Somalia: Zero accountability as civilian deaths mount from US air strikes

Civilian casualties continue to mount from the US military’s secret air war in Somalia, with no justice or reparation for the victims of possible violations of international humanitarian law, Amnesty International warned as it released details of two more deadly air strikes so far this year.

US Africa Command (AFRICOM) has conducted hundreds of air strikes in the decade-long fight against the armed group Al-Shabaab, but has only admitted to killing civilians in a single strike that took place exactly two years ago today. This lone admission was prompted by Amnesty International’s research and advocacy. 

“The evidence is stacking up and it’s pretty damning. Not only does AFRICOM utterly fail at its mission to report civilian casualties in Somalia, but it doesn’t seem to care about the fate of the numerous families it has completely torn apart,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa.

“We’ve documented case after case in the USA’s escalating air war on Somalia, where the AFRICOM thinks it can simply smear its civilian victims as ‘terrorists,’ no questions asked. This is unconscionable; the US military must change course and pursue truth and accountability in these cases, in line with its obligations under international humanitarian law (the laws of war).”

Two new cases in February alone

Amnesty International unearthed evidence that AFRICOM killed two civilians, and injured three more, in two air strikes in February 2020.

After both strikes, AFRICOM issued press releases claiming it had killed an Al-Shabaab “terrorist,” without offering a shred of evidence of the victims’ alleged links to the armed group.

By contrast, Amnesty International found no evidence that the individuals killed or injured were members of Al-Shabaab or otherwise directly participating in hostilities. The organization interviewed the victims’ relatives, community members and colleagues; analysed satellite images, photo and video evidence from the scene of the strikes; and identified the US munitions used.

On 2 February, at around 8pm, a family of five was sitting down to dinner in the city of Jilib, in Somalia’s Middle Juba region, when an air-dropped weapon – likely a US GBU-69/B Small Glide Munition with a 16-kilogramme warhead – struck their home. Nurto Kusow Omar Abukar, an 18-year-old woman, was struck in the head by a heavy metal fragment from the munition and killed instantly. The strike also injured her two younger sisters, Fatuma and Adey, aged 12 and seven, and their grandmother, Khadija Mohamed Gedow, aged around 70.

The girls’ father, Kusow Omar Abukar, a 50-year-old farmer who was in the house during the strike, described the attack to Amnesty International: “I never imagined it was going to hit us. I suddenly heard a huge sound. It felt like our house had collapsed. … The sand and the smoke filled my eyes.”

In the middle of the afternoon on 24 February 2020, a Hellfire missile from another US air strike hit the Masalanja farm near the village of Kumbareere, 10 kilometres north of Jilib, killing 53-year-old Mohamud Salad Mohamud. He was a banana farmer and Jilib office manager for Hormuud Telecom, and he left behind a wife and eight children.

A senior Hormuud official expressed disbelief that Mohamud Salad Mohamud had been targeted, since he had previously worked for international humanitarian organizations and had been arrested several times by Al-Shabaab: “When I heard the news of his death, I thought he was killed by Al-Shabaab. I have never imagined he would be killed by [the] US or by the Somali government. This was very strange. I don’t know how to explain it.”

These two air strikes were among a string of 20 retaliatory attacks US forces carried out in Somalia after an Al-Shabaab assault on a US airbase in Manda Bay, Kenya, in early January. AFRICOM’s commander, US General Stephen Townsend, vowed to “relentlessly pursue those responsible” for the attack, which killed a US soldier and two contractors, and destroyed five aircraft, including two rare and valuable spy planes.

“Nothing can excuse flouting the laws of war. Any US or Somalia government response to Al-Shabaab attacks must distinguish between fighters and civilians and take all feasible precautions to avoid harm to civilians,” said Abdullahi Hassan, Amnesty International’s Somalia Researcher.

No reparation for family in El Buur

The recently bereaved civilian families in Middle Juba region join many more Somali civilians who have lost loved ones to US air strikes but have seen no accountability or reparation to date.

In one key example, on 1 April 2018, a US air strike hit a vehicle driving from El Buur, north of Mogadishu.

Just over a year later, AFRICOM publicly admitted that the strike had killed a woman and young child. It was its sole admission of civilian casualties in an air war in Somalia that has lasted over a decade. Despite the family of the victims of this strike contacting the US Embassy in Mogadishu in April last year, at the time of writing, neither the Embassy nor AFRICOM had reached out to them to offer reparation.

US ramps up air strikes

In the first three months of 2020 alone, US forces have conducted a total of 31 air strikes in Somalia, according to the monitoring group Airwars. This is double the pace of 2019, when AFRICOM conducted a record 63 strikes in the country.

Since Amnesty International’s ground-breaking March 2019 report The Hidden US War in Somalia, the organization has carried out in-depth investigations into eight US air strikes that killed civilians in Somalia’s Lower Shabelle and Middle Juba regions. Along with the El Buur strike, they killed a total of 21 civilians and wounded 11. In every case AFRICOM has failed to contact the families of the deceased.

“The US military should not be allowed to continue to paint its civilian victims as ‘terrorists’ while leaving grieving families in the lurch. Much more must be done to reveal the truth and bring justice and accountability for US attacks which killed so many Somali civilians, some of which amount to apparent violations of international humanitarian law,” said Abdullahi Hassan.

Public Document
For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact:

Lucy Scholey, Media Relations, Amnesty International Canada (English branch), 613-853-2142,