Amnesty Reports

The Hidden US War In Somalia

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The Hidden US War In Somalia

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Report 2015/16

The state of the world’s human rights


Executive Summary

Since April 2017, the United States of America (USA) has dramatically increased the number of air strikes – from manned aircraft and unmanned drones – it has launched in Somalia, tripling the annual rate of attacks and, in 2018, outpacing US strikes in Libya and Yemen combined. Despite this escalation, the US government claims that it has not killed any civilians in Somalia during this period. In this report, Amnesty International provides credible evidence to the contrary. The report investigates five incidents in Lower Shabelle, Somalia, in which 14 civilians were killed and eight injured. It provides credible evidence that US air strikes were responsible for four of these incidents and that the fifth was most plausibly caused by a US air strike. In the incidents presented in this report, civilians were killed and injured in attacks that may have violated international humanitarian law (IHL) and could, in some cases, constitute war crimes. The seriousness of the allegations underscores the need for the USA and Somalia to conduct urgent and transparent investigations.

The conflict in Somalia between Somali government forces and Al-Shabaab, an armed group which controls significant territory in the country, is a non-international armed conflict (NIAC) under international law. Amnesty International considers the USA to be a party to this NIAC. Since at least 2016 it has claimed that its military operations are conducted at the request of the Government of Somalia, under the right of collective self-defense. However, when asked by Amnesty International, US Africa Command (AFRICOM) refused to confirm or deny whether the US is at war in Somalia. This refusal is consistent with testimony given by General Thomas D. Waldhauser, the commander of AFRICOM, to Congress in March 2018, when he was asked if the USA was at war in Somalia and responded, “I wouldn’t characterize that we’re at war. It’s specifically designed for us not to own that.”

In 2011, the USA launched its first drone strike in Somalia against Al-Shabaab, which controls large swathes of south-central Somalia, including of the Lower Shabelle region which surrounds the capital, Mogadishu. Between 2011 and March 2017, air strikes were infrequent. American airpower was originally used only to target “high value targets” (HVT, i.e. known ‘terrorists’ who the administration argued posed a threat to the USA) and were justified initially as part for the global war on Al-Qa’ida and associated forces, and then,


This report investigates five incidents in Lower Shabelle, Somalia, between April 2017 and December 2018 where civilians allegedly were killed by US air strikes. The report draws on significant first-hand testimony from witnesses and survivors from each of the five strikes. The report also draws on several other types of evidence including analysis of satellite imagery and data, photographic material, interviews with medical personnel and other experts, and an open-source investigation including an analysis of traditional and social media, academic articles, and reports from NGOs and international bodies.

The research for this report took place in an environment that was extraordinarily hostile to human rights research. Security concerns and access restrictions prevented Amnesty International from conducting on-site investigations and severely limited the organization’s ability to freely gather testimonial and physical evidence.

The strikes all took place in areas controlled by Al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab severely restricts national and international human rights investigators and journalists operating in areas under its control, and civilians living in its territory are forbidden from speaking freely with investigators and journalists. Moreover, the group monitors and restricts the movements of civilians, especially in and out of its territory. Al-Shabaab bans all smartphones that have the capability to take photographs, record audio, or access the internet in areas under their control. According to people from Al-Shabaab territory interviewed for this report, the penalty for violating these rules can be severe and even fatal, especially in cases where Al-Shabaab believes the individual to be spying.

Given the lack of access and the serious risks facing civilians who attempt to share information, researchers investigating the impact of the conflict on the population in Al-Shabaab-controlled territory face numerous impediments. To overcome access restrictions and to minimize the risks to Amnesty International staff, interviewees and their communities, the research for this report was conducted from government-controlled areas in-person in Somalia and remotely, from outside of Somalia.

In addition to the risks associated with Al-Shabaab, mobile communications within and from Al-Shabaab territories are reportedly monitored by the US and Somali governments. Information from these communications can be used to direct attacks inside Al-Shabaab territory. To reduce the likelihood of being monitored by Al-Shabaab or by the US and Somali governments, all interviews took place in-person or over encrypted voice calls from phones outside of Al-Shabaab territory.


A former Italian colony and British protectorate, the Federal Republic of Somalia was formed in 1960 and lies on the eastern horn of Africa, sharing borders with Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti. Somalia is currently composed of five Federal Member States: Jubaland, South West, Galmudug, Hirshabelle and Puntland. Puntland, in north eastern Somalia, declared itself a semi-autonomous state in 1998, but recognizes its status as a constituent part of Somalia. Somaliland, an area in north-western Somalia, declared independence from Somalia in 1991; however, its independence has not been formally recognized by any country.

The Lower Shabelle region, the focus of this report, forms part of the South West state. It sits to the west, southwest and northwest of the capital, Mogadishu, and is home to around one million people, most of whom live in rural areas. The region is home to many nomadic and semi-nomadic people, as well as many who are sedentary. Much of the population lives on the banks of the Shabelle River, which serves as an important source of livelihood, providing water for livestock and the irrigation of farms. More than 100,000 people are currently internally displaced in the region due to drought, flooding and conflict.

Lower Shabelle is the gateway to Mogadishu and is a very fertile region making it one of the most strategic regions in Somalia. Since the collapse of the Somali government in 1991, the region has been characterized by inter-clan conflict over land ownership and political power. Since 2012, AMISOM alongside Somali government forces have taken over key towns from Al-Shabaab which had controlled the region since 2008. Due to these shifting political dynamics and the introduction of the federal system in Somalia in 2012, powerful clan militias started fighting to control the region and its resources, their alliances shifting frequently between the government and Al-Shabaab depending on who controlled their territory and who they thought would advance their interests at a given time; Somali government forces, AMISOM and Al-Shabaab have therefore also all fought against clan militias which they had previously supported. Al-Shabaab fighters