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“Frankly, I don’t think we know who we killed”

A drone strike in Somalia highlights how the US is increasingly pursuing a strategy of remote-control warfare.

A US drone strike which killed a senior al-Shabaab leader in Somalia a week ago appears to have been part of a change of tactics by the Americans since they started targeting the militant group in 2007. It was the fifth consecutive such strike against al-Shabaab’s leadership, with drones now appearing to have superseded other, manned aircraft and cruise missiles in the seven years since attacks began in Somalia.

Such unmanned systems are now widely seen as the US weapon of choice in its ‘war on terror’, as they can “strike their targets with astonishing precision”, according to John Brennan, director of the Central Intelligence Agency. But despite their vaunted precision, there are reports the latest strike in Somalia, on 31 January, killed or injured civilians.

Senior figure

The attack killed at least five people, all reportedly members of al-Shabaab and one identified as Yusef Dheeq, a senior figure. It reportedly hit an al-Shabaab convoy at about 9am local time.

The US admitted the attack. “This was done with Hellfire missiles fired from UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles],” the Pentagon press secretary, Rear Admiral John Kirby, subsequently told reporters. “There were no US boots on the ground.”

The Somali government and an unnamed US official both said Dheeq had been killed.

Kirby however told reporters: “He has not been officially declared dead. I’m not in a position now to confirm the results of the strike but if successful, if he no longer breathes, then this is a significant, another significant blow to al-Shabaab. It goes to show how long our reach can be when it comes to counter-terrorism.” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism understand the US will confirm Dheeq’s death in the coming days.

It is not clear exactly what role Dheeq played within al-Shabaab. Kirby said he was the group’s “intelligence and security chief, and director of external planning”. The Somali intelligence services said Dheeq—also known as Abdi Nur Mahdi—was a bomb-making expert.

At least four other people were reportedly killed with him—all described as al-Shabaab fighters. A local resident told Agence France Presse there had been four civilian casualties in the strike but it was not clear if they were injured or killed.

An official told the bureau the US was “looking into” reports of civilian casualties. But echoing Kirby he said that “we don’t assess there to be any civilian or bystander casualties as a result of the strike”.

This is the third consecutive drone strike in Somalia that has been publicly acknowledged by a US spokesman from a podium in the Pentagon press room. This is very rare.

The military is also responsible for some of the at least 88 drone strikes in Yemen but the US has never gone on the record about specific drone strikes there. The Pentagon would not be drawn on why there appeared to be greater transparency about strikes in Somalia, telling the bureau: “We are as transparent as we can be on all strikes, regardless of location.”

Departure

The recent glut of drone strikes in Somalia is a departure from how the US covert war began in the country in 2007. The first confirmed drone strike hit al-Shabaab in June 2011 and there have been eight such strikes since, killing at least 23 people.

Eight other confirmed US attacks, killing at least 40, have been recorded by the bureau. Two included cruise missiles launched from ships off the Somali coast. There was also one naval bombardment, when a US warship, the Chafee, used its deck gun on 1 June 2007 to fire shells on to the shoreline, supporting US commandos taking fire from al-Shabaab fighters.

Most of the other US attacks were by AC-130s—formidable gunships, resembling Hercules transport aircraft, which bristle with weapons. Five of the first six confirmed US attacks in Somalia reportedly involved AC-130s. They killed at least 30 people. There has not been a reported AC-130 attack since the end of 2008.

The first AC-130 strikes, on 7 and 9 January 2007, hit as Ethiopian ground forces invaded Somalia, reportedly with secret US backing. The targets of these strikes were reportedly suspects in the 1998 east African embassy bombings, who appeared to have been pushed out of their bases in Somalia by the advancing Ethiopian troops.

Considerable growth

The recent US reliance on drones to kill leading al-Shabaab fighters could stem from the considerable growth in its fleet of armed drones. The US Air Force had funding in the 2007 budget to run 37 Reaper drones from 2005 to 2011. By 2012, this had risen to 401 aircraft, according to a Pentagon inspector-general report released this year. This increase was in response to the US recognising how useful drones were in the counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency battles it was fighting around the world.

Angel of death: a US Reaper drone. Flickr / USAF. Some rights reserved.

The first strike in Somalia demonstrates how arming drones has helped the US fight its global ‘war on terror’. While the 7 January 2007 strike used an AC-130, the gunship was guided to its target by an unarmed Predator drone, which had been following the al-Shabaab convoy. The Predator is an older, smaller, less powerful and less well-armed version of the Reaper.

Its ability to stay aloft above the battlefield for hours on end helped it stay on the target. But the strike had to wait until the gunship could arrive. The US would have been able to fire at will at its target in this strike, if the drone were armed. However the strike would have been reportedly hamstrung by shaky intelligence, even if carried out using the Predator’s apparently surgical accuracy.

A Pentagon spokesperson said the US based the strike on intelligence “that led us to believe we had principal al-Qaeda leaders in an area where we could identify them and take action against them.” But another US official told the Washington Post: “Frankly, I don’t think we know who we killed.”

About the author

Jack Serle is an investigative reporter who has covered the US covert drone war for two and a half years for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.


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