Ep. 42: Escalating in Somalia
We look into why the U.S. military is escalating its air campaign against al-Shabaab, and what sort of challenges stand in the way of building up a Somali army that can fight Shabaab on its own.
This episode we’re going to look into why the U.S. military is escalating its air campaign in Somalia (at the 2:19 mark). We'll look into the larger strategy to which this is aimed (10:44). And (22:46) we'll ask if there are 21st-century lessons the U.S. military is learning from the same war-torn country that gave it “Blackhawk Down” almost 30 years ago.
We’ll hear from a professor who has been studying the Somali National Army for quite a while now (Dr. Paul Williams of George Washington University). We’ll hear from a former Air Force bomb disposal technician who now investigates alleged civilian casualties for the human rights group Amnesty International (Brian Castner). And we’ll speak to a Pentagon official (Michelle Lenihan) about the long list of challenges ahead not just in Somalia and the Horn of Africa, but also Nigeria, Mali, and throughout the wider continent. Special thanks this to Katie Bo Williams. // Music by Paul Mottram and Terry Devine-King via AudioNetwork.com
Find Dr. Williams' analysis of the Somali army here.
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(A transcript of this week's episode is below)
The country of Somalia began the 21st century with no central government. It’s a place that seemed to have taught America a hard lesson in interventions in a post-Cold war world. The start-point for that lesson can be quickly heard in this trailer for the 2002 film, “Blackhawk Down.”
The disastrous raid that movie depicted and the subsequent withdrawal of American troops from Somalia in 1993 is said to have emboldened al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. If local forces attack and kill enough American forces, the U.S. public will soon demand their troops come home — that, anyway, is one of the lessons of the U.S. military’s work inside Somalia before the attacks on 9/11.
But — as we’ll learn here shortly — it would take another five years before Somalia had anything like a central government. And even that was a hodgepodge of rebels, Islamist fighters, and forces from neighboring countries like Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia.
The remaining ensemble of that collection is what some thousand or so U.S. military forces are working with today in Somalia circa 2019.
It’s a perpetually volatile mixture, said Prof. Paul Williams of George Washington University. He just published a study of the Somali National Army which spans 10 or so years beginning in about 2008.
I wanted to ask Paul about his study because rather a lot for the entire region is riding on whether or not Somalia can maintain its own army. Those three countries mentioned above — Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia — are all deeply concerned about what happens in Somalia.
But maybe most importantly, with the fall of the ISIS caliphate in Syria and Iraq, Africa is taking on greater and greater importance for the U.S. military. As airstrikes have fallen across Iraq and Syria, they have increased in Somalia.
So what are the prospects for building a capable Somali army that can fight off a large deadly insurgency like al-Shabaab? To understand that, you’ve got to understand a little history, said the professor.
Williams: “You got to remember that back in nineteen late 1980s Somalia had a big civil war. And in early 1991 the central government actually collapsed as the different groups were squabbling over who was going to win the conflict and the spoils of victory, as it were. And so from that whole period from 1991 up till the early 2000s there was no central government in Somalia and so you couldn't by definition have a national army. The key event here, unfortunately, is that in late 2006, in December, Ethiopian soldiers — many thousands of them — brought the new transitional federal government in Somalia from Kenya where it had been created. Remember the government that is brought into Somalia was not created and home-grown locally. It was created by diaspora politicians and others in Kenya in the early 2000s. That is brought to Mogadishu in December 2006 on the back of an Ethiopian army, and next door neighbors Ethiopia run by a largely Christian bunch of political elites. That is the decisive event. That turns out al-Shabaab from a small group of militants to in effect a national resistance movement. So when the Ethiopian soldiers bring the Transitional Federal Government to Mogadishu, al-Shabaab starts a campaign to say we are now going to be your key point, right? Shabaab meaning the youth. So it appealed to the Somali youth to act as a local national resistance to kick out in this case the Ethiopian invaders, as they saw them. And it's at that point that al-Shabaab goes from being a small sort of extremist faction to being sort of the dominant military force in the national resistance as they as they saw it.”
And that hodgepodge state trying to build its own army?
Williams: "The first problem that you had to deal with was that there's a legacy of now two decades of a country without a state. So if you think of this like most Somalis now are quite a young population. They've been — after 1991, most young Somalis don't have any experience of living under a state. So what does that mean? You're missing a whole generation literally of soldiers. A generation or two decades’ worth missing of NCOs, junior officers — you know, the real glue of most armed forces are just not there. You've got a whole missing set of institutions and infrastructure. There are no barracks or garrisons; no institutions set up; there's no hospitals for the military.”
