Up to four civilians, including one child and one woman, were killed along with up to five al Shabaab fighters as a US airstrike struck El Burr, Galmudug, international media reported. Following a year of denials, US Africa Command admitted in April 2019 that civilians had in fact died in the event – and that the US Congress had been misled.
The event marked the first time in twelve years of military actions in Somalia that AFRICOM had publicly conceded civilian harm.
US Africa Command’s initial statement asserted that “U.S. Forces conducted an airstrike against Al-Shabaab militants near El Burr, Somalia, the afternoon of April 1, killing five (5) terrorists and destroying one (1) vehicle. We assess no civilians were killed in this airstrike.”
However, civilian harm allegations were later confirmed by US Africa Command following sharp questioning by Congress, and a major report by Amnesty International alleging civilian harm from US actions in Somalia. Its Director of Operations told reporters in 2019 that elements of AFRICOM had in fact known of the civilian harm for a year: “The command received an allegation of civilian casualties at the time, but determined that it was not credible.
“About a week later, an ‘AFRICOM subordinate unit conducting counterterrorism operation in Somalia’ received new information, Olson said, which prompted the team to open up its investigation. That investigation concluded that the strike 12 months ago had actually killed the woman and child along with four al-Shabab militants. AFRICOM said it was only informed of the new information, investigation, and discovery of civilian casualties last week, after the commander of AFRICOM, Marine General Thomas Waldhauser, launched an audit of all U.S. airstrikes in Somalia since 2017.”
As Defense Post noted: “The error was compounded when senior leaders said during congressional testimony that U.S. forces had caused zero civilian casualties in Africa. Africom commander General Thomas D. Waldhauser had ordered a review of airstrikes conducted in Somalia since 2017 “due to a recent increase in airstrikes and continued interest by Amnesty International and Congress on civilian casualties,” the release said.”
AFRICOM issued a public statement on April 5th 2019 which said: “On March 30, 2019, the command was notified about the results of a post-strike internal assessment conducted in April 2018 that found credible evidence of the two civilian casualties. Unfortunately, the finding was not properly reported to U.S. Africa Command headquarters.
“Because of the reporting error, U.S. Africa Command was not informed of the assessment’s conclusion-and subsequently the information was not reported to external authorities, such as the host nation and Congress. Consequently, on April 2, 2018, U.S. Africa Command stated in a press release based on an initial post-strike intelligence review the strike killed five al-Shabaab terrorists, and that the command assessed “no civilians were killed in this airstrike.” Unaware of the subsequent assessment and findings, senior leaders later stated during congressional testimony and media engagements that U.S. forces caused zero civilian casualties in Africa. U.S. Africa Command is committed to transparency in its reporting of civilian casualties. While believed to be an isolated occurrence, the reporting error is being addressed.”
Reporting at the time of the incident had included some mention of civilian casualties.
An al Shabaab statement reported by local media said two prominent local elders, Ali Hared and Yusuf Dhegay, were killed. VOA described Dhegay as a poet, but that “[Somali] Government officials said Dhegey used his poems to incite violence and help al-Shabab recruit.”
All Africa also reported the death of a woman, but it was unclear if she had been included in the al Shabaab statement. The news site however said the strike took place on April 2nd, not April 1st.
The New Arab said that pro-al Shabaab media outlets reported two civilian deaths, referencing senior commanders of the group. Sources in the area also told All Africa that a drone fired a missile which hit a convoy carrying civilians, but no additional details were given.
Two Somali intelligence officials meanwhile told AP that the strike hit a vehicle carrying senior al Shabaab officials and that the dead included a woman.
After reaching out for clarification, US Africa Command confirmed to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in 2019 that a woman and a child were killed in the strike, as was initially reported by the BBC.
The strike, according to All Africa, took place in Da’ar, an al Shabaab controlled area around 20 kilometres from El Burr. El Burr is in the semi-autonomous region of Galmudug. In a subsequent FOIA response obtained by journalist Joshua Eaton in May 2019, AFRICOM again confirmed it had struck on this date what it says were “al Shabaab Fighters”, in the vicinity of El Burr, Somalia.
The incident occured in the afternoon.