Inside the Secretive U.S. Air War in Somalia: How Many Civilians Have Died as Strikes Escalate?

“My understanding, speaking to more than two dozen people displaced in the area where the U.S. is certainly on the record conducting airstrikes, civilians are being killed in the campaign that the U.S. is carrying out there. And that campaign has tripled under the Trump administration.”

The Trump administration is rapidly escalating a secretive air war in Somalia. According to the think tank New America, at least 252 people have been killed in around two dozen U.S. airstrikes in Somalia so far this year. The U.S. has already carried out more strikes in Somalia in 2019 than in any single year under President Obama. In addition to the air war, the Pentagon reportedly has about 500 U.S. troops on the ground in Somalia, including many special operations forces. For years, the U.S. has attempted to aid the Somali government by targeting members of al-Shabab, but the effort has increased dramatically under Trump, and it has come with little congressional oversight or media attention. We speak with Amanda Sperber, a freelance journalist who reports from Nairobi, Kenya, and Mogadishu, Somalia. Her new article for The Nation is titled “Inside the Secretive US Air Campaign in Somalia.”

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show looking at Somalia, where the Trump administration is rapidly escalating a secretive air war. According to the think tank New America, at least 252 people have been killed in around two dozen U.S. airstrikes in Somalia so far this year. The U.S. has already carried out more strikes in Somalia in 2019 than in any single year under President Obama. The most recent reported strike occurred Thursday. According to the U.S. military, 26 fighters with the militant group al-Shabab were killed. Just days earlier, another strike killed 35. It is not known if any civilians were killed in those operations.

AMY GOODMAN: In addition to the air war, the Pentagon reportedly has about 500 U.S. troops on the ground in Somalia, including many special operations forces. For years, the U.S. has attempted to aid the Somali government by targeting members of al-Shabab, but the effort has increased dramatically under President Trump and has come with little congressional oversight or media.

We’re joined now by a reporter who has closely followed the story. Amanda Sperber is a freelance journalist who reports from Nairobi, Kenya, and Mogadishu, Somalia. Her new article for The Nation is headlined “Inside the Secretive US Air Campaign in Somalia.” The piece was reported in partnership with the Type Investigation.

Amanda Sperber, welcome back to Democracy Now!, this time in our New York studio.

AMANDA SPERBER: Very glad to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. So, can you explain what’s happening in Somalia right now?

AMANDA SPERBER: I mean, it’s difficult to completely know what’s happening in Somalia, because so much of the country is inaccessible because it’s controlled by the militant group Al-Shabab, that’s declared allegiance to al-Qaeda. But from my understanding, speaking to more than two dozen people displaced in the area where the U.S. is certainly on the record conducting airstrikes, civilians are being killed in the campaign that the U.S. is carrying out there. And that campaign has tripled under the Trump administration.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, there’s no acknowledgment by the United States of any civilians being killed. How were you able to access these particular people who had fled from the region that was under attack?

AMANDA SPERBER: Basically, I targeted two areas: Lower and Middle Shabelle, where the U.S., again, releases regular press releases of successful attacks. And a lot of those people, whose family members, friends have been killed, houses have been destroyed, are currently displaced right on the outskirts of Mogadishu. So I was able to speak to them pretty accessibly, just leveraging networks, not profit organizations and stuff, to sort of—I mean, it’s pretty easy to find people who have been impacted by American airstrikes. It’s kind of shocking.

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AMY GOODMAN: You write that AFRICOM’s policy under both the Obama and Trump administrations has been to only publicly acknowledge U.S. airstrikes either through a press release or a policy called “responses to questions.” Under the policy, AFRICOM will only verify a mission if they’re asked about a specific date. One of the people that you spoke with was John Manley, the Africa Command’s media relations chief, who said, quote, “We acknowledge whatever we’ve done. If we say, ‘No, it did not happen,’ then no, it did not happen from US AFRICOM.” Amanda, what does that mean?

AMANDA SPERBER: It means that AFRICOM’s claim—and this is something by which I have no reason to dispute—is that they, under no circumstances, would not lie—i.e., if I say, “Did you conduct a strike on XYZ date?” they would not, under any circumstances, say they did not. However, under the RTQ policy, if I say, “Did you conduct a strike on April 13th?” and it was conducted on April 14th, they would be able to say, with good conscience, “No, we did not.” And then, the other thing is, that also doesn’t take into account either—I mean, that doesn’t even take into account like time zones. So, you know, you could be talking about a 5-hour difference. So there’s so many technicalities that could come into play with that. That also doesn’t take into account covert or classified operations, nor does it take into account the fact that, under Trump, the CIA is allowed to conduct airstrikes independently of AFRICOM. This was reported by The Wall Street Journal in March 2017.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So, in other words, in addition to whatever strikes maybe have been conducted and acknowledged by the U.S. military, there could be many other strikes that have occurred that have not been reported at all.

