The coronavirus has had an unprecedented impact on US defense forces — docking Navy ships and leading to the cancellation of military exercises abroad — but it hasn’t managed to slow down US airstrikes in Somalia.
In fact, US operations against terrorist groups in the country have continued to escalate, bringing with it new allegations of civilian casualties.
And on April 27, the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) released its first quarterly report that looked at 70 allegations of civilian casualties between Feb. 1, 2019, and March 31, 2020, a period in which AFRICOM conducted 91 airstrikes against violent extremist organizations in Somalia and Libya.
Abdullahi Abdirahman Ali Waadhoor had heard stories about civilians dying from counterterrorism operations in Somalia for years, but never imagined that he would have his own story to tell.
The 38-year-old grew up in Mogadishu, Somalia, until civil war led him and some of his nine siblings to live abroad. Now living in London, England, Waadhoor used to speak with his 70-year-old father at least once a week.
He remembers the last conversation he had with his dad on March 6, when news of the coronavirus pandemic was fresh on their minds.
The elder Waadhoor had just left the mosque for Friday prayers when he called his son to check in. “I was telling him, please don’t go to the mosque now,” Waadhoor said. “Stay at home until things calm down.”
Days later, on March 10, Waadhoor received a call from his 19-year-old brother in Mogadishu. “He goes, 'Dad was killed. ... He was killed by drones,'" Waadhoor said. “I didn’t believe him, and I said, 'No. That’s a mistake. They can’t just kill him, so just find out more.'"
Waadhoor learned that his father had been traveling on a minibus taxi from Janaale, about a two-hour drive from Mogadishu, when, according to his relatives, the vehicle was hit by a drone.
As news of the airstrike spread, the evidence began to pile up. Pictures of the wreckage began to circulate among relatives and neighbors, and online.
“I was so sad but I never cried,” said Waadhoor, who fondly remembers the days his father took him swimming on the beaches of Mogadishu and taught him how to read and write.
Family and friends remembered the elder Waadhoor as the "quietest and the calmest guy we've ever known." And these words brought his son to tears.
Shrouded in secrecy
The day Waadhoor’s father died, AFRICOM released a press statement, declaring it had conducted an airstrike in the vicinity of Janaale on March 10. According to their initial assessment, the airstrike had killed five alleged terrorists.
The airstrike, led by the US military in partnership with the Somali government and African Union forces, is part of a 12-year campaign against al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist group.
Al-Shabab continues to wage deadly attacks on civilians in East Africa and was deemed a “serious threat” to American interests by AFRICOM Cmdr. Gen. Stephen Townsend during a congressional hearing earlier this year. In January, the terrorist group claimed an attack against US forces on a Kenyan military base, killing one US soldier and two Department of Defense contractors.
“Let me tell you, al-Shabab is evil,” Waadhoor said. “But you can’t kill innocent people. [A] 70-year-old who is innocent and who is a disabled man who never did anything wrong all his life.”
For years, human rights groups have been sounding the alarm about civilian harm caused by counterterrorism operations in Somalia.
"It's not that the government denies that it should be reporting civilian casualties, it just claims everyone who was killed was not a civilian."
"It's not that the government denies that it should be reporting civilian casualties, it just claims everyone who was killed was not a civilian," said Daphne Eviatar, director of security with the human rights program at Amnesty International. Last year, Amnesty said the US military killed 14 civilians in five separate airstrikes occurring between 2017 and 2018. Over hundreds of airstrikes took place during that period.
“They seem to be assuming everyone who was killed is a lawful target and a member of al-Shabab, or at times, they call them an affiliate,” Eviatar said.
Eviatar also said that there is a lack of transparency about how AFRICOM conducts reviews of civilian harm allegations.
Until last year, AFRICOM denied accusations of civilian harm in its operations in Somalia. By comparison, the US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) in Latin America and the Caribbean, has had an office of human rights since 1995.
Transparency about US activities in Somalia is complicated by the fact that the full footprint of US military presence in Africa at-large is unclear, and suspected Central Intelligence Agency and special operations go unaccounted for.
“We now know far less about US covert actions in Somalia, Yemen, then we did a few years ago,” said Chris Woods, director of the nonprofit Airwars, which monitors civilian harm in conflicts around the world, including Somalia.
Steps toward transparency
AFRICOM's first quarterly report leaves seven reported incidents without a conclusion, including the March 10 airstrike.
However, in the report, the military did acknowledge that two civilians were “regrettably and unintentionally killed” and three were injured in an airstrike on Feb. 23, 2019.
“It’s a significant step up for AFRICOM, it brings them much in line with other commands,” Woods said.
“If they stay silent on civilian harm allegations, it does them no favors. Because militant armed organizations will exploit that for propaganda purposes — which has happened in Somalia,” he continued, citing how al-Shabab often posts photos of the aftermath of airstrikes onto their propaganda website.
Still, Woods notes that questions remain over how the civilian toll from ground operations is accounted for and says there is still a big gap between what local Somali communities report and what the US military acknowledges.
“When local communities raise concerns about civilian harm, we need to be listening to them."
“When local communities raise concerns about civilian harm, we need to be listening to them,” said Woods, who points out that Somali communities are the first to report and record civilian harm from counterterrorism operations.
The March 10 airstrike is a key example. News circulated on social media and appeared on a local TV channel. Yet, AFRICOM maintained its initial assessment that no civilians had been killed. The Intercept later reported the same strike had killed a 13-year-old boy.
Months later, Waadhoor still doesn’t know who to contact about the death of his father and says AFRICOM has not reached out.
In the report, AFRICOM pledged to establish a new webpage for individuals to report allegations in local languages like Somali and Arabic by the end of the month. But accessing that website could prove a challenge for many local communities, especially those residing in al-Shabab strongholds where cellphones are banned.
Like many Somalis with allegations, Waadhoor feels helpless about the lack of accountability.
“If you are killing civilians, then you are the same. ... Al-Shabab — they kill civilians all the time. They kill kids, mamas, women. And I thought the better people are the United States.”
“If you are killing civilians, then you are the same,” he said. “Al-Shabab — they kill civilians all the time. They kill kids, mamas, women. And I thought the better people are the United States.”
Members of Congress have also raised concerns about accountability. “While we applaud Gen. Townsend’s efforts to increase transparency, the confirmation of two additional civilian casualties is tragic and underscores the need for continued transparency and accountability," said US Rep. Jim Langevin of the House Armed Services Committee in a recent statement.
Some legislators have written a letter to the AFRICOM general requesting that the military clarify how it investigates civilian casualty allegations, according to The Daily Beast.
AFRICOM’s review of the incident that killed Waadhoor’s father remains ongoing. The next quarterly report is expected in July.
When The World reached out to AFRICOM about policies about compensation for victims, the command replied that the Department of Defense is currently reviewing its policy.
“But US Africa Command leadership views this as a priority and is exploring options to establish an effective and fair process,” it said over email. “We are working with the Federal Government of Somalia on the appropriate next steps.”