The Hidden Damage of Trump’s Secret War in Somalia


Terrorist activity is not discernably declining, even as U.S. military activity and alleged civilian deaths rise

On December 6, 2017, as people traveled into the village of Illimey – 80 miles outside of the Somalia capital, Mogadishu – to shop, meet, or simply pass through, the sound of a drone crescendoed in the air until a violent explosion occurred, killing five alleged civilians instantaneously. The intended target was a nearby vehicle purportedly associated with the al-Shabaab terrorist group. The resulting community outcry did not move the United States, which maintains that the dead belonged to the group. The villagers returned to their lives, now fearing U.S. action as much as al-Shabaab’s.

The number of U.S. airstrikes, drone strikes, and ground raids in Somalia have risen each year of the Trump administration: from 13 under Obama in 2016, the annual totals rose to 38 in 2017, 47 in 2018, and 55 so far in 2019, by New America’s count. 

Are these strikes reducing the terrorist threat across Somalia? Or are they doing more to hurt civilians and American credibility?

Officials with U.S. Africa Command, which carries out these strikes, asserts that these they have resulted in the targeted killing of hundreds of al-Shabaab militants, and no civilians have been killed in any U.S. airstrikes since April 2018.

AFRICOM officials have denied reports by the Somali Human Rights Association and Amnesty International that U.S. airstrikes and, more recently, ground raids, have indeed killed several civilians over the past few years. (In 2017, American troops deployed to Somalia for the first since the “Black Hawk Down” incident a quarter-century ago.)

New America’s research indicates that there have been between two and 18 civilian casualties since 2017. It also indicates that U.S. military actions have killed between 560 and 647 al-Shabaab militants in the last 12 months, bringing the estimated total under Trump to between 909 and 1,007. (For context, the Department of Defense estimated in December that al-Shabaab has between 3,000 and 7,000 combatants.)

This has not discernably reduced terrorism in Somalia. To the contrary, the most recent Global Terrorism Index report found that terrorist activity in Somalia increased 93 percent from 2016 to 2017. This moved the country into the index’s top six countries most affected by terrorism, including economic impact and death toll. (And on September 30, al-Shabaab carried out concurrent attacks on a European military convoy and against the U.S. airstrip in Baledogle, where special operators train Somali forces and launch drones. One U.S. service member received treatment for a concussion.)

Related: How Many Civilians Die in Covert US Drone Strikes? It Just Got Harder to Say
Related: ‘Light Footprint’ Operations Keep US Troops in the Dark

Last December, then-National Security Advisor John Bolton rolled out the Trump administration’s Africa strategy, saying, “Our goal is for the nations of the region to take ownership over peace and security in their own neighborhood.” Even as reports emerged in January that said Pentagon leaders planned to reduce the troop presence in Somalia, President Trump gave the military more authority to conduct strikes across the country. He extended the 2010 executive order that says unrest in Somalia poses a serious threat to the United States. But no foreign terrorist organization has carried out a deadly attack inside the United States since 2001.

Half of the operations that have taken place in 2019 occurred in the southern regions of Somalia, Lower Juba and Lower Shebelle, where al-Shabaab currently holds territory. The United States’ most deadly strike in 2019 occurred in Jilib (also southern Somalia) on January 19, killing between 52 and 73 militants, according to reports from AFRICOMVOA, and Mareeg, among others.

“It’s clear from the reporting about tempo of strikes in Somalia that the Trump administration has taken a different approach, striking a broader set of al-Shabaab targets, resulting in a much higher number of reported deaths of militants. What’s not yet clear, at least to me, is whether this approach is contributing to a lessening of the extremism/terrorism problem in East Africa,” says Nicholas Rasmussen, who ran the National Counterterrorism Center earlier in the Trump administration and is now Senior Director for National Security and Counterterrorism at the McCain Institute.

After each airstrike, the United States has consistently stated that there have been no civilian casualties. (One exception came in April, when an AFRICOM press release said that two civilians and four militants had died — in a strike that took place the previous year.) In May 2018, the Defense Department released its “Annual Report on Civilian Casualties in Connection With United States Military Operations.” The report asserted that no activities by the United States in Somalia resulted in any civilian deaths in 2017, and stated that one unspecified event is under investigation.

But in August 2017, the government of Somalia formally recognized errors in a United States-Somalia joint operation after 10 civilians were killed in a raid in Bariire village, which is about 35 miles from Mogadishu. And in early December 2017, the drone strike in the village of Illimey allegedly killed five civilians, according to witnesses and the deputy governor of Somalia’s lower Shabelle region Ali Nur. AFRICOM has released no official strike record for that date. In January 2018 and September 2019, local reporting found other U.S. operations with civilian casualties not publicly released. These discrepancies raise questions about how many strikes are actually occurring, and whether or not militant death counts are possibly absorbing civilian death counts.

AFRICOM defends its assessments, arguing that its intelligence methods are “not available to non-military organizations.”

Issues of transparency aside, increased air and drone strikes alone will not solve the terrorism problem in Somalia. Then-AFRICOM commander Gen. Thomas Waldhauser said as much at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in February. “At the end of the day these strikes are not going to defeat al-Shabaab, but they are going to provide the opportunity for the federal government and the Somali National Army to grow and assume the security of that country,” Waldhauser said.

What about non-military action? Supporting the government of Somalia and its National Army are critical to stabilizing the country, but airstrikes are not making Somalia more secure or reducing terrorist activity. The increased precision airstrike approach by the United States feels as if it is setting Somalia up for failure by primarily choosing military intervention instead of assisting Somalia with addressing driving forces of the conflict. If the latter concern was fully addressed, civilians such as those in Illimey could live without the dual fear of terrorism and the resultant airstrikes.

By Melissa Salyk-Virk

Melissa Salyk-Virk is a senior policy analyst with New America’s International Security Program.


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