Watson: “It’s hard to keep morale up under those conditions.”
Williams: “Absolutely. This is — everything is missing that should be there. And also if you have a country that's collapsed for 20 years. When your government reemerges 20 years later, it's very weak. It's very fledgling, and so it can't actually deliver many services to its people. So that's the first problem with the history. And second with the historical background was what filled the gap. It was clans when the government collapsed in Somalia who provided security who provided jobs bit of education bit of healthcare and the like. It was mainly clans, and so Somalis tended to be in that period. Most are loyal and they gave their allegiance primarily to their clans or subclans or sub-subclan groups. And that meant that when you come to try and build an army in that context where people owe their loyalty and allegiance to clans rather than a thing called the state or a national government, you can see the problems, right? People that take up guns and provide you know they are pretty good fighters many of them; but they don't think of fighting first and foremost for a state or a country. They fight according to who their clan leaders or whoever is paying them will do that. So that’s the first problem of history. And then there's politics, right? There's some reasons why politics have made it very different to build a national army. Many of the political elites in Somalia don't actually want to build a professional national army, and that's for a couple of reasons, right? First of all, they don't all agree what the nation is. Somalia is a contested state in a contested nation. Local Somali politicians disagree on how they should govern this country and even where it is — if we got into debates about Somaliland and things like that. So because they don't agree on how they should be governed, there's no sort of agreement that we should be putting forces and fighters under a national command. But many of the local political elites wanted to maintain the status quo, which was focused on their local region and clan dynamics. And so until the Somali elites decided how to share power and how this national new nation was going to build a federal government system, we couldn't build a national army. And so that was the key sort of political challenge first and foremost. The second bit of politics here was that we didn't put enough focus on building institutions. We focused too much on providing what I would call this sort of standard train-and-equipment packages. We delivered weapons vehicles ammunition and the like. There's a lot of people with guns in south central Somalia. But they do not have loyalty and allegiance to a central state. Instead they're fractured in their loyalties to all sorts of different actors. But the other political problem is we focus too much on that train-and-equip and not enough on building the institutions you need to build an army. Now what I mean by that is armies need structures and institutions in which to develop. You need a thing called a national security architecture, right? That sets out your national vision of how military force and the armed forces are going to play a role. You need some type of strategic vision as well a national security strategy to tell you what you're going to try and do with your military force and military power. Somalia has none of these things. You need a framework of forces and structures of forces to understand how many battalions brigades or whatever you're going to need, right? So we have none of this set out at the time. You need a ministry of defense that's capable of sort of chaperoning and organizing all these things. But Somalia doesn't have that at the time. It's well it's got a minister of defense, but I mean it's not capacity to do it it's not staffed by many people. After that two decades of state collapse you can't just immediately create as pressure a professional civil service that focuses on defense issues.”
Sen. Warren: “Since declaring Somalia an area of active hostilities in March 2017—”
Here’s Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts speaking to Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, the White House’s pick to lead U.S. Africa Command. This was at a hearing before the Armed Services Committee just last week
Warren: “... The Trump Administration has significantly increased the number of air strikes against al-Shabaab militants compared with those carried out under the Obama Administration. In 2018, there were more air strikes in Somalia than Libya and Yemen combined. Defense Department data for disclosed air strikes shows 47 strikes, killing 326 individuals. General Townsend, are we at war with Somalia?
Townsend: “No, Senator, we're not at war with Somalia but we are carrying out our operations against violent extremist organizations in Somalia. It is a designated active area of hostilities.”
Warren: “All right. As best I can tell, the strategy in Somalia, as it is in so many of the countries that the U.S. is bombing, is to keep killing terrorists and militants and hope that one day, there are magically no more terrorists or militants to kill. General Townsend, do you think that military force alone is enough to beat al-Shabaab and address the root causes of terrorism and instability in Somalia?"
Townsend: “Senator, I do not.”
Warren: “Okay. What is our strategy for Somalia and, more important, what is the measure of success in Somalia?”
Townsend: “Well, I think what we're trying to do is create capacity there for the local Somalis to secure the nation themselves. I think there's been some progress on that front.”
Warren: “How do you measure that? What is the adequate measure here? What's our metric?”
Townsend: “There's probably a range of metrics but probably one on the military front would be a decrease in violent extremist attacks in Somalia over time, an increase in the capacity of their military forces to secure themselves, and a resulting decrease in the need for partners such as us to assist them.”
On that first metric Townsend noted — “a decrease in violent extremist attacks in Somalia over time” — things aren’t looking so good. For example, there were more Shabaab suicide bombings in 2018 than the year before, according to the monitors at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.
