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Why did the US target Somali civilians hiding under banana trees?

September 8, 2017 at 6:23 pm

The Somalian flag, 27 September 2016 [Flickr/AMISOM Public Information]

On 25 August, the United States alongside Somali forces conducted a counterterrorism raid on a village near Baiire, southern Somalia – lower Shabelle region, in search of Al-Shabaab fighters associated with Al-Qaeda. The raid resulted in the killing and maiming of ten civilians including three children and women. The Al-Shabaab fighters were not at the village as they had been cleared out by Somali troops early in the same year. Only a few weapons were kept in the village to defend threats from a neighbouring clan, due to tensions based on tribal politics. In total, the village owned eight guns which were in storage at the time of the raid and one in operation for a watch-keeper.

It was not a military camp or a village that was under the control of Al-Shabaab.

“It was after morning prayers when I heard gunshots. I jumped over a wall made of iron sheets and the boy went out through the small gate,” said Moalim Abdi, a 47-year-old survivor whose 13-year-old nephew was killed. “They told me [my nephew] was shot as he tried to take cover under the banana trees,” said Abdi, one of ten relatives of the victims that spoke to Reuters.

Eye witnesses said about a dozen “white men” were alongside the Somali Special Forces as they requested assistance with translation whilst interrogating the villagers. The Somali forces eventually recognised residents and told the US forces to step down as the villagers were not linked to Al-Shabaab. The civilians ran to hide behind banana trees to save their lives but were shot dead in the ground raid. The Somali government initially claimed no civilians were killed, and then conflicting media reports emerged indicating otherwise.

Clan dynamics steering counter-terrorism operations?

On what intelligence did the US and Somali forces act upon? If it was local intelligence from a rival clan or tribe than that would explain the error in raiding the innocent village near Baiire. In comparison to conflicts in Syria or Iraq, it can be assumed that fewer funds are spent on Somalia, which begs the questions whether local clan politics is directing counterterrorism operations.

Following the US-Somali raid, negative sentiments are most likely strife towards the US and Somali forces for killing innocent family members. Blowback and the potential for family members to be inspired to join armed groups to spearhead their anger at government forces is now at risk due to this disingenuous mistake. Last week, the United Nations announced that it is downgrading the number of troops operating in Somalia in conjunction with Resolution 2372.

Read: US investigates civilian casualties in Somalia

The Security Council mandated that the number of uniformed personnel will be reduced to 20,626 by October 2018. The Security Council may accelerate the rate of downgrading dependent upon the performance of Somali security forces. That may not be a great idea, bearing in mind that AMISOM’s strategic priority is to transfer the responsibility of security to local Somali forces, which may be a quagmire for the UN – in consideration of the result of the recent raid.

It can be assumed that US Command may have undergone their own assessment of the intelligence on Baiire and triangulated on their own sources. As investigations continue, it would be interesting to ascertain whether the US solely relied on local intelligence to steer counterterrorism operations in Somalia and whether such a practice extends to targeted killings via drone strikes.

US African Command, AFRICOM, has already acknowledged that a ground troop raid took place in support of Somali forces. Anthony Favlo of US Africa Command clarified to MEMO that the incident “remains under investigation”. AFRICOM, the Pentagon and the Department of Defence (DoD) did not answer further questions about the missions – in particular the amount of compensation for the victims or which legal authority the US was governed by domestically.

Whilst the Somali government has admitted killing civilians in the raid, it has additionally provided “blood money” estimated at $70,000 per person killed. Compensation by the governments will only deal with temporary material gain, but whether it can heal broken hearts and minds still remains a vital question.

US ‘temporary battlefield’ policy is expanding

Since May to August 2015, there has been eight US airstrikes versus 13 airstrikes for the full year of 2016.  US counter-terrorism operations have expanded since President Donald Trump stepped in as commander-in-chief, making way for temporary battlefields to open up without congressional approval. The manifestation of these counterterrorism related expansion models have been seen in drone strikes, raids and special ops. For the past couple of months, Somalia has seen an increase in US-joint military actions with Somali Special Forces – and not just in Somalia, but Yemen too.

The US government is using this neo-classification of “temporary battlefields” as a tool to declare non-war zones to be “areas of active hostilities” where looser targeting rules apply. This is a new departure for US interpretation of international law and battlefield protocols. The US is already engaged in a “global war” against Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, which has witnessed military engagements across the world under the pretext of the War on Terrorism.

Read more: Somalia: Chief justice suspends 18 judges

Barack Obama’s 2013 Presidential Policy Guidance mapped the procedure for authorising drone strikes beyond the theatre of war. A redacted version was released as a result of the American Civil Liberties Union’s litigation in 2015. These strikes beyond war zones increased drastically during Obama’s presidency, causing a surge in civilian casualties. The guidance put restrictions in place for strikes outside “areas of active hostilities” and allowed strikes only when there is “near certainty” that non-combatants will not be killed.

Trump has given the CIA authority to conduct its own targeted drone strikes, effectively reinstalling a paramilitary role in assassinating people in complete secrecy, a notion that the Obama administration eventually restricted. This puts forth greater lack of accountability and transparency for post-strike investigations and paves the way for extrajudicial killings

Counterterrorism raids, drone strikes and other special ops are taking a toll on Somali society – turning alliances and sentiments against those very same states that seek to dilute a perceived threat. Pace building and reconciliation after a disingenuous raid is not easy once innocent family members have been killed. As investigations continue to ascertain how ten civilians were killed in place of Al-Shabaab fighters, both governments should reconsider whether using raids is the ideal means to create a safer and secure society in Somalia amid wavering clan dynamics.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.