The U.S. military has dramatically escalated its air war in Somalia in recent months as it attempts to crush the Al Qaeda-linked terror group Al Shabaab, a conflict that's increasingly conducted in secret.
U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) launched a record 47 strikes on Al Shabaab in 2018, surpassing the number of strikes reported in Libya and Yemen combined. This year the U.S. is on pace to triple that number, with 28 strikes already recorded since the beginning of January.
American strikes have risen in the Horn of Africa country each year since President Trump loosened rules of engagement in March 2017, allowing the Pentagon to expand its war on al Shabaab by declaring parts of Somalia “areas of active hostilities.”
Yet even in that context, the recent escalation is staggering, analysts told VICE News.
“The biggest concern is that it’s not just been an uptick in strikes, it’s been an uptick in the number of casualties coming from those strikes," said Jennifer Gibson, who runs the Drones Project at UK-based human rights organization Reprieve. "And that the uptick has then corresponded with a rollback on transparency and safeguards designed to protect civilians and limit collateral damage."
The surge in air strikes has raised fresh questions about the scope of U.S. operations in Somalia at a time when the White House appears committed to unwinding post-9/11 era conflicts elsewhere, including nearby operations on the African continent. The administration is also facing increased pressure from Congress, which last week passed legislation to rein in U.S. support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen.
“Somalia is a good example of how what is advertised initially as a very limited involvement can snowball into a never-ending engagement where the actual threat to U.S. directly is hard to ascertain in relation to every strike,” said Columbia Law School’s Alex P. Moorehead, whose report “Out of the Shadows” offers recommendations on improving transparency around U.S. strikes.
Hidden war, hidden costs
In 2018, U.S. strikes killed 326 people in Somalia, according to a compilation of data from AFRICOM's reporting. This year is on pace to be far deadlier: at least 230 people have already been killed in U.S. strikes in the first 10 weeks. And little is known about these targets outside of what AFRICOM discloses, but the command counts no civilians among them.
On Tuesday, Amnesty International challenged that assertion, documenting in detail 14 civilian casualties and eight injuries in just five strikes from the last two years. Some strikes, it said, may even 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,” said Brian Castner, Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Advisor on Arms and Military Operations.
“The problem is yes, there are civilian casualties but it usually goes unreported because no one can access those areas.”
In a statement, AFRICOM said that after review it found that none of its airstrikes “resulted in any civilian casualty or injury,” and maintained that it goes “to extraordinary lengths to reduce the likelihood of civilian casualties.”
But Amnesty’s report joins a chorus of analysts and human rights monitors who have fretted over Trump's dramatic increase in the use of force and the growing secrecy that’s covered it in Somalia. Earlier this month, Trump added yet another layer of secrecy to U.S. operations in Somalia, rolling back Obama-era policy that required the CIA to disclose civilian casualties in their covert drone strikes conducted outside of war zones.
“There’s a lack of transparency on who’s getting killed, lack of transparency around the legal frameworks [the U.S. military] is using to take those strikes,” Gibson said. “And then there’s a lack of transparency on the other end around what the processes and procedures are for post strike investigations.”
Outside of AFRICOM’s typically terse statements, getting any information about a strike or raid in Somalia is next to impossible, analysts said, with most reporting falling to journalists and local civil society organizations.
“The problem is yes, there are civilian casualties but it usually goes unreported because no one can access those areas,” said Abdifatah Hassan Ali, co-founder of WITNESS SOMALIA, an organization that tracks human rights violations in Somalia.
Shabaab, which still controls large swathes of land in Somalia and continues to launch deadly attacks on the capital of Mogadishu and elsewhere, is taking advantage of that silence to stoke anti-U.S. sentiment. “They use the U.S. airstrikes as an advantage to recruit more people,” Abdifatah said.
Mission creep or the beginning of the end?
In his last term, President Obama leaned on post-9/11-era policy to justify striking Shabaab, with a focus on high-value targets. But AFRICOM has enjoyed a far more expansive role beyond just airstrikes under Trump, growing its ground presence to 500 troops, who train and fight alongside Somali government forces and African Union peacekeepers, and building new outposts for partner forces.
Despite the increase in action, General Thomas D. Waldhauser, the commander of AFRICOM, has shied away from describing the U.S. operations there as a war, telling lawmakers last year that the ‘by with and through’ model of assisting local partners by air and on the ground meant they were able to avoid total ownership of the conflict.
“I wouldn't characterize that we’re at war,” Waldhauser told Congress in March 2018. ”It’s specifically designed for us not to own that.”
But it’s hard to square the broadening scope in Somalia as anything other than a sign that yet another post-9/11 conflict has fallen under the spell of mission creep.
”These airstrikes, while they’re labeled as counter-terrorism airstrikes, are really counterinsurgency airstrikes,” said Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, who tracks U.S. counter-terror operations. “They’re not hitting a jihadist leader, they’re going after Shabaab’s military capacity.”
“The problem is an ideology and it can’t be fixed by bombs dropped from the sky.”
In that regard, this burst of activity in Somalia contrasts with other U.S. counter-terror operations across the globe, which appear to be winding down as part of the Trump administration’s “America First” foreign policy agenda. But some speculated that the ramp-up could in fact be signalling the beginning of the end.
“I suspect the U.S. is seeking to disengage from Somalia,” said Roggio. ”And to do that they’ll say they’ve degraded Shabab to the point where U.S. presence is no longer needed in Somalia.”
If that proves to be the case, Abdifatah Hassan Ali of Witness Somalia said U.S. claims of success will ring hollow. “Al Shabaab is still here: they’re executing and organizing attacks, they’re killing people, they’re capturing more villages.”
He offered a warning that’s long followed U.S. military engagements like a refrain in the age of terror: “The problem is an ideology and it can’t be fixed by bombs dropped from the sky.”
Cover: In this June 13, 2010, file photo a U.S. Predator unmanned drone armed with a missile stands on the tarmac of Kandahar military airport in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini, Pool, File)