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An investigation by Amnesty International has revealed that three men killed in a U.S. military air strike in March after being targeted as “Al-Shabaab terrorists” were in fact civilian farmers with no evidence of links to the armed group.

Disturbingly, the organization has also learned that, despite being informed in May of its flawed assessment of at least one of the men as a fighter, the U.S. military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) failed to contact his relatives to investigate further. Between them, the men left behind 19 children.

“It’s bad enough that the U.S. Africa Command appears not to know who its air strikes are actually killing and maiming in its secretive war in Somalia. But it’s reprehensible that AFRICOM offers no way for those affected to contact it and has failed to reach out to the families of victims after its version of events was called into question in this case,” said Abdullahi Hassan, Amnesty International’s Somalia Researcher.

“This is just one of many cases of the U.S. military wantonly tarnishing large parts of the Somali population with the ‘terrorist’ label. No thought is given to the civilian victims or the plight of their grieving families left behind.”

Air strike in Abdow Dibile

Between 3 pm and 4 pm on March 18, 2019, a U.S. air strike hit a Toyota Surf SUV near the hamlet of Abdow Dibile, around 5km from Afgoye in Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region. The three men traveling in the vehicle were farmers returning from their farms to their homes in Mogadishu and Leego and Yaaq Bariwayne in Lower Shabelle.

The impact destroyed the vehicle, instantly killing the driver, Abdiqadir Nur Ibrahim (46), and one passenger, Ibrahim Mohamed Hirey (30).

A man who was a close friend of Abdiqadir Nur Ibrahim visited the scene the next morning and described the aftermath: “Abdiqadir’s body was completely destroyed but I recognized… his face that was burnt…I also recognized his watch which was hanging from the front side of the car.” A woman who visited the scene told Amnesty International that Abdiqadir Nur Ibrahim and Ibrahim Mohamed Hirey “were both burnt beyond recognition and cut into pieces.”

A third man traveling in the vehicle, Abdiqadir’s half-brother, Mahad Nur Ibrahim (46), was very badly burnt and died in a hospital in Mogadishu almost three weeks later. Medical records seen by Amnesty International listed his cause of death as cardiac arrest after suffering sepsis and burns over more than 50% of his body. There is no evidence that AFRICOM attempted to engage with him before he died.

An AFRICOM press release on March 19 alleged the victims were “three terrorists,” without citing any evidence. It also stated AFRICOM “was aware of reports alleging civilian casualties,” and would review any relevant information about the incident.

However, in May, a journalist writing for Foreign Policy provided AFRICOM with evidence that Ibrahim Mohamed Hireywas a civilian and passed on contact information for his relatives. But to date AFRICOM has not reached out to them.

Amnesty International shared further information about the case with AFRICOM in August, but AFRICOM has refused to back down on its claim that the three men were “terrorists”, stating: “This airstrike was conducted against lower level al-Shabaab members to decrease morale ahead of Somali Army operations… Specifically, information gathered before and after the strike indicated that all individuals injured or killed were members or affiliates of al-Shabaab”. AFRICOM did not provide any evidence for its claim or indicate that it will be investigating further. It has not changed its position on any cases in Somalia that Amnesty International has brought to its attention to date.

Amnesty International interviewed 11 people – in person and remotely – about the March 18 strike, including family members, those who visited the scene, and staff at Hormuud Telecom, a company where one of the men also worked.

The organization also assessed media reports, U.S. government statements, vehicle purchase records, official IDs, medical records and videos and photographic evidence of the scene of the attack and injuries sustained by the victims.

Everyone the organization spoke to was adamant that none of the men was a member of Al-Shabaab. Also, Al-Shabaab did not prevent the relatives of those killed from collecting and burying their remains, which the armed group generally does when its own fighters are killed.

AFRICOM’s reporting on the strike and correspondence with Amnesty International raise serious questions about its intelligence-gathering and its targeting of what it claimed were “affiliates” of Al-Shabaab, which may have violated international humanitarian law.

At least two dozen civilians killed or injured

To date, Amnesty International has documented six cases where U.S. air strikes are believed to have resulted in civilian casualties – killing a total of 17 people and wounding eight.

On March 20 this year, the organization’s ground-breaking report, The Hidden US War in Somalia, published reams of evidence to counter AFRICOM’s repeated claims until then that its operations in Somalia had resulted in “zero civilian casualties”. Just over two weeks later, on April 5, AFRICOM admitted to its first-ever civilian casualties in Somalia, stating that Amnesty International’s work had prompted it to review its records. Six months later, AFRICOM has not shared any update on the status or outcome of that review.

U.S. air strikes in Somalia surged in early 2017, after President Trump signed an executive order declaring the south of the country an “area of active hostilities.” Since then, AFRICOM has used drones and manned aircraft to carry out at least 131 strikes in the country.

The attack in Abdow Dibile is one of 50 strikes the U.S. military has admitted to in Somalia so far this year (up to mid-September). This outstrips the 47 strikes in 2018, and the 34 strikes carried out in the last nine months of 2017.

“This is yet another crushing injustice – three civilian men died agonizing deaths while their families are left questioning why the U.S. military targeted and killed them. It is also potentially unlawful and raises questions about how seriously AFRICOM takes its obligations under international law,” said Daphne Eviatar, Amnesty International’s Director of Security with Human Rights.

“The U.S. government must ensure thorough, impartial investigations into all credible allegations of civilian casualties are carried out, with accountability for those responsible for violations and reparation made to the victims and survivors. It can start by establishing an accessible mechanism for Somalis to safely report civilian casualties of U.S. military operations.”

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