Just last month over one 7-day period, Mogadishu experienced at least seven different deadly attacks — some complex attacks with bombs and gunmen; but mostly they were just car bombs, according to Voice of America’s Harun Maruf, whom we spoke with about al-Shabaab’s “secret history” back in episode 24.
And the second metric Townsend noted — “an increase in the capacity of their military forces to secure themselves, and a resulting decrease in the need for partners such as us to assist them” — that’s still a real tough battle, Professor Williams told me.
Williams: “You've also got none of what we would call sort of piecemeal institutions professional military education. How are you going to train your soldiers? You've got 20 years where a lot of these recruits have not got the basic standards in terms of literacy and education, let alone the extra knowledge you need to build specialist military units. You've got, as I said before, a lack of education facilities healthcare facilities barracks. How do we pay salaries if there's no ministry of finance that works? What about pensions? What about entitlement schemes? If soldiers are wounded?”
Watson: “And these are all unanswered questions to this day?”
Williams: “These are all still going on, right? The Army does not have all of these things right. Who looks after orphans? Kids that have lost their parents in the army who looks after widows and next of kin. All of these questions are still being built up; and even, I would say, the most fundamental one: who is in the Somali national army? We still don't have 100 percent comprehensive biometric identification system for who is in this. So that's the sort of stuff I mean by political challenges. And then finally what I would call capability gaps. And here the list is as long — everything you could possibly think of that an army needs but is largely absent in Somalia. You are starting almost from scratch. You've lacking you're lacking money to pay salaries. You're lacking equipment. This army needs vehicles. It needs weapons it needs ammunition it needs radios all the basic stuff we would need—"
Watson: “Shoot, move and communicate.”
Williams: “… in short supply. Right. It's all in short supply. We need as I said before medical facilities, barracks. The troops were living amongst the people for most of this time even to this day in large parts of Somalia. Water supply out in the south central regions very difficult. So for all these reasons, that's my way of thinking about why we failed in this sort of decade long project. It was a difficult historical context. We had big political obstacles and challenges and then we had a whole range of operational capability gaps that made this a hard job to do.”
But it’s not such a hard job that one can’t see real progress, Williams said. You just might have to pan out quite a bit to notice.
Williams: “If you take a slightly longer view and you start back — 2007 when the African Union forces first arrived, you can see a lot of progress. I think there's a lot of positives in terms of al-Shabaab is not the strategic threat to the Somali government that it was a decade ago. I mean if we go back to 2009, al-Shabaab was at that time controlling a lot of territory across south central Somalia. But it's then the African Union Mission troops that are fighting al-Shabaab in Mogadishu that actually push al-Shabaab forces out of central Mogadishu and its environs in about early 2012. And then the AMISOM mission, as it's known — the African Union Mission in Somalia — gets a number of extra troop contributing countries. In particular, Kenya steps up from the south. And so for the next three years, the African force pushes al-Shabaab out of about 30 or so different towns across south central Somalia and captures quite a lot of extra territory around the urban settings, more into the countryside and in the gaps, if you like, between the urban areas the AMISOM-control.”
Watson: “The ungoverned spaces.”
Williams: “Well they're not yet they're not ungoverned here. I mean that al-Shabaab is offering government. Al-Shabaab is offering a source of justice [and] dispute resolution. It taxes the local populations. It claims to be teaching them about, you know, their version of Islam and the like. So there's no ‘Al-Shabaab is trying to run a government of sorts,’ as we would understand it; but it's in the gaps between the main urban settlements the AMISOM and the government forces have managed to take back. But since if we fast forward into about 2016 not much has changed since then after that initial expansion and push out by AMISOM. For the last three years or so the situation has been largely one of territorial stalemate or status, as I would put it. So why? What explains that? The main reason is that most of the Somali local forces are not particularly mobile. They're not equipped with a lot of vehicles and weapons and they're not able to move fast and sustain themselves logistically to go on offense. AMISOM now after three years of expansion operations generally decided it's not going to do as much of these things and settle down more in a sort of holding pattern. And so if you put those two things together, we've not had major offensive operations against al-Shabaab over the last few years. The one exception is a U.S.-trained, -equipped and -mentored unit in the Somali army known as the Danab. That's the Somali word for lightning. It basically goes back into the 1980s — an old commando unit in the Somali army — but done and now operates at roughly a battalion level. And, as I said, equipped [and] paid by the Americans — advised on the ground with U.S. support. They have been the most consistent part of the Somali army that has actually gone on the offensive against al-Shabaab. And they work in tandem sometimes with the African Union force and sometimes in tandem with us forces, as well as sometimes other elements of the Somali national army.”
