A recent US drone strike targeting Islamic State (IS) militants in northeastern Somalia accidentally killed two civilians gathering frankincense, according to village elders and a survivor interviewed by Voice of America.
VOA reports the attack occurred during the afternoon on October 25 near Ameyra, a remote village in the Golis Mountain region of Bari province in Puntland. "Men sent to the location of the strike brought back the dead bodies of two locally known villagers who went there to collect frankincense," local elder Sa’id Abshir Mohamud told VOA. "One of the bodies was mutilated." Mohamud identified the victims as Salad Mohamud Barre and Ayanle Ibrahim Mohamud.
Mohamed Mohamud Barre, who said he was out gathering frankincense with the victims when the strike occurred, told VOA that he "ran through dark smoke and debris and crawled under a nearby mountain cave" to survive. "Then another missile was targeted at my location but the cave and Allah saved me," he added. "In the cave, I found out that I had sustained shrapnel injuries and remained there until midnight… I am bleeding and I feel kidney pain."
One prominent elder, Jama Mohamed, told VOA he could confirm Barre’s claim. "One of the dead men left eight orphans and the other, five," Mohamed said. He added that one of the victims "took his pregnant wife… for medical care but could not afford to pay the bills [so] he decided to go to the mountains and collect frankincense to sell and then pay the surgery bills for his wife, who is carrying twin babies, one of them dead." Mohamed called upon the Somali government to investigate the deaths for the sake of the victims’ families "I think they were mistakenly targeted," he said. "I call for the federal government and the government of Puntland Regional State to look into the incident."
Harvesting frankincense – an aromatic resin used in incense and perfumes and famously gifted to baby Jesus by the Three Wise Men of the Christian Bible – is a major source of income in northern Somalia, one of the world’s most impoverished regions. However, resource depletion has made gathering frankincense an increasingly dangerous endeavor, with men and boys often suffering serious injuries or even dying while climbing cliffs and mountains in search of untapped trees. Armed conflict – Somalia has been continuously at war since the early 1990s – has made made the perilous undertaking even more dangerous.
During the Trump administration, civilian casualties have soared in several countries under attack by the United States in its open-ended anti-terrorism campaign, now in its 19th year. While campaigning for president in 2015, Donald Trump said he would "bomb the shit out of" Islamist militants and kill their families. His administration has fulfilled that promise, loosening rules of engagement meant to protect civilians and resulting in the deaths of thousands of Iraqi, Syrian, Afghan and Somali civilians from US-led bombing, artillery strikes and other military action. Earlier this year, President Trump also signed an executive order revoking an Obama-era requirement that the director of national intelligence publish an annual report on civilian deaths caused by drone strikes in areas "outside of war zones" that are nevertheless under US attack, including Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan and Libya.
Trump’s escalation has taken a deadly toll on Somali civilians. Drone strikes and other aerial bombardment are only part of the problem, as US Special Forces troops have also killed men, women and children while conducting anti-terrorism raids that have themselves been condemned as a form of terrorism. The US has been reluctant to acknowledge when its forces kill civilians, even when it has credible evidence of such deaths. It wasn’t until April 2019 that US Africa Command (AFRICOM) admitted that Somali civilians had been killed by a drone strike it previously said had killed five Al-Shabaab militants and no civilians.
Once again, AFRICOM has denied killing any civilians. Instead of frankincense collectors, it claimed "the airstrike killed three terrorists" and that "no civilians were injured or killed." AFRICOM public affairs director Col. Chris Karns added that US strikes "are important because they help disrupt Al-Shabaab" and "set the conditions for development, they set the conditions for governance and they’re foundational to the progress that’s being made."
Brett Wilkins is editor-at-large for US news at Digital Journal. Based in San Francisco, his work covers issues of social justice, human rights and war and peace.