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OPINION / Africa

A Trump decree is killing innocent civilians in Somalia

Trump's new relaxed rules of engagement are killing civilians and breeding the next generation of anti-US fighters.

by Jamal Osman

US President Donald Trump loves signing executive orders. During his first year in office, he has signed dozens of controversial orders on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from national security to trade.

Some of these executive orders, such as the ones on the Muslim travel ban and the Mexican border wall, received a lot of media attention and triggered protests around the world. But many other decisions by the president, causing death and destruction in faraway places like Somalia, went considerably unnoticed. 

Only weeks after taking office, Trump signed a directive declaring parts of Somalia an "area of active hostilities". This declaration relaxed some of the rules aimed at preventing civilian casualties when the US military carries out counterterrorism strikes in Somalia. 

The Pentagon claimed that this order expanded its targeting authority "to defeat al-Shabab in Somalia" in partnership with the African Union and Somali forces. But, in practice, what this order did was little more than allow US soldiers to "kill at will" and with impunity within the borders of Somalia.

This is illegal, immoral and counterproductive.

An illegal order

The US aerial bombardment of Somalia started during George Bush's "war on terror", but the number of civilian casualties was minimal back then. Since the current US president "relaxed" the rules of engagement, the number and scope of these attacks increased dramatically, leading to many civilian casualties.

According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there were 32 to 36 reported US drone strikes in Somalia between 2001 and 2016. In 2017, 34 air and drone strikes were carried out, killing more than 200 people. 

Al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda-linked militant group, is the official target of most US drone strikes in Somalia. Its ultimate objective is to overthrow the government in Mogadishu and establish a new state in its place. Several African nations have been battling the armed group for over a decade, but Western nations, including the US, are now overtly leading the fight.

In the process, Washington appears to be relying on backdoor dealings and violating the sovereignty of an independent nation. It is not clear who authorises the air and drone strikes the US is conducting. 

Somalia is not the "failed state" it once was - it is no longer a playground for uninvited foreigners. Today, there's an internationally recognised administration in Mogadishu with functioning judicial, legislative and executive branches, and this administration, not Donald Trump, should be the one "authorising" the measures that can be used in the fight against al-Shabab in the country.

Somalia's constitution clearly states that the country's sovereignty is inviolable. Its legislative and executive branches are responsible for the security of the nation and only they can decide on military action. Without their approval, attacks are in violation of the nation's sovereignty and are therefore illegal.

Immoral attacks on innocent civilians

The US cites its national interests and security as a pretext to conduct attacks on alleged al-Shabab bases in Somalia. No one is denying some of those killed as result of these strikes are indeed al-Shabab fighters, but the vast majority of the victims are civilians.

We know this because al-Shabab usually confirms the deaths of its senior commanders and fighters. We have witnessed this when Sheikh Ali Jabal, a senior al-Shabab commander in Somalia, was killed in a US strike in August last year. "The cowardly American enemy planes tried to strike him," the group said in a statement circulated on social media. "The first missed him and the second hit, making him a martyr." 

Al-Shabab leaders do not try to hide the deaths of the group's commanders and members, because they know that this would be a hard and futile task. Information about these deaths can easily surface through the clans and communities their fighters hail from. 

So, when we see statements by US forces declaring that they killed dozens of "terrorists" in Somalia and hear no confirmation from al-Shabab leadership about these deaths, we question the validity of US claims about the identities of the victims.

Most civilian deaths do not get global attention because the attacks take place in al-Shabab-controlled areas. This makes it impossible for journalists and international human rights groups to investigate.

Sometimes local media publish photos and names of the civilian victims of US attacks. But even this depends on the victim's clan. If a victim belongs to a minority clan that holds no political power, the government will easily dismiss them as "terrorist sympathisers".

On August 17, 2017, the US launched three precision air strikes in the southern town of Jilib. US Africa Command released a statement claiming to have "killed terrorists". However, the victims, seven of them, were civilians from the same family. Photos of their bodies and the remnants of their house were widely published in Somali media. But the victims belonged to a minority clan that has no power and influence in Somalia, and their relatives' desperate plea for justice perished soon after they buried their loved ones.  

A few days later, another US-led military raid took place in Bariire village, 45km from Mogadishu, killing 10 people, including children. Again, the Somali government and the US claimed that they only "killed terrorists". This time, however, the victims hailed from an influential clan. Survivors and relatives challenged the false official claims about the attack.

To prove their case, family members took an unprecedented step and transported the victims' bodies to the capital city to put them on display. Due to the pressure, government officials met relevant clan elders, apologised and agreed to pay compensation.

Despite the solid evidence and a confirmation from the Somali government, the US administration still insists that victims of this attack were not civilians. By denying facts, the Trump administration is damaging US reputation as a nation that respects human rights and the rule of law.

A counterproductive campaign

The US military campaign in Somalia will not yield any results.

Bombs dropped from the sky will certainly take out a few al-Shabab commanders; two of their former leaders were already killed by the US. They may also force their operatives into hiding or restrict their movements. But killing a few commanders and fighters isn't going to bring the demise of the group.

After all, al-Shabab's success is not based on individuals - it's based on an ideology and you cannot defeat an ideology with bombs.

Somalis won't be outraged over the fight against al-Shabab and the killing of the group's fighters. People in the country understand these men have signed up to kill or be killed.

But the indiscriminate killings of civilians is antagonising Somalis. This gives legitimacy to the militant group as a resistance movement, especially within communities living under its rule. Every innocent person killed by the US is a gain for al-Shabab. Victims' family members and fellow clansmen will seek retaliation. To them, revenge is an act of justice.

Most of the victims of US military operations in Somalia are farmers and nomads who have no animosity towards the American people. US bombardment is forcing many to flee their homes. In recent months, we have seen "drone refugees" arriving in Mogadishu's overcrowded camps for the internally displaced. Children are traumatised by the constant fear of bombs falling from the sky.

Mr Trump, your bombs are breeding the next generation of suicide bombers in Somalia. Fight al-Shabab but stop terrorising innocent Somalis. To achieve any success, you must respect international and Somali law, reverse your immoral actions and rethink your strategy in Somalia.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance.

Somalia: The Forgotten Story


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