The US military acknowledged Friday that a drone strike in Somalia last year caused civilian casualties, the first time the US military has acknowledged civilian deaths during its air campaign in Somalia.
Two civilians were killed in the airstrike in April 2018, US Africa Command said in a statement. At the time of the strike, Africa Command had said that no civilians had died and that the strike had killed five Al Shabaab militants.
The airstrike was carried out against a vehicle containing an “Al Shabaab leadership target and his associates,” Maj. Gen. Gregg Olson, the director of operations for Africa Command, told reporters on a conference call on Friday.
“It was not known at the time that there was a woman and a child present,” Olson said.
The civilian casualties were identified following an internal review that was directed by the head of Africa Command, Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, which the Command said was “due to a recent increase in airstrikes and continued interest by Amnesty International and Congress on civilian casualties.”
Africa Command attributed the error to a “break down in reporting,” saying that “about a week after the strike occurred” new information came to light that led a subordinate US military organization involved in counterterrorism operations in Somalia to determine that the allegation was likely credible.
But “that information was not reported to US Africa Command,” Olson said, adding that the new information “did not come to light until this past weekend.”
He added that the review was still looking into what caused the communication breakdown between Africa Command and the subordinate unit.
There has been a significant increase in US airstrikes in Somalia since President Donald Trump authorized the military to carry out precision strikes targeting Al-Shabaab in March 2017. Prior to that, the US military was authorized to conduct airstrikes only in defense of advisers on the ground.
At least 250 fighters from the al Qaeda-affiliated Al-Shabaab have been killed in 28 airstrikes so far in 2019, according to figures released by US Africa Command. In 2018, the US conducted 47 airstrikes targeting Al-Shabaab. In 2017, the US carried out 35 airstrikes, and in 2016 it conducted 15.
Outside groups like Amnesty International had previously accused the US of killing civilians in Somalia though the US military rejected that allegation.
Friday’s Africa Command statement said that the airstrike “was not one of the allegations presented by Amnesty International in its March 2019 report.”
“Credibility, transparency, and accountability are fundamental to military operations,” Waldhauser said in the Friday statement.
“It is critically important that people understand we adhere to exacting standards and when we fall short, we acknowledge shortcomings and take appropriate action,” Waldhauser added.