The US Military Ignores and Neglects the Civilian Victims of Its Air Strikes

The US Military Ignores and Neglects the Civilian Victims of Its Air Strikes

February 2, 2024

The United States can find time to issue orders for new air strikes but not to issue apologies for past errant attacks.

Children play on American military helicopter wreckage in Mogadishu, Somalia. (Scott Peterson / Getty Images)
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In war, people die for absurd reasons or often no reason at all. They die due to accidents of birth, the misfortune of being born in the wrong place—Cambodia or Gaza, Afghanistan or Ukraine—at the wrong time. They die due to happenstance, choosing to shelter indoors when they should have taken cover outside or because they ventured out into a hell-storm of destruction when they should have stayed put. They die in the most gruesome ways—shot in the street, obliterated by artillery, eviscerated by air strikes. Their bodies are torn apart, burned, or vaporized by weapons designed to destroy people. Their deaths are chalked up to misfortune, mistake, or military necessity.

Since September 2001, the United States has been fighting its “War on Terror”—what’s now referred to as this country’s “Forever Wars.” It’s been involved in Somalia almost that entire time. US Special Operations forces were first dispatched there in 2002, followed over the years by more “security assistance,” troops, contractors, helicopters, and drones. American airstrikes in Somalia, which began under President George W. Bush in 2007, have continued under Presidents Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden as part of a conflict that has smoldered and flared for more than two decades. In that time, the United States has launched 282 attacks, including 31 declared strikes under Biden. The US admits it has killed five civilians in its attacks. The UK-based air strike monitoring group Airwars says the number is as much as 3,100 percent higher.

On April 1, 2018, Luul Dahir Mohamed, a 22-year-old woman, and her 4-year-old daughter. Mariam Shilow Muse. were added to that civilian death toll when they were killed in a US drone strike in El Buur, Somalia.

Luul and Mariam were civilians. They died due to a whirlwind of misfortune—a confluence of bad luck and bad policies, none of it their fault, all of it beyond their control. They died, in part, because the United States is fighting the Somali terror group al-Shabaab even though Congress has never declared such a war and the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force on which the justification for the conflict rests predates the group’s existence. They died because Somalia has limited options when it comes to rural public transport and they caught a ride with the wrong people. They died because the United States claims that its brand of drone warfare is predicated on precision strikes with little collateral damage despite independent evidence clearly demonstrating otherwise.

In this case, members of the American strike cell that conducted the attack got almost everything wrong. They bickered about even basic information like how many people were in the pickup truck they attacked. They mistook a woman for a man and they never saw the young girl at all. They didn’t know what they were looking at, but they nonetheless launched a Hellfire missile that hit the truck as it motored down a dirt road.

Even after all of that, Luul and Mariam might have survived. Following the strike, the Americans—watching live footage from the drone hovering over the scene—saw someone bolt from the vehicle and begin running for her life. At that moment, they could have paused and reevaluated the situation. They could have taken one more hard look and, in the process, let a mother and child live. Instead, they launched a second missile.

Current Issue

What Luul’s brother, Qasim Dahir Mohamed—the first person on the scene—found was horrific. Luul’s left leg was mutilated, and the top of her head was gone. She died clutching Mariam whose tiny body looked, he said, “like a sieve.”

In 2019, the US military admitted that it had killed a civilian woman and child in that April 1, 2018, drone strike. But when, while reporting for The Intercept, I met Luul’s relatives last year in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, they were still waiting for the Pentagon to contact them about an apology and compensation. I had obtained a copy of the internal US military investigation which the family had never seen. It did acknowledge the deaths of a woman and child but concluded that their identities might never be known.

Expendable People
The Pentagon’s inquiry found that the Americans who carried out the strike were both inexperienced and confused. Despite that, the investigation by the very unit that conducted the attack determined that standard operating procedures and the rules of engagement were followed. No one was judged negligent, much less criminally liable, nor would anyone be held accountable for the deaths. The message was clear: Luul and Mariam were expendable people.

“In over five years of trying to get justice, no one has ever responded to us,” another of Luul’s brothers, Abubakar Dahir Mohamed, wrote in a December 2023 op-ed for the award-winning African newspaper The Continent. He continued:

When I found out later that the US admitted that they killed civilians in the attack, I contacted them again, telling them that the victims were my family members. I am not sure if they even read my complaint.

In June 2020, [US Africa Command] added a civilian casualties reporting page to their website for the first time. I was very happy to see this. I thought there was finally a way to make a complaint that would be listened to. I submitted a description of what happened and waited. No one got back to me. Two years later, in desperation, I submitted a complaint again. Nobody responded. I now know that the US military has admitted not only to killing Luul and Mariam, but doing so even after they survived the first strike. It killed them as Luul fled the car they targeted—running for her life, carrying Mariam in her arms. The US has said this in its reports, and individual officers have spoken to journalists. But it has never said this to us. No one has contacted us at all.

Late last month, a coalition of 24 human rights organizations called on Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to make amends to Luul and Mariam’s family. The 14 Somali groups and 10 international nongovernmental organizations devoted to the protection of civilians urged Austin to take action to provide the family with an explanation, an apology, and compensation.

“The undersigned Somali and international human rights and protection of civilians organizations write to request that you take immediate steps to address the requests of families whose loved ones were killed or injured by US airstrikes in Somalia,” reads the letter. “New reporting illustrates how, in multiple cases of civilian harm in Somalia confirmed by the US government, civilian victims, survivors, and their families have yet to receive answers, acknowledgment, and amends despite their sustained efforts to reach authorities over several years.”

Days later, the Pentagon unveiled its long-awaited “Instruction on Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response,” which clarified “the Department’s enduring policies,  » …
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