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US Airstrikes Have Torn Somali Families Apart. They’re Still Seeking Justice.

Friday July 23, 2021

Dahir Issa's newborn daughter was killed in a U.S. airstrike. He never received any personal acknowledgment or any form of reparations. (Abdirahman Yusuf for VICE News)

Quasim Dahir learned that the American military admitted to killing his 22-year-old sister and her four-year-old daughter in an airstrike while he was having tea in a shop in D’ac, a small village in the center of Somalia, and listening to the radio. It was April 5, 2019 at about 5:00 pm. The strike had occurred the year prior.

The BBC broadcast did not mention Lul Dahir Mohamed, his sister, and Mariam Shilo Muse, his niece, by name, but with the date of the attack and the location reported, it couldn’t have been anyone else. After Lul and Mariam were killed, Dahir’s family and the wider community had given interviews on local media affiliated with al Shabaab, the Somali militant group that the United States is targeting. They told anyone who would listen that the people who died in the strike were civilians and that Lul had a remaining child, a devastated husband, and parents.

Dahir’s sister and niece were the first civilians the U.S. military publicly acknowledged killing in Somalia. Representatives from the family, including Dahir, said that they have never heard from the U.S. or the Federal Government of Somalia.

The first recorded U.S. airstrike in Somalia took place on January 7, 2007. After 14 years of strikes, the U.S. has taken responsibility for a total of four incidents of civilian casualties: Three incidents involving civilian deaths and injuries and one incident with civilian injuries and no deaths. This comes to a total of five admitted deaths and eight injuries.

VICE World News spoke with three of the four families of those killed by the U.S. military, who said that none of them have personally heard from the U.S. government or received a condolence payment, as well as several former Somali officials who worked closely with the U.S. government, U.S. Command in Africa (AFRICOM), and the CIA. None could recall participating in substantive conversations about how to manage cases of confirmed civilian casualties, including seven former security advisors and intelligence chiefs who had their positions during or after the Trump administration relaxed the rules to prevent civilian casualties in U.S. airstrikes in 2017.
The relatives of civilian casualties talk about compensation, but they talk about recognition as well.

“We haven’t had power and means other than to show the Americans that we want our rights,” said Abdi Dahir, another brother of Lul’s. “We want an apology. We want compensation and we want acknowledgement. Such a horrible thing happened to my family. Someone dies and no one talks about it. It’s not that simple to just admit it and move on.”

“When the Americans admitted it, they scratched our scars,” said Dahir. “The silence from the U.S. is another punishment for us.”

Dahir was the first person on the scene in the aftermath of the strike. He said that when he got there, an 18-year old relative of his was lying in the middle of the road with a hole in his head. A mattress in the bed of the red pick-up truck that had been hit was burning. The front of the car was intact, but the back was smashed. It looked to Dahir, at first glance, like the driver had panicked and reversed into a tree.  Inside the pick up, the driver, slumped over, still had his foot on the gas.

Dahir followed the road and saw them. Lul was lying face up, clutching Mariam. Dahir said that their bodies were dismembered and covered in cuts. The top of Lul’s head and stomach were sliced open.

Fatuma Kusow Omar was injured in a U.S. airstrike on February 2, 2020. Still requires physical and mental support. (Abdirahman Yusuf for VICE News)

Soon after Dahir arrived, other townspeople followed to see what happened and pick up body parts.
The way bodies were strewn on the ground, Dahir said, it looked like his sister and niece had been killed while running from the truck. Dahir assumed the vehicle must have been hit first. With its technology, Dahir thought, the U.S. must have been able to see that it was a woman holding a small girl, and had shot anyway even though they knew the pair were not the militant fundamentalists. Since it had been a year without any word from the U.S., Dahir concluded that the U.S. military had killed his family on purpose.

The announcement amounted to a sea change: “At the moment I heard the BBC, the hope started in me,” he said. With this public admission, it seemed a belated justice process might begin. “Before that I assumed that civilians could be killed and nothing happened,” Dahir added. “I said this is the start of justice. If they admit it, an apology and compensation will follow. You cannot kill a civilian and forget about it.”  

According to the press statement the U.S. military released at the time, Lul and Mariam were killed on the afternoon of April 1, 2018 in an airstrike that also killed five terrorists and destroyed one vehicle. Dahir said the mother and daughter had hitched a ride with three of his neighbors and though he claimed they were also non-combatants, AFRICOM maintains that the three men in the car were not civilians.

Lul and her daughter were killed after the Trump administration relaxed the rules meant to protect civilians in airstrikes.

