Up to four civilians were killed in a US strike in the Lower Shabelle region, international media and investigating NGOs reported from the ground, though US Africa Command claimed that the strike had only killed three “terrorists.” It later again officially denied causing any civilian casualties.
Initially, allegations of civilian harm came from a Reuters journalist who spoke to a relative of someone who reportedly died in Laanta Buuro.
Abdiqadir Nur, an employee of the telecommunications company Hormuud Telecom died alongside three others at what was initially described as 04:30 local time as they drove through the village of Laanta Buuro, Reuters reported.
A later investigation published in Foreign Policy by freelance journalist Amanda Sperber, suggests that at least one of those killed – and possibly two others – had no connection to terrorism.
“Ibrahim Hirei had been driving back to Mogadishu with two friends on March 18 when his car was hit in an American airstrike. Hirei, who had spent the day in the village of Muuri inspecting his family’s farm, was killed, along with a second man in the car. The third passenger died later in the hospital,” Sperber reported.
“My innocent brother became a victim of that airstrike. Now we are struggling to manage the life of the family left behind,” Hirei’s older brother, Ahmed Hassan Hirei, told Foreign Policy in a text message.
US Africa Command said in their initial press release issued the day after the event that they were aware of reports that alleged civilian harm as a result of this strike. They noted: “As with any allegation of civilian casualties we receive, U.S. Africa Command will review any information it has about the incident, including any relevant information provided by third parties.”
In September 2019, Amnesty International issued an extensive report on the case, having interviewed eleven witnesses, and insisting that the three victims of the attack “were in fact civilian farmers with no evidence of links to the armed group [al Shabaab].”
“On 18 March 2019, Abdiqadir and Mahad Nur Ibrahim and Ibrahim Mohamed Hirey were travelling towards the hamlet of Abdow Dibile from the village of Muuri, Lower Shabelle, in a white Toyota Surf SUV. They had been visiting their farms near Muuri that day, as they often would, and were returning from the farms to their respective homes in Mogadishu, Leego and Yaaq Bariwayne. Between 3 and 4pm, when the vehicle was approximately 750m north of Abdow Dibile, it was hit and destroyed by a munition launched by a US aircraft.
“A friend of Abdiqadir Nur Ibrahim, living in Mogadishu, told Amnesty International that he learned on the night of the attack of his death from a relative of Abdiqadir Nur Ibrahim. Early the following morning, the friend left Mogadishu and travelled to Abdow Dibile. At around 8am he arrived in the hamlet where he found Mahad Nur Ibrahim, badly burnt but alive, inside a vehicle bound for hospital. Amnesty International also viewed photographs of these injuries.
[Before his death almost three weeks later,] Mahad Nur Ibrahim told his friend that the three men had been travelling from their farms near Muuri, when their car was struck.
“Shortly after they spoke, Mahad Nur Ibrahim was driven to Digfeer hospital in Mogadishu, approximately 30km away. “Mahad later succumbed to his injuries and died in a Mogadishu hospital,” the friend told Amnesty International. According to hospital records viewed by Amnesty International, Mahad Nur Ibrahim died on 6 April 2019. The records state that the cause of death was cardiac arrest, after suffering from sepsis and burns on more than 50% of his body.
“The friend described to Amnesty International what the scene of the attack looked like when he arrived, and how he identified the two victims whose bodies remained at the scene. On arrival, he found Ibrahim Mohamed Hirey’s body cut into pieces and lying near the wreckage, after local people had removed him from the back of the vehicle. Amnesty International reviewed photographs that appear to show Ibrahim’s burnt head and torso.
“The friend and relatives of Abdiqadir Nur Ibrahim and Ibrahim Mohamed Hirey buried the two men in Abdow Dibile on Tuesday 19 March. An elder in the Wadalaan Gorgaate clan and distant cousin of Abdiqadir and Mahad Nur Ibrahim explained that the families of the men received no support from the Somalia or US government after losing their loved ones.
“No one apologized or even asked us about their death. We came together as a family after their death, but we just could not give them any support. We left it to God. We don’t know what actually happened and why they were killed, maybe it was a mistake. We would like justice to be served and the families of the deceased supported.”
“Abdiqadir Nur Ibrahim was a father of eight. He owned electric generators supplying the village of Leego in Wanlaweyn district, Lower Shabelle, and farmed land near Muuri, in Afgoye district. He was also the head of Hormuud’s Leego office. Mahad Nur Ibrahim was a father of four. Ibrahim Mohamed Hirey was a father of seven. In addition to farming, he leased out farm equipment and ran a business transporting foodstuff between Mogadishu and Muuri. Ibrahim Mohamed Hirey previously lived with his family in Muuri, but they fled to Mogadishu five years ago due to the conflict between Biyamal and Habargidir clans.
