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Are US airstrikes really making a difference in Somalia?

Sunday April 19, 2020

Experts say Washington should stop peddling false reports based on denial, which further increase Somali public grievances against America.

On April 7, US Africa Command (AFRICOM) announced that one of its airstrikes in Somalia conducted a few days before on April 2 killed Yusuf Jiis, in the Bush Madina area of the Bay region. The press release described Jiis as a “long-standing, high-ranking leader in the Al Shabab terrorist organisation” and one of its “foundational members”.

Yusuf Jiis went by many names, but his real name was Yusuf Nur Sheikh Hassan and he was believed to have led Al Shabab’s humanitarian wing. Somali officials also believe he recently joined Al Shabab’s Shura Council, a consultative body with senior leaders who set the direction for the group. Naturally, the Somali government echoed the AFRICOM message saying “Somalia and the world is a safer place without him”.

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US airstrikes have previously killed major Al Shabab figures, such as one of the group’s most influential leaders Ahmed Abdi Godane in 2014, but whilst they may well both see this particular strike against Jiis as a success they haven’t been without controversy.

One day after the announcement of the strike that reportedly killed the planners of the Camp Simba attack, reports emerged that an airstrike in Jilib killed a Hormuud Telecom employee called Mohamud Haji Salad. As is often the case the AFRICOM said at the time said they believed no “civilians were injured or killed as a result of this airstrike” claiming they hit “one terrorist”.

Another airstrike which claimed to have killed five terrorists in Janaale, reportedly killed a group of civilians on a minibus heading to Mogadishu. The son of one of the men murdered told Al Jazeera: “[The] Americans are lying. They killed my elderly father. He is 70 years old and can barely move. He can't walk without the help of a walking stick. He is not Al Shabab.”

In both cases, AFRICOM and the Somali government claimed terrorists were killed, however an Amnesty International report said they “found no evidence that the individuals killed or injured were members of Al Shabab or otherwise directly participating in hostilities”.

While a lot of media attention has been devoted to the Covid-19 outbreak, the US air campaign in Somalia has been picking up. There has been an increase in the number of airstrikes in Somalia in the last few years, but the number of strikes this year has already outnumbered some previous years after US President Donald Trump declared Somalia an area of “active hostilities”.

In April alone, eight airstrikes have been conducted at the time of this writing, which the Somali government says have killed over 30 terrorists so far, with the consistent point that “no civilians are assessed to have been killed or injured in that attack”.

The Somali government is aware of the dangers of civilian casualties, both for public perception and the danger of a backlash and has addressed some allegations.

On the same day that Amnesty International released a report claiming civilians were still being killed by airstrikes, in a press release the Somali government defended the continued use of airstrikes in its campaign against Al Shabab explaining that “SNA soldiers, Danab and AMISOM forces” are “better protected”, giving various examples of times when airstrikes have provided crucial support to ground forces.

AFRICOM’s air campaign in Somalia has now gone on for more than a decade with close to 227 declared airstrikes, according to independent monitoring group Airwars. In that time Airwars alleges that 67 civilians have been killed in dramatic contrast to the two acknowledged by AFRICOM.

The Somali government and AFRICOM also recently acknowledged and responded to allegations by pro-Al Shabab news outlets that there were civilian casualties during an airstrike carried on April 10 at Jamaame. “The allegations are lies typical of the group,” the government said.

 But with no change in strategy in the offing, the effectiveness of these strikes has to be considered. Abdirizak Mohamed, a Somali MP and former Minister of Internal Security tells TRT World: “In general the airstrikes have significantly degraded Al Shabab’s capabilities, there is no doubt about that.”

He adds: “A good example here would be the liberation of Janaale from Al Shabab which would have not been possible without air support provided by the Americans, as the Somali National Army relies on its partners for logistical and technical support, as well as reconnaissance.”

Janaale, where five civilians were reportedly killed by a US airstrike in March, is a strategic town near Merka Afgoye Road, in a fertile and agriculturally productive area. In addition to depriving Al Shabab of tax revenues collected from the sales of fruits grown there, the clearing of Janaale opens up a critical road network better allowing travel between Merka, Mogadishu and Afgoye.

“But our concern has been the civilian casualties,” Mohammed continues. “And why AFRICOM always denies civilian casualties. There is no way the Somali government can verify AFRICOM’s claims that terrorists have been killed, it’s very difficult to go into Al Shabab areas, so we can’t always take AFRICOM for what it says.”

The former minister also doubted if the Somali government is notified of all airstrikes before they occur, and whilst he didn’t doubt their importance, he mentioned some routes to compensate victims.

“As far as civilian casualties are concerned, unfairly targeting goes against international human rights law,” he adds. “And the Federal government should respond and compensate the victims, even though such compensation would be an admission of guilt, pressure should be put on the Federal government to recognise that it’s not just Al Shabab members being killed."

Mohamed Haji Ingiriis, a research fellow at the International Department in London School of Economics says: “AFRICOM should change the approach of denial which further alienates and increases the Somali public grievances against the United States and its operations in Somalia.”

Such admissions aren’t necessarily unprecedented. Whilst a number of human rights organisations reported the numbers differently, the Pentagon did admit that the US military killed 120 civilians across two continents in 2018. Another Amnesty International report forced the US to also recognise that 77 civilians were killed in airstrikes in Raqqa during the campaign against Daesh.

Dr Mohammed Ibrahim Shire, a lecturer in Security Risk Management at Portsmouth University with an expertise on Al Shabab says the problem isn’t necessarily the airstrikes but the overall strategy employed by AFRICOM in Somalia.

“In the long term, this is not viable, US airstrikes have been helpful but won’t end this war. You can do many targeted killings and leadership decapitations but Al Shabab have and will remain active. The big problem is targeting errors. These mistakes lead to a public backlash and undermine public support for the campaign against Al Shabab,” Dr Shire says.

“The parallel operation linking the US strategy and the military offensives by Somali National Alliance and African Union Mission in Somalia has, to a relative extent, degraded Al Shabab’s operational capability but significantly failed to defeat the group,” he continues. “This is largely due to two reasons: 1) AFRICOM’s strategy is not rooted in defeating Al Shabab but degrading its operational strength and capability and 2) the futility of a military approach to change the basic dynamics of Somalia’s conflict.”

The Somali government, he explained, needs greater resources to build functional alternative governance structures in recaptured towns and cities. The government reported rape allegations at Janaale which allegedly involved two of its soldiers based there, in addition to the more general difficulties of securing support in holding newly captured towns.

But the government also needs greater capacity building for its military and most importantly, Dr Shire said, the Somali government and its military need to move into a position where they can force a negotiated a settlement to bring this war to an end and airstrikes are only likely to cause further damage without a wider strategy focused on this goal.

“Al Shabab has been effectively in a mutually hurting stalemate with Somalia’s federal government since 2015. Both sides are suffering but neither side has the necessary impetus to permanently tip the scale toward a military victory. Negotiations instead of ‘hard’ military measures are needed to bring about a political solution.”


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