Watson: “Reminds me of the Afghan commandos, the favored force that the U.S. kind of had and kind of built up.”
Williams: “Yeah, Danab is referred to as the advanced infantry, is the way they frame it in this context here.”
Watson: “Like U.S. Rangers or something.”
Williams: “That's, I think, yeah, that's the sort of aspirational model that they would be that they would be shaped on. But at the moment, as I said, they're really the only unit that consists consistently sustain their own operations go on offense. But there's obviously limits as to what a single battalion worth of troops can do.”
Lenihan: “So we have multiple missions that we're doing in Somalia. One we're trying to build up the Danab for us which is the advancement from tree brigade.”
That’s Michelle Lenihan, acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs. I tagged along as my colleague Katie Bo Williams spoke to her last week at the Pentagon.
Lenihan: “So those are basically elite forces. And we've seen great progress with them where they've actually been really effective working with AMISOM and also with us on the ground in order to affect missions. We also have Mogadishu coordination cell which is led by one star general. [Brig. Gen. Miguel] Castellanos. And then of course we do this in partnership with our other external partners to the European Union has training mission. So they really focus on the smaller national army. So they're multipronged in order to try to effect change in Somalia — and we’ve seen that progress.”
Lenihan told us there’s a tidy three-pronged approach to what the Pentagon is doing big picture-wise in not just Somalia, but all of Africa.
Lenihan: “The strategy rests on three pillars: one is promoting prosperity; two, strengthening security; [and] three is striving for stability. Trade-investment is the first pillar within it's a major focus of this administration, as it should be. Africans want trade not aid. And and in truth that's where the Africans are going to be able to build their capability ultimately for the long term stability and so forth so that security won't be as much of an issue.”
Williams: “What are the most manageable and treatable challenges ahead in Somalia specifically?”
Lenihan: “Well, one of the very things that's only is that you have the political will, Prime Minister [Hassan] Khayre has been here before to meet with then-Deputy Secretary of Defense [Patrick] Shanahan. So we're actually tracking that progress and work with them in order to try those issues, which, again, I note in the 2017 London conference, the compact which really determine how to help build the Somali national security architecture. So we'll continue to work with them on those prongs. As I noted, we have had success with the job that's continued to be a focused approach for duty and then also really trying to work with the Somali national army who are coordination cell efforts and so forth. So we do see progress on that on that front.”
What does progress look like on the ground?
Castner: “OK. Hi, I'm Brian Castner. I am a senior crisis Advisor at Amnesty International.”
Castner is the former Air Force guy I told you about the beginning of the show. Today he’s—
Castner: “the weapons and military operations person on the crisis response team and the crisis response team we focus on war crimes and violations of the law of armed conflict. We would travel the world to investigate these kinds of abuses places like Myanmar and Sudan and Somalia for this latest report.”
I spoke to Brian because he just completed a months-long investigation into U.S. airstrikes in Somalia. Long story short: Amnesty’s findings have already yielded results at AFRICOM.
I asked why he went from a life of defusing bombs to one analysing their aftermath.
Castner: “Somalia is a bit of a it's been a very underreported area. There's not a lot of information that's come out in both news media and human rights work on Somalia. And then last year last summer AFRICOM reported to Congress that in 2017 they killed zero civilians. And then they also followed that up by saying in 2018 they also killed zero civilians.”
Watson: “Those are some neat numbers.”
Castner: “They are and back in you know so back when they first said 0 to Congress just as a veteran myself of Iraq and like having been through this. Nobody's perfect nobody's perfect in war. It's hard to be eight hundred for eight hundred one hundred and ten for one hundred and ten. It just did not seem to us like a credible number. And we know that other people had not done investigations on it because it's really hard to work in Somalia. Took us we had four people on the team that wrote this report. We investigated for 10 months. We went to Mogadishu we talked to literally hundreds of people. It is a long process to get to the five airstrikes we write up in this. But I think if if AFRICOM had provided a more credible number to Congress you know a year ago we might not have started this investigation.”
Watson: But what about this Lower Shabelle region in particular is has drawn so many airstrikes and why the U.S. military is going to keep an eye out for possible sympathizers with even lower bar for what qualifies as a legitimate air strike?”
