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Advocates demand compensation for U.S. drone strike victims in Somalia


Monday December 18, 2023
By Nick Turse

Human rights groups called on the Pentagon to make amends after an Intercept investigation into the deaths of a woman and child.


Deeqo Dahir Mohamed, left, 25, and Qaali Dahir Mohamed, 18, sit on a mattress as they pose for a photo in Mogadishu, Somalia, on May 10, 2023. Their sister Luul Dahir Mohamed and their niece Mariam Shilow Muse were killed in a U.S. drone strike on April 1, 2018, in Somalia. Photo: Omar Faruk for The Intercept

TWO DOZEN HUMAN rights organizations called on the Pentagon Monday to make amends to a Somali family following an investigation by The Intercept of a 2018 U.S. drone strike that killed a woman and her 4-year-old daughter.

The 14 Somali groups and 10 international organizations devoted to the protection of civilians urged Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III to take immediate action. The family is seeking an explanation, an apology, and compensation.

“New reporting illustrates how in multiple cases of civilian harm in Somalia confirmed by the U.S. government, civilian victims, survivors, and their families have yet to receive answers, acknowledgement, and amends despite their sustained efforts to reach authorities over several years,” reads the open letter, which was shared with The Intercept.

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The April 1, 2018, attack in Somalia killed at least three, and possibly five, civilians, including 22-year-old Luul Dahir Mohamed and her 4-year-old daughter Mariam Shilow Muse. A U.S. military investigation acknowledged the deaths of a woman and child but concluded their identities might never be known. This reporter traveled to Somalia and spoke with seven of their relatives. “They know innocent people were killed, but they’ve never told us a reason or apologized. No one has been held accountable,” said Abdi Dahir Mohammed, one of Luul’s brothers. “We’ve been hurt — and humiliated.”

The Pentagon’s inquiry found that the Americans who conducted the strike were confused and inexperienced and that they argued about basic details, like how many passengers were in the targeted vehicle, according to a report obtained by The Intercept under the Freedom of Information Act after multiple requests, appeals, and a lawsuit. The U.S. task force members mistook a woman and a child for an adult male and killed Luul and Mariam in a follow-up strike as they ran from the truck in which they had hitched a ride to visit relatives. Despite this, the investigation — by the unit that conducted the attack — concluded that standard operating procedures and the rules of engagement were followed. No one was ever held accountable for the deaths.

The human rights advocates’ letter asks Austin to “take immediate steps to address the requests of families whose loved ones were killed or injured by U.S. airstrikes in Somalia” after the U.S. military ignored repeated attempts by another of Luul’s brothers, 38-year-old Abubakar Dahir Mohamed, to contact U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM.

“For more than five years, we have tried to make sure the identities of Luul and Mariam are known to the U.S.,” Abubakar wrote in a recent op-ed for The Continent. “I now know that the U.S. military has admitted not only to killing Luul and Mariam, but doing so even after they survived the first strike. It killed them as Luul fled the car. … The U.S. has said this in its reports, and individual officers have spoken to journalists. But it has never said this to us. No one has contacted us at all.”

Congress appropriates millions of dollars annually for the Defense Department to compensate families of civilians killed or injured in U.S. attacks, but the Pentagon has shown an aversion to confronting its mistakes and rarely makes compensation payments, even in cases as clear cut as this one.

“The U.S. response thus far stands in stark contrast to this administration’s stated priorities of mitigating, responding to, and learning from civilian harm,” reads the letter. “We urge the Department of Defense to urgently make long-overdue amends in consultation with Abubakar’s family and their representatives, including condolence payments and an explanation for why their demands appear to have been ignored until now.”

When asked if Luul’s family deserves compensation and if an apology and amends would be offered, the Office of the Secretary of Defense replied, “We do not have anything to provide for you on this right now.” AFRICOM also failed to answer The Intercept’s questions about contacting Luul’s family and providing compensation.

