As the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, US airstrikes in Somalia reached an all-time high this month. Having conducted more strikes in the last four months than it did under the Obama administration in 8 years, US Africa Command (AFRICOM) has been ramping up its air military campaign in the east African country particularly since President Donald Trump took office.
The United States’ all-time record this year came even as the UN Secretary-General António Guterres repeatedly called for a global ceasefire amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There should be only one fight in our world today, our shared battle against COVID-19,” Guterres said in early April. “We must mobilize every ounce of energy to defeat it.”
A Four-Month Record
As of April 25, 390 people have already tested positive for COVID-19 in Somalia. In the meantime America’s decades-long military campaign against the al-Shabbab group in the country saw a distinct escalation this year. Since January, AFRICOM recorded 39 airstrikes. Last year, it declared a total of 63 airstrikes, the most recorded in a single year. This was up from the previous record of 47 in 2018.
AFRICOM has led the most strikes under Trump, with 184 since his election, adding to Obama’s 48 in 8 years and Bush’s 12 in two years since 2007, the year the United States initiated its war on terrorism campaign in Somalia.
The command’s increase in airstrikes started in March 2017, after President Trump relaxed some of the rules that were designed to lessen casualties among Somali civilians, giving more targeting and striking authority to the command.
Trump’s Different Approach
The rules that Trump relaxed were initiated under the Obama administration as the Presidential Policy Guidance, which required an inter-agency coordination prior to taking action with prerequisites such as that the target must pose a threat to Americans and that the airstrike is certain not to kill civilian bystanders.
As a result, under Trump, the number of deaths among civilians rose along with the number of airstrikes.
When civilian casualties were reported, the command often denied killing civilians or blurred the lines between civilians and fighters, arguing that al-Shabab militants have immense ability to blend into society and that those reports did not “always match facts and reality,” since, according to its rationale, anybody could be an al-Shabbab fighter.
Civilians Become Easy Targets
Under Trump’s new guidelines, an inter-agency vetting was no longer necessary, which gave further authority to commanders to strike even individuals merely thought to be part of al-Shabab group. Trump’s modified guidelines also permitted the death of civilian bystanders in a strike if deemed necessary.
Shortly after his election, Trump had also made a similar decision granting more power to commanders in Yemen, where tens of thousands of civilians have died.
Though civilian casualties are hard to track in Somalia, thousands were also reported to have died due to the U.S. military campaign, according to numerous monitoring groups and right groups such as Amnesty International. Some reports were rebuked by the U.S. military as “false propaganda” in favor of al-Shabbab, which has been a sworn U.S. enemy since it pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2012.
A Key Strategic Location
Occupying a key strategic location in the Horn of Africa, Somalia also neighbors U.S. allies in the Gulf and Yemen, a country that has been devastated by years of war and famine. Having faced civil war and droughts over the years, Somalia also saw a humanitarian crisis as a number of its citizens were displaced amid the U.S. war on al-Shabbab.
Somalia is where the United States is militarily engaged the most in Africa and – due to current global circumstances – is now also its number one worldwide military hotspot.