Castner: “Yes, so let me answer that in two ways. One is Lower Shabelle region itself is basically the area right outside of Mogadishu and it's the breadbasket of Somalia. All along is Shabelle — a river you have all these little towns and they're all using the irrigation and the areas controlled by al-Shabaab. you know. nearly a hundred percent. And you know the federal government of Somalia only really has control over Mogadishu [and] a growing town outside of Mogadishu because there's a lot of camps for displaced people, but mostly [it’s] Shabaab. It's valuable to them because it's where they get the food. You know the farmers are growing the food that then al-Shabaab taxes to be able to feed their army. So that's one reason why Lower Shabelle is strategic. The other answer though is very practical another way to ask this is like why do we focus on this in the report. And it's because working in Somalia is so hard that there are airstrikes and lots of other places. There's lots of airstrikes down your Kismayo near the Kenyan border. That's where a U.S. soldier was killed you know not too long ago. So there's a lot of conflict going on down there and in other regions we just could not get to people in the other regions so we need a focusing. You know we did five strikes out of one hundred and ten.”
Castner: “So one of them far twice is a little village outside of I say a little village like ten huts outside of a kind of a bigger village. And there was a strike on an al-Shabaab vehicle kind of driving through town. And we say that there were two weapons fired the first one killed two civilians and wounded another five and then the second strike got the al-Shabaab vehicle and killed all the al-Shabaab inside. That's how we write it up. AFRICOM, its response to us was first they said well everybody killed and injured was either al-Shabaab or Shabaab affiliate. And what they mean by affiliate again is not clear. And then when we said OK are you saying that these two dead and five injured are you saying that they are all al-Shabaab and al-Shabaab affiliate noting that some of the injured are women and children. Is that what you're saying? And their response was actually no we think that only three people were injured total and that they were al-Shabaab. So I mean we just can't agree on what happened in that case in other strikes. This is another vehicle traveling down the road outside of a known al-Shabaab area; four men in the vehicle. AFRICOM calls that four terrorists killed, and we counted as one al-Shabaab member who is definitely in the vehicle. But then three civilians two of them were digging wells. One of them was a mobile phone technician. The telecommunications company in the area said, yeah, that was our guy. So is it? Are these part of the affiliate? Are they the network? What does the network mean? Is it military age males in proximity to known al-Shabaab members in certain like sympathetic geographic regions? Does that make you guilty by association? Is that you know is that what's going on here? That's not some crazy theory. You know, this is what we saw in Afghanistan prior to General [John] Allen and you know it's in [Brig.] Gen. Donald Bolduc, the former commander of SOC-Africa. You know, this is how he laid it out to us. He called it the underground the auxiliary — you know the can-bes and wannabes, the people like that are with al-Shabaab in these areas, are part of this network.”
Watson: “It reminds me of just you know how much you can see from high up versus how much you can see from the ground. You know you wouldn't necessarily be able to see a pistol being pushed into somebody's hip, right?”
Castner: “The DOD themselves, there was this report this April 2017 report that just was that just was released and the report says misidentification is our number one challenge and we think we know who people are. And we get it wrong. And I would say that from a when you're using video before a strike and they look like al-Shabaab, after the strike they're likely to look like al-Shabaab. If you're using the same intel source before and after for your battle damage assessment, you know this is this is not specific to a civilian casualty issue. This is a, you know, this is—”
Watson: “Confirmation bias?”
Castner: “I mean it's a problem that the U.S. has just knowing how do we know what we struck? And not at Amnesty. We don't really get into the military policy on on a lot of it except when it comes to civilian casualties, and say hey you struck three civilians and if you had investigated afterwards you know you you would've found what we found, we think.”
Watson: “You yourself have seen combat and defused bombs and observed insurgencies in states teetering on the brink of failure and collapse. You've seen nation-building up close. Is this airstrike surge a net positive for the country in the region?”
Castner: “So I mean one unsatisfying answer to that is Amnesty tries not to, you know, comment on whether the whether a policy is actually effective or not. We try to you know lay out what what what is the implication of that with civilians killed.”
Watson: “What are we hearing from some—”
Castner: “Right. But I would, the other answer to that is al-Shabaab attacks have not gone down al-Shabaab.”
Watson: “There was just when I saw a chart of like suicide bombings and the rate for Somalia itself had gone significantly up in 2018.”
Castner: “Right. And so there was just this, there've been a number of attacks in Mogadishu lately. There was just this attack in a hotel in Nairobi again right. The worst the most the deadliest truck bomb in history in history was Mogadishu in October of 2017. So in the beginning of 2019 earlier this year there was a little bit there where AFRICOM was releasing a press release saying they killed 24. And then al-Shabaab would do a press release saying actually we just overran an AMISOM post and we killed 28.”
Watson: “Battle of the press release.”