Until those regulations changed, civilian casualties were treated as the “highest priority,” said Hussein Sheikh Ali, a former counterterrorism and national security advisor to the President of Somalia, who had a working relationship with AFRICOM.

A Freedom of Information Act lawsuit recently compelled the government to disclose some of the guidelines that the Trump administration followed when carrying out airstrikes, revealing the extent to which protections for civilians had diminished after he took office.

The relatives of civilian casualties in Somalia talk about compensation, but they talk about recognition as well. (Abdirahman Yusuf for VICE News)

The loosened restrictions meant that commanders could decide to carry out airstrikes or ground raids with more flexibility and less confidence that no civilians would be killed or injured, especially in the case of adult men. Indeed, VICE World News spoke with the families of four civilians killed by AFRICOM and confirmed that those killed were women or children.

“We have seen a broad pattern of military aged males being considered combatants based upon their proximity to confirmed members of an armed group,” said Brian Castner, Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Advisor for arms and military operations. “One U.S. military officer described it to me as 'beware of the company you keep.'”

One former Somali official, who requested to stay anonymous for security reasons, said the strikes were “like rain in Trump time.”
Still, there are neither official nor grassroots organizations tracking civilian deaths or harm in Somalia.

“The government has a number of security crises at any given time and that never featured,” said Samira Gaid, the security advisor to Somalia’s prime minister from 2017 to 2020. “Of course the government should be advocating for all civilians killed, but you have a huge number of civilians killed by al Shabaab, others by crime elements, others by government forces. The government is stretched thin.” As the focal point for the prime minister’s security portfolio, Gaid was regularly in meetings with representatives with the Ministry of Defense and the U.S. military about airstrikes, and said she would have been part of the chain of information related to civilian casualties.

According to international human rights law, the U.S. is required to make reparations to victims when it carries out unlawful killings outside the laws of war. However, in the admissions it has made, the U.S. has not acknowledged unlawful killings in Somalia.

“There are two things to consider,” Priyanka Motaparthy, the Director of the Counterterrorism, Armed Conflict, and Human Rights Project at Columbia Law School told VICE World News. “How the U.S. justifies what it is doing, and how human rights advocates interpret international law. The U.S. has argued it is at war with al Shabab. However, human rights advocates have long argued that many of these strikes do not meet the protections required by international human rights and humanitarian law, and constitute extrajudicial killings.”

Motaparthy said she would consider many of the killings extrajudicial: “The U.S. has acknowledged it killed and injured civilians, even if it argues it did not violate international law.”

Dahir Issa, a Somali minibus driver, never met his daughter. About three weeks before she gave birth, his wife Sowdo Mohamed Aden left their home in Barawe, a town over 100 miles south of Mogadishu, to stay with her mother in a town controlled by al Shabaab.

One night, a few weeks after his wife had the baby late February 2019, Issa learned his newborn daughter had been killed in an airstrike that destroyed his mother-in-law’s house. His wife was injured and his mother-in-law's neighbor had also been killed.

On February 24, 2019 AFRICOM issued a statement: “In support of the Federal Government of Somalia's increased efforts to degrade al Shabaab, U.S. Africa Command conducted four airstrikes on February 23, 2019.” Two of those strikes hit Kunyo Barrow. The AFRICOM statement said that the four strikes “eliminated checkpoints and facilities used by al Shabaab to collect illegal taxes to fund terrorist activities and to oppress the innocent people of Somalia.” The statement found that two “terrorists” were killed in the strikes, and that no civilians were harmed.

Dahir Issa never had a chance to meet his newborn daughter. (Abdirahman Yusuf for VICE News)

Over a year later, on April 27, 2020, AFRICOM issued its second quarterly civilian casualty report. In it, the military changed course, and said civilians were “likely and unintentionally killed” in the attack.

Issa learned of the admission from a friend. “It made me feel human,” he said. “And that my daughter was not forgotten.” Still, he never received any personal acknowledgment or any form of reparations.
Mohamed Osman Abdi also lost relatives in airstrikes that were later confirmed to be civilian casualties by the U.S. military. On February 2, 2020, his 18-year-old niece, Nurto Kusow Omar Abukar was killed in an airstrike. His other nieces, Fatuma Kusow Omar and Adey Kusow Omarand, and his mother in law Khadija Mohamed Gedow, were all injured.  

Abdi thought he was part of some elaborate joke when a friend sent him a text with a link to the AFRICOM press release saying it had killed one terrorist in Jilib, a Somali town held by al Shabaab. He and his wife had spent the past few hours in Mogadishu frantically fielding phone calls.  

Abdi is a journalist with the Somali National News Agency and the day after the strike, in what must have been a surreal situation, he attended a two-day conference with the U.S. military on counterterrorism communications. In a room of approximately 20 people Abdi said he brought up the attack on his family the night before.

