NAIROBI — For years, the U.S. military has denied that any of its airstrikes in Somalia against the extremist group al-Shabab have resulted in civilian casualties, but a new report released Tuesday by Amnesty International alleges that 14 civilians were killed in five airstrikes in 2017 and 2018.
The accuracy of the U.S. military’s drone strikes in Somalia has come under increased scrutiny since President Donald Trump relaxed rules of engagement there in March 2017. Since then, the number of strikes has dramatically increased.
U.S. forces have carried out 28 airstrikes in Somalia this year, on pace to triple the 47 acknowledged strikes it carried out in 2018. A large portion of the strikes are carried out in Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region, where Amnesty did its investigation, which included more than 150 interviews and analyses of satellite imagery and munition fragments.
In response to the report, U.S. Africa Command released its own assessments of the five highlighted strikes and maintained that they caused no civilian casualties, arguing that Amnesty’s capability to gather intelligence in a war zone couldn’t compare to the military’s. The report says the civilian casualties it documents resulted from strikes that “may amount to war crimes.”
“The civilian death toll we’ve uncovered in just a handful of strikes suggests the shroud of secrecy surrounding the U.S. role in Somalia’s war is actually a smokescreen for impunity,” Brian Castner, Amnesty International’s senior crisis adviser on arms and military operations, said in a statement released with the report. “Our findings directly contradict the U.S. military’s mantra of zero civilian casualties in Somalia.”
A spokesman for U.S. Africa Command, commonly known as AFRICOM, said in a statement: “In only 4 of the 5 allegations were we able to correlate some of the data AI provided with AFRICOM strikes, but found no civilian casualties resulted from those strikes. In one allegation, we did not conduct a strike on that date, in that location.”
“It is in the interest of the terrorist group al-Shabaab to untruthfully claim civilian casualties. It is also in the interest of al-Shabaab to coerce community members to make untrue claims,” the statement read, in part.