Castner: “Yes. And then AFRICOM that killed even more in the next strike. And if you're in a press release you know back and forth with al-Shabaab then, that's I don't know.”
Watson: “It reminds me of Petraeus this line you cannot kill your way out of an insurgency.”
Castner: “These are the same. I mean it's Groundhog Day a little bit. These are the same issues we were dealing with 18 years ago.”
Watson: “So that's what my colleague Katie Bo Williams and I were saying these are classic drone war questions.”
Castner: “They are. And it's also to go back to Don Rumsfeld. Are we making more terrorists than we're killing. I mean I wrote a whole book about that and the answer and I and that was about Afghanistan in 2011 and 2012 and it's it's a question we keep asking.”
At the end of the day, Castner told me, his bottom line is pretty simple.
Castner: “If the U.S. killed civilians it should not have then say so; you know, provide justice to the families. Just admitting it is like is one big step now. We would call on compensation and other, you know, other sorts of goodwill payments there. You know, that's maybe the next step. But first one would be, hey let's, you know, basically admit to the reality of what's happening here.”
Watson: “A common start point on a set of facts.”
Castner: “Let's start let's start with the common set of facts and we are other are there recommendation for what it's worth is to allow is to figure out a way this is not just Somalia but for civilians to self-report. And this is something that's been a lot of talk on the Hill, and we've talked to some people there's talk about doing an Internet-based system where mobile phones out there. Well so here's the thing so that can work in Yemen and Syria where there is you know in some places good internet and everybody has a smartphone. Al-Shabaab has banned smartphones for civilians in their controlled areas. So we have almost no photos and videos from these airstrikes. We have a few but like very very limited. So if you are a villager in Dar-es-Salaam, where those three farmers were killed, and your cousin was killed you can't call on your smartphone and self-report, even if this mechanism was done. And then if you, say, manage to get somehow get to Mogadishu, get on the minibus, go through the al-Shabaab checkpoints, get all the way to Mogadishu, so that way you can tell someone that my cousin died. Who are you going to go tell? The U.S. mission at the Mogadishu International Airport? There's three levels of walls and armed guards between you and that mission nobody is going to let you in. You know, this farmer from rural al-Shabaab controlled territory? There's just not a way for that person to say that this is what happened. And we're really encouraging AFRICOM to figure that out and set that up interesting.”
Watson: “Yeah. It reminds me by contrast of all of the work that Bellingcat has done to sort of empower folks. But if they don't have any damn Internet and no technology then it's only so much you can do.”
Castner: “Yeah and we and we do a lot of — we have at Amnesty, we have what we call the Evidence Lab that does a lot of the same open source investigations that Bellingcat does; and we work with them, actually, on a number of things. And in one case, we did have photos — actually, again, Dar-es-Salaam. We did have photos taken by al-Shabaab so they are, you know, you could call them propaganda. I'm not looking at those photos to tell me the narrative of what happened. But you can [assess] location time of day or whenever. You can't fake the scrap from the GBU-69 in the crater. You can't fake the background and using actually the trees and some of the other key I.D. features in that photo, we could geolocate the, you know, exactly the grid of where that strike happened.”
Watson: “Well it's fascinating stuff. And I I look forward to seeing how that how the Pentagon does ultimately respond to this. I feel like it's the first of a couple of things which might be ahead for them as busy as they've been. Looking ahead even farther. What are your thoughts on you know Secretary of State [Mike] Pompeo said those remarks about denying visas to [International Criminal Court] officials if they charge U.S. soldiers for war crimes in Afghanistan? Because what hangs over this Amnesty report or allegations of war crimes and it looks like Pompeo is telegraphing the way the U.S. response if it's accused in the ICC right.”
Castner: “The U.S. I would say has never been, I don't know, has never been the ICC greatest champion. Or perhaps so I would say we don't know that these airstrikes are unlawful. There's a lot we don't know. We don't know the intelligence that led to them. We don't know if it's a case of mistaken identity or it could well be that if AFRICOM — I mean looking ahead, this is the, you know, what are we asking? And they admit that gexample I gave where it was one al-Shabaab and three civilians. Just because we civilians die does not mean it was unlawful. But that's not what AFRICOM is saying there. They could say well you know what: There was a high-ranking al-Shabaab member in that vehicle. And under international humanitarian law, you would call that a proportionality argument, right? Like it was worth the collateral damage, to use the U.S. term, you know to kill that individual al-Shabaab member. But that's not the argument they're making. They're saying that the people in the vehicle were you know also al-Shabaab our affiliates or networks or whatever else. So I mean we would, the U.S. has its own process. It doesn't have to be the ICC. If there were actual war crimes committed, the [Uniformed Code of Military Justice] can handle that. The U.S. could prosecute its own people if truly war crimes happened. We're not saying it did. It could be, though, until we know more. And that’s why we’re asking the U.S. to investigate.”
