding general of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, the American-led coalition battling ISIS in Iraq and Syria. “We conduct a detailed assessment of each and every allegation of possible civilian casualties. We hold ourselves accountable with an open and transparent process to assess allegations of civilian casualties.”
A recent analysis of 228 official US military investigations conducted in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria between 2002 and 2015, found, however, that America generally does a poor job investigating civilian casualties — conducting site inspections in only 16 percent of the investigations reviewed for the study and interviewing civilian witnesses just 21.5 percent of the time, according to researchers from the Center for Civilians in Conflict and the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute.
The CIVIC/HRI researchers also conducted a civilian casualty workshop with AFRICOM personnel that involved reviewing the command’s civilian casualty assessment process. The team found that AFRICOM had evaluated 37 reports of civilian casualties from US airstrikes in Somalia and Libya between 2016 and 2019, but not once was an Army Regulation 15-6 investigation — which are frequently used in civilian casualty investigations — carried out. AFRICOM had also failed to conduct even a single interview with civilian witnesses.
“We have not directly engaged civilian victims or witnesses in Somalia for various reasons,” Manley of AFRICOM told The Intercept, “including a lack of access to locations in al-Shabab strongholds and because we are able to assess civilian casualty allegations through multiple methods.”
“Thanks to the work of Somali and international investigators and reporters, more than 60 claimed civilian harm events have been reported to AFRICOM since 2007. Yet it was only last year that the first two deaths were publicly admitted,” said Woods of Airwars. “It’s time for AFRICOM to improve assessment standards to at least the levels we see with the US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria, where more than 1,300 civilian deaths have now been officially admitted thanks to pressure from Airwars and others.”
Recently, Townsend has been touting the efficacy of US military efforts in Somalia. “Thanks to our collective security and whole-of-government efforts, we have seen real and tangible progress in Somalia over more than a decade, albeit slower than we would like,” Townsend told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Since the US escalated its air campaign in 2017, al-Shabab has still managed to carry out nearly 900 attacks on civilians resulting almost 2,000 deaths. While security has improved in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, the Defense Department’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a Pentagon research institution, found that “al Shabaab continues to exert widespread influence in outlying areas.”
For example, a US drone and training outpost, about 60 miles from the capital, in Baledogle, Somalia, was attacked by al-Shabab last September. And last month, the terror group assaulted the US base at Manda Bay, Kenya, killing one American service member and two US contractors.
A recent inspector general’s report examining US counterterrorism efforts in Africa was even more damning. After more than a decade spent fighting militants in Somalia, the report cites a Defense Intelligence Agency assessment that the threat posed by al Shabaab and ISIS-Somalia in East Africa remains “high,” despite continued US airstrikes and training of Somali security forces.
The inspector general further noted that al-Shabab not only “remains a potent threat” due to its “ability to conduct high-profile attacks, recruit fighters, and finance ongoing operations,” but that the group “appears to be a growing threat to US personnel and interests in the region.”
• Civilian Deaths in US Wars Are Skyrocketing Under Trump. It May Not Be Impeachable, but It’s a Crime.
• US Airstrike in Somalia Killed Two Civilians, Relatives Say
• New Data Shows the US Military Is Severely Undercounting Civilian Casualties in Somalia
• New Data Shows the US Military Is Severely Undercounting Civilian Casualties in Somalia
• Report: US Military Rarely Visits Bomb Sites or Talks to Survivors When Investigating Civilian Deaths
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