MOGADISHU—A rise in U.S. airstrikes on parts of Somalia over the past two years has prompted increasing numbers of civilians to flee their homes and exacerbated a humanitarian crisis fueled by years of war and extreme weather.
Some 450,000 people have been displaced from al-Shabab strongholds in the Lower and Middle Shabelle regions that frame Mogadishu, the coastal capital, where the United States is responsible for air operations, according to nongovernmental organizations and United Nations agencies that operate in the area—with a noted increase in the numbers since 2017.
Overall 320,000 Somalis fled conflict and insecurity (an umbrella term that includes airstrikes) in 2018, the highest in four years, according to recently released figures from the U.N.’s Protection and Return Monitoring Network. The U.N. and aid agencies do not differentiate between airstrikes and other violent incidents when calculating displacement figures.
The U.S. Africa Command has been conducting airstrikes in Somalia since 2007, targeting the al Qaeda cell al-Shabab—Africa’s most effective fundamentalist group—which is fighting the internationally supported federal government. During Donald Trump’s presidency, the U.S. strikes have tripled, according to public figures confirmed by the Department of Defense.
Across the country, more than 2 million people have been displaced by violence that has lasted more than two decades.
Al-Shabab is said to be responsible for a 2017 attack that killed between 500 and 1,000 people at a busy traffic junction in Mogadishu, and, more recently, the deaths of at least 21 people at a hotel in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. It controls swaths of the Somali countryside, and has infiltrated Mogadishu, where it regularly carries out bombings in government buildings, crowded restaurants, and hotels. The group regularly claims responsibility for assassinating civil servants.
U.S. military officials maintain that no civilians have been killed in the airstrikes over the past 12 years, but Somalis say that is not the case.
Faduma Hassan Mohamed, who lived in Basra in Somalia’s Lower Shabelle state, told Foreign Policy that 10 of her relatives were killed in airstrikes during fighting between al-Shabab and government forces in August 2018. She fled to one of the about 1,000 displacement camps lining the outskirts of the capital.
Humanitarian agencies say the airstrikes have also wrecked homes and killed livestock, contributing to the displacement.
“People think precision bombing means a sanitized war. The reality is very different,” said Lina Khatib, the head of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House, which has tracked displacement caused by strikes in Syria.
Geno Teofilo, a spokesperson for the Norwegian Refugee Council, said he worries the situation for Somalis would only get worse in the coming months.
“As conflict and airstrikes have sharply risen over the past year, so has the number of families forced to flee their homes. … Somalis have already endured this crisis for far too long,” he said.
Col. Christopher Karns, the director of public affairs at U.S. Africa Command, told FP it is outside of Africom’s remit to mitigate displacement.
In March 2017, the New York Times reported that Trump signed a directive designating swaths of Somalia as “active hostilities” areas for at least 180 days. The declaration permitted U.S. forces to target anyone deemed to be affiliated with al-Shabab, whether or not they posed a direct threat to the United States. According to the report, decisions could be made with less interagency vetting. This move purportedly gave Africom greater autonomy and flexibility to attack al-Shabab quickly, which top officers had been requesting.
That same month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Trump had given the CIA permission to launch its own drone strikes. Previously the agency had gathered intelligence and shared it with the military, which conducted the actual strike. It is not known if the CIA has its own air program in Somalia.
The Pentagon reported conducting 45 so-called precision strikes in Somalia in 2018, an increase from 14 in 2016 and 35 in 2017. In 2019, Africom has announced more than a dozen strikes on its website.
But even as the strikes have increased, al-Shabab appears to be undeterred. Research published by the Mogadishu-based Hiraal Institute in November found that the bombardments have forced the fundamentalists to change tactics but have not made the group less of a threat. The group has gone largely underground and stepped up attacks on government properties.
“The explosives department of AS [al-Shabab] went into overdrive in the third quarter,” the report says, “carrying out 136% more bombings than the second quarter.”
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee last month, Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, who heads Africom, conceded that it was not clear how much impact the airstrikes were having on the group. “At the end of the day, these strikes are not going to defeat al-Shabab.”
Karns, the Africom public affairs director, told FP that while the bombardments alone would not defeat al-Shabab, they definitely weaken the group: “Strikes against al-Shabab support Somali security force kinetic activities and build enhanced security conditions to allow time and space for government and economic development to occur.”
*Amanda Sperber was in Somalia in partnership with Type Investigations and the Nation.