“After a thorough assessment” of a counter-terrorism raid which was conducted on 25 August on a village in Bariire, Somalia, the US has concluded that the “only casualties were those of armed enemy combatants”, US Africa Command (AFRICOM) said in a press release.
Before conducting operations with partner forces, US Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAF) conducts “detailed planning and coordination to reduce the likelihood of civilian casualties and to ensure compliance with the Law of Armed Conflict”, the press release read.
But AFRICOM has not released its initial assessment regarding the allegation that ten civilians were killed in the raid.
The Head of Reprieve’s Assassinations Project, US lawyer Jennifer Gibson told MEMO:
We’ve seen this time and time again. The US relies on dodgy intelligence to carry out a secret raid that results not in making us safer, but instead in killing innocent men, women and children.
“The mistake is then compounded by an after action ‘assessment’ that ignores credible ground investigations and first hand accounts, in favour of the same dodgy intelligence that resulted in the mistake in the first place.”
“A brief press release isn’t enough. AFRICOM needs to urgently publish its ‘assessment’, so congress and the public can understand what, exactly, happened in Bariire and how it is that US soldiers wound up killing ten people in a remote Somali village where the US is not at war,” Gibson continued.
The Somali government had already admitted civilians had been killed, in which the families were paid reparations. The Somali army chief, General Ahmed Jimale Irfid, who has oversight on joint US operations in Somalia, said the incident in Braiire was a “misunderstanding between the forces and local farmers in the area”.
“The US government’s denial of civilian casualties in Somalia is likely a frustrating response for the families of the ten farmers, including a child, allegedly killed in the Bariire raid. This response is difficult to reconcile with the reported facts and the Somali government’s own acknowledgment that civilians were indeed killed,” Rahma Hussein, legal fellow at Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute, told MEMO.
“Such denials by the US government are sadly common despite numerous, credible civilian casualty allegations. Incidents like Bariire, where the US government strikes questionable targets, raise concerns about the rigor of US post-strike investigations and occur at a time where there are reports that the Trump administration has loosened rules on strikes overseas designed to protect civilians.”
It is high time for the US government to be transparent about how it defines and interprets who may lawfully be targeted under international law.
The counter-terrorism raid was conducted in the lower Shabelle region of Somalia, in search of Al-Shabaab fighters. The botched raid resulted in the death of ten civilians including three children and women. Al-Shabaab fighters were not at the village as they had been cleared out by Somali troops early in the year.
Only a few weapons were kept in the village to defend threats from neighbouring clans due to tribal tensions. The village held eight guns which were in storage at the time, with one operational for the night’s watch-keeper.
Jessica Dorsey, senior legal and policy officer at Rights Watch UK, told MEMO: “This incident and allegations of failing to take proper precautions with respect to intelligence used by Special Forces highlights a trend over various theatres of conflict of US forces relying heavily upon faulty intelligence or ill preparation, leading to botched operations that are costing human lives.”
“It is imperative that in these situations, forces involved offer genuine transparency about what has happened in these botched operations, in order to facilitate meaningful accountability of those responsible rather than allowing them to continue to operate with impunity, with civilians paying the ultimate price.”
US President Donald Trump has sidestepped former President Barack Obama’s policy that high risk counter-terrorism operations should only be used sparingly, despite a high record of civilian casualties under Obama’s presidency. In March, Trump gave the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the US military broader powers to execute strikes and raid operations in Somalia, considering parts of the country temporary battlefields. Beyond the frequent use of drone strikes, the US has used the controversial counter-terrorism raids across Somalia and Yemen, which has had brutal consequences on civilians.
“A recent shift away from large Western boots on the ground style operations has led to a far higher reliance on local and regional troops to do the frontline fighting against groups like ISIS [Daesh], Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab and Al-Qaeda”, Emily Knowles, director of Remote Control Project at the Oxford Research Group.
“The Bariire case is a good example of the risks that this entails. There should be real questions asked about the vulnerability of Western-supported operations to manipulation – particularly now that there are fewer international eyes and ears on the ground to verify local intelligence,” Knowles continued.
Whether or not civilians were killed in this particular operation, the allegations alone may have already done lasting damage to local opinion of the United States.
“Working alongside partners with poor human rights records and low local legitimacy is always risky, and incidents like this weaken the credibility of the international community as a peacemaker.”
The US has some 500 personnel stationed in Somalia, including soldiers that fight alongside local Somali forces. In addition, the United Kingdom has a special regiment of 85 military personnel on the ground in Somalia, to train and work with the African Mission. It remains unclear whether the UK is assisting in any joint US and Somali operations.
US targeted killing and drone strikes have been on the uptick in Somalia, with the latest prominent air strike killing more than 100 Somalis some 125 miles north west of the capital Mogadishu. American counter-terrorism operations have killed some 510 Somalis and injured 54 since 2007, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.