Last Friday, AFRICOM updated those civilian casualty numbers in Somalia — just over two weeks after Amnesty’s report. What AFRICOM updated was actually not even one of the strikes Castner analyzed, but a different one from April 2, 2018. AFRICOM said it found quote “credible evidence” of two civilian casualties from that April 2 strike on al-Shabaab fighters near a location called El Burr.
“While believed to be an isolated occurrence,” the AFRICOM statement reads, “the reporting error is being addressed… U.S. Africa Command takes prudent measures to minimize civilian casualties and fully complies with the Law of Armed Conflict. The Command has processes in place to ensure the safety and protection of the local population remains a top priority.”
So what’s next?
Williams: “You know if this war is not going to end in a convincing military victory by one side, and I really don't think it can end that way, then the only real alternative is a negotiated settlement of some sort.”
Professor Williams again.
Williams: “And so what you're seeing at the moment is a series of debates and discussions within Somalia itself about how that negotiations or how that political dialogue might take place. Some ex-senior members of al-Shabaab have been talking to the Somali governments and authorities for a long time. They some of them being part of the defections program. One of them, Mr. Ahmed Mohamed Islam Madobe, as he goes by, the president of Jubaland in the south of Somalia. He is formerly a member of al-Shabaab but is now one of the regional presidents. Mukhtar Robow — who was in as a candidate for the election as the president of South-West state but was ultimately removed from that competition by the Somali government and Ethiopian forces — is also an ex-high level commander in al-Shabaab. So depending how you look at this, al-Shabaab is an organization with many different faces and it appeals to Somalis for different reasons. There is sort of a hard core what I would say a relatively small hard core of true extremists, if you like, the sort of hard core jihadis who want to extend their version of Islam as a caliphate across the whole of East Africa and they really buy into the al-Qaeda ideology which they they claim to support but most of the people fighting the foot soldiers and the like and others are not like that. And they they are they're sort of I would say supporting al-Shabaab almost by default. They're there because of clan leaders have dictated that they need to take this course of action or they're there for pragmatic reasons looking for money or they just happen to live in a part of south central Somalia that al-Shabaab is the dominant force in. And so if there is no better alternative for pragmatic security reasons, you'll bide your time and your operate under you know the best as you can under al-Shabaab. So the government Somali government now has a lot of difficult issues to sort of grapple with about which bits of al-Shabaab might be amenable to be sort of peeled off and be brought in. Can some of the fighters be bought off? Can some of them be pulled away from al-Shabaab if clan politics makes deals? Can some of them be brought in by high level defections programs by maybe offering amnesty and that type of bargain? So really there's a lot of things on the table but there's no really easy or clear answers to them at the moment.”
Watson: “So on your web on your web page you write that your work focuses on the quote the politics and effectiveness of peace operations the dynamics of war and peace in Africa and emerging threats and international security. So on this particular the emerging threats and international security angle do you have. I've been steeped in climate change you know stats and interviews for the last 10 days. Do you have any particular thoughts on Africa's kind of current or future struggles with what would appear to be the effects of climate change? Shabaab itself is supposed to have held you know water supplies and said is kind of seize water to show its power. And it's it's hard not to see those sorts of things as possibly becoming more frequent in the future or at least distressed by extreme weather conditions. Do you think about that? I mean does it come up in conversation or on policy related to Somalia for you at all? Or is that such a sort of storm of crises that that basically is number 37 on the list of 74?”