Dahir Mohamed and Abdi Dahir have lost several relatives to U.S. airstrikes in Somalia. (Abdirahman Yusuf for VICE News)

He told AFRICOM that if the Somali government is seen as partnering with the U.S. military in murdering civilians, no counterterrorism communications plan will work. He told them, he said, that “This propaganda [the civilian casualties] will be more powerful than yours.” The AFRICOM representative told the group that the U.S. does everything possible to avoid civilian casualties. Abdi said he continued to press the issue, but the interpreter he was speaking through got upset with him and told him to be quiet.

Frustrated after the meeting, Abdi took to Facebook and Twitter. In one post, he shared a picture of his hurt mother-in-law, laying prostrate after the attack. In the same post he added an image of himself with his family, including his two nieces, when they came up to visit Liido beach in Mogadishu. The girls are wearing life-jackets. In the post, Abdi wishes a “quick recovery” to the injured and said to AFRICOM, “sorry 4 U ignorance!”

Abdi claimed, however, that he wasn’t just ignored, but was harassed by an official in the Somali government for speaking about the situation.

Soon, Abdi said he was receiving what he interpreted as threatening calls from Somali government officials, telling him to stop speaking about civilian casualties. A former government official who spoke to VICE World News on condition of anonymity confirmed these interactions with Abdi, but said the government was trying to tell him that since he worked for a state news agency he should keep his views to himself. Regardless, Abdi feared for his physical safety: The Somali government has regularly been accused by human rights organizations of harassing journalists, often violently.  

In its third-quarter civilian casualty report, AFRICOM acknowledged that the person killed—Abdi’s niece—and people injured in the attacks were civilians.

Asked about Abdi’s social media posts, AFRICOM told VICE World News that it does not “comment on communications with potential victims or witnesses of civilian casualties” and referred, “Inquiries concerning communications with Somali people” to the Somali government.

Beyond state harassment, helping his family recover has been expensive and difficult. Abdi tried to get his injured mother-in-law up to Mogadishu for better treatment, but it was too costly. Since the strike, his two wounded nieces have come to stay with him; Fatuma, who is 14, had serious injuries on her chest. Before moving to Mogadishu, Fatuma had a botched operation which caused even further pain.

Now, Abdi said that while Fatuma has improved, she still struggles to put on her clothes, and has serious “psychological problems.” Fatuma still needs more physical rehabilitation and mental-support, but there’s no money. “Everything depends on money,” Abdi said. The family sends her to a Quaranic center where people pray over her and try to make her feel safe.

Abdi added that the other reason that Fatuma came to Mogadishu was because the family was concerned that al Shabaab would try to marry her off, since she was of age. Abdi said that if Fatuma’s father refused al Shabaab and tried to protect his daughter from early marriage, he would be arrested.
Fatuma’s younger sister, Adey, suffered minor ear injuries, and now, according to Abdi, has nightmares. “Our home was destroyed and our sister was killed,” the 10-year-old told VICE News Tonight in an interview earlier this year. “I felt the heat through my room’s wall. I was terrified.”

When VICE World News interviewed Major General Dagvin Anderson, the commander of Special Operations Command Africa, about the family and compensation, Anderson said the situation is “heart breaking and very frustrating,” both as a commander and a father. When asked specifically about compensation, he said that it was “ a policy decision.”

Still, Anderson said that the U.S. holds itself “accountable,” and works deliberately to improve its operations. “I think we do that better than any other nation,” he said. “I know for a fact that we do that better than any terrorist organization, and that al Shabaab is unaccountable for the thousands of civilian casualties that they’ve inflicted, well over 4,000 since 2010.”
The U.S. military has a set of guidelines for when it kills people in other countries.

The under secretary of defense’s “Interim Regulations for Condolence or Sympathy Payments to Friendly Civilians for Injury or Loss that is Incident to Military Operations” was released on June 22, 2020, though it is unclear when the guidance will be finalized.

The memorandum states that the point of the payments is to “help authorized commanders obtain and maintain friendly relations with and the support of local populations where U.S. forces are operating.” The memorandum also says payments are but one mode of support that may be offered, and that other possible “response options” could “include public acknowledgement that the property damage, personal injury or death was incidentally caused by U.S. forces.”  

About a week after the announcement on the BBC, on April 12, 2019, Abukar Dahir, another one of Lul’s brothers, wrote a letter to the Somali Ministry of Justice. The last paragraph of the letter stated, “We respectfully request the Somali Ministry of Justice to assist us in any way we can to find Megdhaw [compensation for loss]  in the case of Luley and Maryam as we are a family of citizens who have been unjustly persecuted.”