AMANDA SPERBER: Exactly. And I came across strikes that were unaccounted for, both from leaked internal security reports from NGOs, that noted, you know, a strike happening in a certain place; I also came upon strikes that I would RTQ—responses to queries—a date. They would acknowledge they conducted a strike on that date, and yet it would not match with an internal report, meaning that they were—I was finding a strike that happened in one location on, again, say, April 13th; they would say, “Yes, we did conduct a strike on April 13th; and then, when pushed on the locations, an NGO is saying one place, and AFRICOM is saying, “Oh, yeah, we did do that strike, but it happened somewhere else.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But now, let me ask you—this ramping up of the strikes has occurred during the Trump administration, but there’s also been a new president, as well, in Somalia, as well.

AMANDA SPERBER: Yes.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk about the internal dynamics there, in terms of how these—the impact these strikes are having, in general, in the country?

AMANDA SPERBER: Sure. So, the Somali president, the current president of Somalia, who took office one month after Trump took office, in February 2017, is also Somali-American. I believe he worked for the U.S. government in Albany or Buffalo, upstate New York, before coming back to Somalia. And he spent decades in America. This is something that, I think, concerns a lot of Somalis, including, indeed, his former close advisers, that he sort of is especially willing to basically cede ground to the Americans—i.e. if they’re in a meeting and the military or the CIA says, “We want to do this,” he is very likely to just sort of say, “OK, yeah, if that’s what you want.” I mean, on top of that, the Somali government is still quite fragile. And, you know, it’s just lacking, unfortunately, kind of necessarily—the Ministry of Defense and stuff—the same kind of expertise that the U.S. might be coming in with, such that, in meetings, the dynamic is going to necessarily kind of be uncomfortably skewed so that people on the Somali side are more likely to just say, “OK, if that works for you, and you say you can get al-Shabab, sure. Thank you.”

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about a statement issued on June 1st by the United States Africa Command, or AFRICOM. The statement came after a U.S. airstrike in Bariire, a village outside Mogadishu. In it, you interviewed a woman who had been injured in the strike, who said she saw three young boys die in the explosion. AFRICOM’s statement on the strike reads, “In coordination with the Federal Government of Somalia, U.S. Forces conducted an airstrike targeting al-Shabaab militants approximately 30 miles southwest of Mogadishu, Somalia, on May 31, killing twelve (12) terrorists. We currently assess no civilians were killed in this airstrike.” So, this seems to be a perfect example of what you’re finding on the ground on a regular basis. And if news organizations report at all on what’s happening in Somalia, they say—they repeat that language, “killing the terrorists” or “killing al-Shabab.” Tell us about this woman.

AMANDA SPERBER: So, for example, this is the kind of situation where—I mean, this woman is a Somali nomad, so she doesn’t necessarily have an exact Western calendar. But the way she described the strike was, the dates that she approximated and the location that she approximated made it extremely, extremely likely that what she was talking about, I mean, matched almost entirely with what AFRICOM was describing. And then, in terms of those three kids, to me, what could have happened—and I guess I should also note, I spoke to her one month, and then I spoke to her twice more, weeks apart. And every single time her story was the same. I think that’s something that also comes up a lot, is people will say the allegations aren’t credible. But down to the names and ages, everything she said matched. And I don’t think this woman is sitting in a displacement camp like trying to remember. So, basically, what I think could have happened in a situation like that is either AFRICOM doesn’t have a correct count of who they killed, or they’re just counting everybody as, quote-unquote, “terrorists,” or they just don’t know, so it’s hard to say.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you—there are approximately 500 American troops on the ground in Somalia. What kind of authorization do they have to be there?

AMANDA SPERBER: I mean, that, I can’t really speak to. I would say that the Somali Ministry of Defense and the Pentagon would have, presumably, worked out—worked that out.

AMY GOODMAN: And the overall—as we begin to wrap up, the significance of the CIA being involved in these airstrikes, outside of AFRICOM, why this remains so secretive, this amped-up air war?

AMANDA SPERBER: Sorry. Can you repeat the question?

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance of the CIA bombing Somalia?

AMANDA SPERBER: I mean, just to be clear, we don’t know that the CIA is conducting airstrikes in Somalia. All I can say is that it’s—the CIA could be operating anywhere, and it seems, given that there are these holes both from international NGOs and from people displaced by U.S. airstrikes, that there’s a possibility that there’s more than one American actor operating in the area.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much for being with us. And welcome back to the United States, as you cover Somalia from Somalia and also Kenya. Amanda Sperber, freelance journalist, splitting her time between Nairobi and Mogadishu. Her piece, we’ll link to, in The Nation is headlined “Inside the Secretive US Air Campaign in Somalia.”

RELATED

“Inside the Secretive US Air Campaign in Somalia” The Nation

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Amanda Sperber is a freelance journalist who reports from Nairobi, Kenya, and Mogadishu, Somalia. Her new piece for The Nation is titled “Inside the Secretive US Air Campaign in Somalia.”

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