Last year, in response to increasing public reporting on America’s killing of civilians; underreporting of noncombatant casualties; failures of accountability; and outright impunity in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere, the Pentagon pledged reforms. The 36-page Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan, known in Washington as the CHMR-AP, provides a blueprint for improving how the Pentagon addresses noncombatant deaths, but lacks mechanisms for addressing past civilian harm. 

“Although the CHMR-AP does not specifically provide for a re-examination of past incidents, nothing in the CHMR-AP prevents review of incidents in light of new information and appropriate reconsideration of past assessments and decisions under the improved processes and practices that the CHMR-AP seeks to establish,” Pentagon spokesperson Lisa Lawrence wrote in an email response to The Intercept’s questions.

“Making good on the Defense Department’s commitments to improve how the U.S. prevents and responds to civilian harm must include reckoning with the harms of the last 20-plus years of U.S. operations,” said Annie Shiel, U.S. advocacy director of the Center for Civilians in Conflict, one of the signatories of the letter. “The U.S. has at its disposal at least $3 million annually to make condolence payments to civilian victims and survivors — payments that we know provide both tangible assistance and symbolic meaning for families grieving and rebuilding from unimaginable loss. In this case and in others in Somalia and around the world, the U.S. owes it to survivors to make amends in whatever way is most meaningful for them — be that a formal apology, answers about what happened to their loved ones and why, condolence payments, or other assistance.” 

The letter was also signed by Airwars, Amnesty International USA, the Association of Concerned Africa Scholars (USA), Caddalaad Doon, Coalition of Somali Human Rights Defenders, Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, Hiraan Women Development and Family Care, Human Rights Watch, Juba Aid for Peace and Development Organization, Jubaland Youth Leaders, Kalkal Human Rights Development Organization, Marginalized Community Advocacy Network, PAX, People’s Aspiration and Human Rights Organization, Reprieve US, Resilience Hope Foundation, Somali Awareness and Social Development Organization, Somali Legal Action Network, Victim Advocates International, Waamo, Women and Child Support Organization, Youth Initiative and Human Rights Advocacy, and Zomia Center. In addition to the 2018 strike investigated by The Intercept, the letter mentions several other cases in which U.S. attacks in Somalia harmed civilians, including a 2020 drone strike that killed a teenage girl as she was sitting down to dinner with her family. Her relatives have also been trying for years to contact the U.S. in search of an explanation but have received no response, the letter says.

Advocates say that the deaths of Luul and Mariam provide the Pentagon with a unique opportunity to make good on long-standing promises to improve its mitigation of civilian harm and learn from past mistakes. A drone pilot and analyst, who served in Somalia the year Luul and Mariam were killed and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the attack was no anomaly. “When I went to Africa, it seemed like no one was paying attention. It was like, ‘We can do whatever we want,’” he told The Intercept. When he counted the civilians he knew the U.S. had killed and compared that tally with publicly announced figures, he said, “the numbers just didn’t add up.”

“Our clients in this case began attempting to contact AFRICOM and the DoD in the immediate days after Luul and Mariam were killed and have followed every procedure these institutions have made available,” said Clare Brown, the deputy director of Victim Advocates International, an organization that supports victims of serious international crimes, including war crimes, and is now representing Luul’s family. “We are in the process of compiling a case which we intend to transmit to the U.S. through every possible portal, in the hope of finally getting a response. The family has the same ask they have been making for the past five and a half years — for both compensation and to be told, face to face, what happened to their sister and her daughter on that day in April 2018.”

Luul’s family was traumatized by the airstrike and has suffered for more than half a decade. Her brothers say their elderly father — who died earlier this month — never recovered from his daughter’s sudden death. Luul’s 6-year-old son, Mohamed Shilow Muse, constantly asks why Luul left him and is terrified of being alone. If he sees or hears a drone, he hides beneath a tree.

“Since the strike, our family has been broken apart. It has been more than five years since it happened, but we have not been able to move on,” Abubakar wrote. “But in all that time, even as we have contacted [the U.S. government] in every way we know how, we have never been able to even start a process of getting justice. The U.S. has never even acknowledged our existence.”



 





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