Williams: “No, no; it's in the mix. And the way I would frame that is actually it's a more important issue for most Somalis than it is for our American national security community that is looking at Somalia through mainly a counter-terrorism lens. And what I mean by that is, yeah, at the macro level, of course, Africa is the continent that is least responsible for driving the processes that have caused climate change. But it is the continent that's probably going to suffer most of the negative consequences early on from climate change. So there is a real, first of all at a macro level, question about the justice and ethics, international ethics I mean, of climate change processes that are affecting Africa very badly now. And Somalia is one of the parts of Africa that is being badly affected by climate change factors. Now it plays into the sort of the war with al-Shabaab, if you like, in a couple of ways. The first thing is to remember that the war between the government the Americans African Union mission as well against al-Shabaab. That's just one element of the fighting that's going on in Somalia at the moment. But it's the one that America's national security establishment is focused on. But there's also other types of conflict going on in Somalia at the moment. One is clan-related, as I've just explained. There's lots of various clan related and political reasons. There is clan-based fighting over, let's say, important towns for economic reasons seaports airports, control of commercial routes for trading in everything from khat to charcoal to sugar. You know the usual. But that generates fighting as well. And then the third set of reasons why there are violent conflict is precisely to do with climate issues. And here when I'm talking about is many in many Somalis are pastoralists by sort of livelihood and legacy, if you like. And there's a whole lot of reasons why groups are very localized never was now might be engaged in violent conflict over access to resources. So access to water grazing for livestock, these types of issues. Who owns land? Who can grow things on the land or this type of stuff. So I would say there's a third strain of violent conflict in Somalia that is directly related to how we think about resource allocation. And climate and environmental changes are having a big impact on that. There's also finally, it's sort of more tangential, but if you look off the coast of Somalia the piracy issue. I mean it's not all been about this, but part of that dynamic has been with the lack of jobs and employment prospects on land. Somalia has one of the longest coastlines in Africa, but many Somalis think that their maritime waters are literally being plundered — fish stocks and other things, you know, foreign actors coming in and stealing in effect Somali resources has also been one of the sort of catalytic factors leading to the rise in piracy, which then obviously wasn't so much about fish, but was more about capturing vessels and and the like. So I think if you think of the war against al-Shabaab, clan-related fighting, sort of environmental- and resource-related fighting, and then the piracy dynamic, you can see those sort of all of those four different types of violence are playing out in Somalia at the moment. But our American focus has been largely on the war on al-Shabaab on land and the piracy issue on the sea.”
Michelle Lenihan made an interesting point related to climate change and her work with the U.S. Defense Department. We’ll leave you today with a final bit of her chat with my colleague, Katie Bo Williams.
Williams: “You mentioned the Lake Chad Basin. Africa is a region that's obviously expected to get hit particularly hard by climate change stressors. What specific challenges does that present and how does the DOD prepare for that?”
Lenihan: “Sure. So we've already seen some issues happening. I mentioned the lake, right? So you have issues with water source. But you also have issues with arable land. And we've seen greater conflict between say herders and farmers because they're fighting basically over land and where they can graze and so forth. Underlying that is also ethnic tensions and conflict because you have certain ethnic groups that tend to from certain ethnic groups that turn to herd. So again that really focuses on my partners and in the interagency that really need to get at those resourses in order to try to help manage that. Again, population growth exacerbates that. Because when you have to provide for a family of nine versus two that's a much greater strain on resources that are limited. So really trying to dive into that. I spoke with the West African foreign minister asking him — I don't want to out him but as a certain country that has a huge population issue — how is he looking to address it? And he said family planning. So you need to reduce the number of children born per woman. And then also focusing on girls and educating them; because educating girls leads to less population or less births per woman, usually delayed marriages, and then also greater contributions to the economy. Since we've seen women oftentimes are really great investments in these areas because they're actually they pay their debts, they return and they have success within their businesses.”
Williams: “I mean I'm a U.S. taxpayer. Let's say just any old U.S. taxpayer standing out on the street. Why should I care about Africa? When you say it's a really important region you know why should I care as a just a person who sort of is living in America and wants America to be stable and secure? Why should I care what the military is doing there?”
Lenihan: “Well, Africa has huge possibilities, right? So if you're looking for increased markets and potential for U.S. businesses and so forth, you want Africa to matter. It has multiple terrorist groups that are at play who currently are more focused domestically. But, as I noted, they have ties to larger organizations. So the possibility, the aspirations, could potentially be there for future attacks. So again, try to deal it when it's more manageable and a smaller issue rather than one it's larger, is also why it matters. Politically, I mean Africans are a huge portion of the U.N. and they vote in a bloc, right? So that affects us on the broader scale what happens in the U.N. So they've got some political play there, too, that's of importance. And then also if you look at it just strategically, you've got multiple choke points, you have a vast amount that touches into different regions and so forth. So African issues don't stay in Africa. And I think our European friends and the increased focus that they have on the continent is a tribute to that — especially looking at the migration flows and so forth. So to think that everything is going to stay in Africa and not have broader effect, I think, is a bit questionable.”
That’s it for us this week. Thanks for listening. And if you like what you’ve heard, consider sharing it with a friend. We’re on Spotify now, and pretty much everywhere else you’d find a podcast these days.
Special thanks to Michelle Lenihan, Paul Williams, Brian Castner and Katie Bo Williams. Cheers, and until next time.
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