The US military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) is denying local media reports that three children were killed in an air strike targeting al-Shabaab militants in southern Somalia last Wednesday.
Local media and AFRICOM report that the US carried out an air strike near the town of Jilib in Middle Jubba province on July 29. According to numerous local news sites, three children playing near a compound targeted in the air strike were killed in the attack. They have been identified as 8-year-old Abukar Ahmad Mohamad, 12-year-old Abdisamad Hussein and Abdullahi Mohamad, age 13. Multiple media outlets retweeted graphic photos of the victims, along with their identifying information, provided by al-Shabaab.
AFRICOM dismissed the reports as "allegations."
"The command’s initial assessment concluded this airstrike killed 1 terrorist and wounded 1 terrorist," AFRICOM said in a July 29 press release. "An al-Shabaab compound was destroyed in the airstrike. [We are] aware of reports alleging civilian casualties resulting from this airstrike. At this time, US Africa Command currently assesses no civilians were injured or killed as a result of this airstrike."
"As with any allegation of civilian casualties we receive, US Africa Command reviews reasonably available information it has about the incident," the press release continued. "[AFRICOM] complies with the law of armed conflict and takes all feasible precautions to minimize risk to civilians."
The Jilib strike, reportedly the 43rd US air strike in Somalia this year, came one day after AFRICOM released its quarterly report on civilian casualties, in which it acknowledged killing only 1 civilian, a woman in Jilib, and wounding three of her relatives, on February 2.
Although the US has carried out hundreds of air and drone strikes in Somalia over the past two decades, it has only admitted to killing 5 civilians and wounding 6 others in just three separate attacks. None of the victims’ families have been compensated.
Many Somalis, as well as international human rights groups, have long criticized the US for failing to adequately investigate attacks in which civilians are harmed and for allowing its forces to kill and injure civilians with impunity.
"Not only does AFRICOM utterly fail at its mission to report civilian casualties in Somalia, but it doesn’t seem to care about the fate of the numerous families it has completely torn apart," Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa, said after AFRICOM’s last quarterly report was released in April.
"We’ve documented case after case in the USA’s escalating air war on Somalia where AFRICOM thinks it can simply smear its civilian victims as ‘terrorists,’ no questions asked. This is unconscionable," Muchena added.
On July 28 Amnesty International said the US has "carried out at least 189 air strikes in Somalia since 2017," and that "in just nine of those airstrikes… 21 civilians were killed and 11 others were injured."
Earlier this year, The Intercept reported that the UK-based monitor group Airwars has counted at least 71 and as many as 139 Somali civilians killed by US strikes since 2007.
Civilian casualties have increased, sometimes dramatically, in recent years in nearly all of the half dozen nations under US attack during the nearly 19-year ongoing war against terrorism. In 2017 President Donald Trump, who campaigned on a promise to "bomb the shit out of" Islamist militants and kill their families, loosened rules of engagement meant to protect Somali civilians from harm caused by US strikes.
Then, in 2019 Trump 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.
While it is impossible to say exactly how many civilians have been killed by US bombs and bullets since 2001 – Gen. Tommy Franks infamously declared that "we don’t do body counts" as the US was invading Iraq – monitor groups have estimated anywhere from several hundred thousand to as many as 2 million people have died in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and Syria over the course of the war on terror, now in its 19th year.
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.