The U.S. usually underreports civilian deaths caused by its airstrikes. Proving it in Somalia is uniquely difficult.
The bearded young man who sat across from me in the conference room of a sun-bleached hotel in Mogadishu, Somalia, last fall was covered in dust from his journey to the capital. He was a goat herder with a wife and four children, and he came from one of the small villages along the Shabelle River, the breadbasket of Somalia. I’ll call him Ali.
Last September, several Amnesty International colleagues and I traveled to Mogadishu to interview survivors of American airstrikes. Since the attacks of Sept. 11, the United States has been conducting operations in Somalia in fits and starts, first hunting operatives of Al Qaeda in East Africa and now fighting the Shabab militant group.
The first drone strike in the region was under President Barack Obama in 2011. But the number of airstrikes in Somalia, manned and unmanned, has grown enormously since President Trump signed an executive order early in his term and lowered protections for civilians. In 2017, United States forces carried out at least 34 airstrikes, triple the number from the year before. In 2018, there were 47 strikes. This year, American forces have already carried out over 33 strikes, according to a New America analysis.
And yet the United States Africa Command, known as Africom, which oversees operations in Somalia, claims that it has killed only two civilians in the past two years. A near-perfect record, and a denial of reality. In five of those airstrikes alone, Amnesty International can identify by name 14 civilians killed. By denying these casualties, our government is essentially trying to gaslight an entire country.
The Pentagon has never been particularly forthcoming about civilian deaths. An Amnesty International report released last week found that American-led forces in Raqqa, Syria, killed about 10 times as many civilians as the United States acknowledged. But proving that kind of undercounting in Somalia has been uniquely difficult.
While in Somalia we interviewed over 100 people about attacks up and down the Shabelle Valley. Some came from territory controlled by the Shabab, and some from camps for people displaced by the fighting. Some wore traditional mawis around their waists; some wore Yankees caps. Some spoke sub-dialects used only by their clans, and many could not read or write or even use a pen when I asked them to draw a picture of the planes that flew overhead. Most measured the passage of time by crop rotations, came from villages that don’t appear on maps and had never seen a computer before.
And yet, when I asked them to describe what happened in their villages, nearly every one of them did the same thing. They pointed to the sky, traced a circle above their head and made a low woooooosound. An American drone.
Ali’s story was typical. He had traveled most of the day to speak to us. A few months before, a Toyota SUV was thundering through his tiny hamlet when there was an explosion. The first missile missed the vehicle but hit his cluster of makeshift huts. The second hit the truck and killed the men inside. Most Somalis we talked to were terrified to say much about the Shabab fighters who rule their territory, but Ali said the truck was full of the group’s emirs.
Four civilians died in the first strike, Ali said: an elderly farmer, a middle-aged man, his sister-in-law and his nephew. His sister-in-law was grinding maize and his 10-year-old nephew was standing with the goats when they were hit.
Ali went quiet. He looked away and his lip started to tremble. “The child’s body was mixed with the pieces of goat,” he said. “We didn’t know which piece was which.”
“The way he was killed was unbelievable,” he said, shaking with grief. The slaughter had convinced him that he must leave Somalia, and he asked for help getting into one of the Persian Gulf countries, where he had heard there was work. He wasn’t going back to his village. “There is no life there,” he said.
Our investigation in Somalia was the hardest reporting I’ve ever done, and I’ve been to Liberia during the Ebola crisis and Mosul after the defeat of the Islamic State. I don’t mean emotionally hard, as all wars are, or physically hard, since we were largely confined to a hotel in Mogadishu with heavily armed guards. I mean it was just hard to uncover the truth.
In most conflicts, we have access to a wealth of open-source evidence: online photos and videos, tweets and Facebook posts, on-the-ground reports from local media, huge bomb craters that appear on satellite imagery.
But in Somalia, we had almost none of that. The Shabab have banned internet-enabled mobile phones, so photos and videos of most attacks simply don’t exist; in our investigation over the past two years, we’ve found only 11 images. Virtually no one can send tweets with helpful dates from Shabab-held territory. And the United States is using lighter munitions — Hellfire missiles and other precision weapons with smaller warheads — that typically don’t produce craters we can see from space.
Fact-finding in war occurred before the age of smartphones, of course, but in Somalia, old-school methods fell flat, too. A trip to Shabab territory is an open invitation to be kidnapped, so I could not survey battlefields or dig through craters for scraps of bombs. The old flip phones that villagers are allowed to use are often monitored by American intelligence agencies and their Somali partners. Anytime we used words like “Al Shabab,” “bomb” and “drone,” they would have immediately been flagged by the algorithm in American surveillance devices. We couldn’t take the chance that innocent witnesses would inadvertently be pulled into the targeting program.
So we invited them to Mogadishu, asking them to travel along I.E.D.-infested roads and risk being accused by Shabab of being informants.
And yet more than 100 people came. Some stories matched corroborating evidence. Others were certainly lies, perhaps told in hopes of getting compensation. And then many of the rest seemed credible but could not be confirmed — puzzle pieces that did not fit into a larger picture. In the end, we could tie only about a third of the interviews to specific attacks involving specific weapons in specific places at specific times.
Ali’s wasn’t one of them. Yet his story still haunts me. The Toyota that he says exploded and burned near his home doesn’t appear on satellite imagery. He wasn’t sure of the date, so I couldn’t go to the United States Africa Command to confirm it conducted a strike that day. There were no hospital records, no death certificates in his village. We were the first people he told about the incident, and we might be the last.
On May 1, Africom is supposed to send Congress an updated report on the civilians it killed last year. We hope the military is more forthcoming than it has been and that it compensates all of the families of victims. It is hard to feel optimistic that any of that will happen.
I believe Ali lost his nephew and other family members. But I don’t know exactly how and when, and I doubt I ever will. American air wars are opaque by design, and we could pierce the veil only a few times. Our report doesn’t pretend to document the full extent of civilian deaths from American strikes in Somalia, because we don’t publish what we believe happened. We report only what we can prove.
By Brian Castner is the weapons expert on Amnesty International’s Crisis Response Team.
This article was first published by the New York Times.