“Amnesty International interviewed family members, neighbours, and colleagues of the victims, all of whom unequivocally stated that the men were not members of Al-Shabaab.
“All 11 people Amnesty International spoke to were adamant that the three men were civilians. “He was not Al-Shabaab” a relative of Mahad Nur Ibrahim explained. “He owned a truck and he transported charcoal to Mogadishu. Al-Shabaab banned charcoal business in Leego and Lower Shabelle so he was not doing much in the past two years. He wanted to invest in the farms with the help of his brother, but both were killed while coming back from the farms.”
“A Habargidir clan elder and relative of Ibrahim Mohamed Hirey was also clear on this point: “I can confirm before anyone that Ibrahim was a civilian and not an Al-Shabaab guy”. Another relative concurred: “He was a civilian, he was not member of Al-Shabaab. If he were Al-Shabaab we would not have run away from the Biyamal-Habargidir conflict. We were basically IDPs in Mogadishu with Ibrahim supporting us. I don’t know why he was targeted. It was a clear aggression.”
“According to a fellow employee at Hormuud who Amnesty International interviewed, as well as relatives, Abdiqadir Nur Ibrahim had worked for Hormuud for over a decade and was also not an Al-Shabaab member. Those who knew the men questioned why they had been killed. “I don’t know why [Abdiqadir’s] car was targeted but I think it was a mistake,” a friend said. “The three people who were killed in that car were farmers and not members of Al-Shabaab”.
“In addition to the testimonies, there is additional circumstantial evidence which indicates that the deceased were civilians. Al-Shabaab did not treat the three men as if they were members of the armed group. Families of the victims were not prevented from recovering the bodies and taking the injured to hospital. Testimony gathered throughout Amnesty International’s research in Somalia has consistently shown that Al-Shabaab will collect and bury their dead themselves, often before they permit civilians back into the area. Additionally, Mahad Nur Ibrahim was transported from Abdow Dibile to government-controlled Mogadishu, where he was treated at Digfeer hospital, a civilian facility, where it would have been relatively easy for Somalia government forces to question or arrest him.”
The identity of a possible fourth victim originally cited by Reuters has not been publicly determined. As of late 2019, Africom was still assessing the civilian harm allegations related to this event. US investigative journalist Nick Turse obtained via FOIA a declassified document listing recent locally-alleged civilian harm from US actions, which AFRICOM was reviewing. The third entry notes for the date March 18th 2019 that “[redacted source] posted an article alleging that a U.S. airstrike killed and wounded a number of civilians in a vehicle in the vicinity of Awdeegle… Outcome PENDING.”
In April 2020, AFRICOM overtly denied causing civilian harm in this event: “March 18, 2019, AFRICOM received two allegations from an online media source claiming between three to four (3-4) civilians were killed as a result of a U.S. airstrike in the vicinity of Afgooye, Somalia, on March 18, 2019. AFRICOM received three duplicate allegations of this incident on April 29, 2019, May 7, 2019, and August 29, 2019, from online media sources, and one duplicate allegation again on January 21, 2020, from a foreign non-government organization.
“After review, the allegations were assessed to be unsubstantiated. U.S. intelligence confirmed the identity of the individuals as al-Shabaab militants involved in logistics operations. The vehicle and occupants were observed in support of known al-Shabaab locations, and strike video indicates that the effects of the strike were limited to the vehicle. It is assessed with a high degree of confidence that no civilian casualties occurred as a result of U.S. military action.”
Given that all local sources as well as a major Amnesty field investigation determined that some or all of the victims were in fact non combatants, Airwars continues to grade this as a likely US civilian harm event.
In March 2022, AFRICOM released their 4th Quarter, 2021 Civilian Casualty Assessment Quarterly Report, which stated that “The Command has read Amnesty International’s investigation and does not contest or challenge that these individuals were farmers or worked for Hormuud. Through multiple methods, both prior to and following the strike, we have concluded they were al-Shahaab operatives. During this operation AFRICOM intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets followed a white SUV with one occupant that originated from an al-Shabaab controlled village. During the surveillance, ISR assets observed stops at three al-Shabaab checkpoints positively identified by al-Shabaab flags and activity consistent with al-Shabaab checkpoints. During stops at each checkpoint the initial occupant exited the vehicle, interacted with al-Shabaab members, and picked up two additional adult males who were also positively identified as al-Shabaab members. After driving through a fourth positively identified al-Shabaab checkpoint, U.S. forces maintained continuous surveillance of the vehicle until the strike. Multiple conflicting Somalia media reporting, and the statement from Hormuud Telecommunications stating that none of their employees were killed in a strike in this area, further diminishes the CIVCAS claim. U.S. ISR assets maintained continuous surveillance until completion of the strike mitigating the risk of collateral damage and civilian casualties.”
The incident occured at approximately 4:30 pm local time.