A few days after he wrote to the ministry, Dahir went to the ‘Contact Us’ section of the AFRICOM website, and submitted another note, where he asked for recognition of what happened. “We urge the Government of USA and its representatives in Somalia, especially the US Embassy and U.S. Africa Command to take appropriate action toward the case as restitution for the lost lives to the Family of airstrike civilian casualties,” he wrote.

The family never heard from the Ministry of Justice or AFRICOM. Other community members reached out as well to no avail. AFRICOM did not confirm reception of any of the letters, and in an email to VICE News, AFRICOM wrote that “U.S. Africa Command does not comment on communications with potential victims or witnesses of civilian casualties.”

A little over a year after he submitted his first letter, in June, 2020, AFRICOM created a civilian casualty reporting portal and started issuing quarterly reports on civilian casualty allegations in Africa. Though Dahir submitted a report, he has yet to hear back.

On top of Dahir’s letter, another community leader also sent a letter directly to the U.S. embassy, which did not respond to requests for comment about the attack.

A representative from AFRICOM told VICE World News in an email, “The appropriateness and feasibility of contacting families of confirmed civilian casualties is assessed on a case-by-case basis, in coordination with the State Department and U.S. Embassy Mogadishu.” The guidance released in 2020 states that if payment is to be made, the recipient must be “friendly to the United States,” and that the commander must ensure the payment will not get channelled into insurgent activities, even through the form of taxation.

It is possible then, experts told VICE World News, that the reason AFRICOM has not issued payments in Somalia is that the money could ostensibly end up with al Shabaab.
"Al Shabaab is fully embedded in Somali society, especially in areas under their control, where local populations have little choice but to engage the group,” said Omar Mahmood, the senior Somalia analyst with the International Crisis Group. “This ultimately blurs the line between civilian and combatant, making targeting a complex activity."

Others have said the same: In 2018, the United Nations Security Council stated that al Shabaab runs “a shadow government in areas it no longer directly controls.”  

The hazy situation on the ground complicates the airstrikes themselves, as well as condolence payments. If Somalis across the country have connections to al Shabaab—especially through taxation—the killings become, essentially, indiscriminate. It also means that payments will almost never get issued.

The lack of reparations is not unique to Somalia. In 2020, Congress gave the Department of Defense a budget of $3 million to issue as payments for killing civilians on foreign soil in the name of global security, but the Pentagon did not issue a single condolence remittance, according to Annie Shiel, the Senior Advisor for U.S. Policy and Advocacy at the Center for Civilians in Conflict.

“The DoD’s record on ex gratia to date does not suggest a good faith commitment to making amends for civilian harm,” Shiel told Vice World News. “They have the capacity: Congress gives DoD $3 million annually for ex gratia payments—of which they did not use a single cent in 2020—and there exist a large number of cases where DoD has confirmed civilian casualties and has the information it needs to contact survivors. What they don’t appear to have is the will.”

When President Joe Biden took office, the New York Times reported that the new administration put a hold on airstrikes and ground raids in places like Somalia and Yemen where there are few troops stationed in the country while it reviewed the Trump-era rules. After over six months of apparent silence, the U.S. carried out the first airstrike of the Biden administration on July 20.

But the pause has not changed the situation for the relatives of the people the U.S. has already admitted to killing. Any semblance of what these families would consider a reasonable response to the deaths seems far away. Experts say reparations would make a difference, to start, but are ultimately only the beginning of justice.

“Payments are payoffs framed as gifts that don't imply responsibility and don't acknowledge the wrong of killing, let alone the wrong of the war on terror as a whole,” Samuel Moyn, a professor of law and history at Yale University, told VICE World News. But he added, that doesn’t mean the payments shouldn’t be made. “If I owe you damages for wrongful death in a civil suit it's not up to you to decide whether it's for my own good or not to withhold the money.”

Though he is soft spoken in person, Abdi, the journalist, makes it clear that he wants compensation for his niece’s death and the injuries his other nieces and mother-in-law have suffered. His mother-in-law still has trouble going to the bathroom because her hip was hurt so badly in the attack.

“There are human laws here,” he told VICE World News. “Who takes responsibility for civilian casualties? ” Referring to the U.S. military, he asked, “Are they animals? Dogs? There must be a cost of life.”

Reparations, to Abdi, mean more than money. Reparations are an actionable acknowledgement of sustained harm and wrongdoing. “If you break someone’s computer, and you know you broke it, even if it was a mistake, you have to apologize for the accident,” he said. “You need to pay for what you broke.”


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