The U.S. military should make avoiding civilian casualties in Somalia “a top priority” after President Donald Trump signed a directive loosening restrictions on airstrikes in the country, Somalia’s former president tells Newsweek.
Trump approved a U.S. military request to provide “additional precision fires” targeting al-Shabab, an Islamist militant group with ties to al-Qaeda, according to a Pentagon statement on March 30. The presidential directive gives U.S. forces greater freedom to attack suspected militants but has raised concerns that more civilians could be mistakenly targeted.
Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who served as president of Somalia from 2012 until he was defeated in a landmark February election, says that avoiding civilian casualties is essential for the Trump administration in order to stop the directive from becoming a recruiting tool for al-Shabab.
“This is a war and there is always collateral effects, no one can make zero collateral effects in a battlefield,” Mohamud tells Newsweek. “[But] always the precaution of avoiding civilian casualties is a very, very top priority. Otherwise with civilian casualties, it will only make people more extreme.”
The United States has been active in Somalia since at least 2001. U.S. forces have carried out 37 confirmed attacks and multiple possible attacks in Somalia since 2007, killing more than 500 people, including up to around 50 civilians, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
Trump’s presidential directive designated part of Somalia as an “area of active hostilities,” a spokesperson for the U.S. military command for Africa (AFRICOM) tells Newsweek. Operations under the directive will not be bound by rules put in place by the Obama administration—known as the Presidential Policy Guidance—which required that counterterrorism strikes meet certain criteria, including targeting suspects that posed a threat to Americans and having a near-certainty that civilian bystanders would not be killed.
For example, in March 2016, the Pentagon confirmed it had bombed an al-Shabab training camp north of the Somali capital Mogadishu, killing more than 150 militants; the Pentagon said that the militants posed an “imminent threat” to both U.S. and African Union forces in Somalia.
Mohamud says that during his tenure, the civilian casualties caused by U.S. actions in Somalia was “very, very limited,” and that in 2015 and 2016, U.S. forces had participated in joint operations with elite units in the Somali National Army (SNA).
He says that President Trump and President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, the recently-elected Somali head of state, must keep lines of communication open and urges the U.S. military not to embark on missions without consulting its partners. “I’m hopeful that if the U.S. continues collaborating with the elite Somali forces, this [collateral] impact will be minimal. If they unilaterally do [missions] by themselves, they may make mistakes and fall into this kind of trap,” says Mohamud.
The AFRICOM spokesperson tells Newsweek: “U.S. military actions conducted under this authorization will not be unilateral.” The spokesperson adds that the U.S. will conduct the airstrikes “with the consent of the Federal Government of Somalia” and that “most importantly, these strikes will be planned and executed with great care to minimize the risk of harm to noncombatants.”
The U.S. deploys around 100 military personnel in Somalia, aimed at fighting al-Shabab and training African Union and Somali forces to do the same, the spokesperson adds.
Somalia has been racked by civil conflict since the early 1990s. The United States led a humanitarian intervention in the Horn of Africa country aimed at combating widespread food insecurity in the country. But it ended in disaster in 1993, when Somali militiamen shot down two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters and killed 18 American soldiers, a Malaysian soldier and a Pakistani soldier.
Al-Shabab—which means “the youth” in Arabic—emerged in the mid-2000s as an offshoot of the Islamic Courts Union, an Islamist group that controlled much of southern Somalia until 2006.
The group is opposed to the federal government of Somalia and has also launched attacks in neighboring countries—most notably Kenya, where al-Shabab militants killed at least 147 students and staff at a university in April 2015—that provide troops to the African Union’s military force in Somalia.
The radical Islamist group has also called for attacks upon U.S. interests and, in 2009, declared its formal allegiance to al-Qaeda, which claimed responsibility for the 9/11 attacks and is one of the key opponents in the U.S.-led war on terror.
U.S. policy in Somalia has hitherto been to take a background role, supporting and enabling Somali and African Union troops to take the fight to al-Shabab, according to Johnnie Carson, who led the State Department’s Africa bureau during the first Obama administration from 2009-2013. Trump’s directive pushes U.S. involvement in Somalia to the fore, Carson adds.
“It involves the United States in a greater role in Somalia, which runs the risk of backfiring on us,” according to Carson, now an Africa expert at the United States Institute of Peace. “The U.S. should be very careful and very cautious about changing the way it has done business militarily in Somalia.”
Somalia held limited elections in 2016 and 2017. Clan elders selected members of an electorate of around 14,000—Somalia’s total population is over 10 million—who then voted for MPs.
The parliamentarians, in turn, held a vote on the presidential candidates in February, in which Farmajo defeated Mohamud. The process was marred by allegations of corruption: Somalia’s auditor-general said that parliamentary seats had sold for upwards of $1 million in bribes, while a total of $20 million in illicit funds changed hands during the electoral process, according to the New York Times.
Mohamud was in office in 2013 when, for the first time in more than two decades, the U.S. recognized the government of Somalia. But according to J. Peter Pham, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, that recognition was based on a “flight of fancy.” The current Somalia administration, Pham says, is not legitimate based on the allegedly corrupt electoral process that brought it to office.
Trump’s directive on U.S. military action in Somalia is therefore “long overdue,” Pham adds, and the U.S. should be able to act unilaterally in Somalia should it be in its interests to do so. “In the absence of a [Somali] government with which one could coordinate and which could contribute to the common cause, one shouldn’t tie the hands of battlefield commanders as if such a partner existed,” says Pham