Home English Strong Evidence that U.S. Special Operations Forces Massacred Civilians in Somalia

Strong Evidence that U.S. Special Operations Forces Massacred Civilians in Somalia

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MOGADISHU, Somalia—It was around five in the morning when Abdullahi Elmi heard the gunfire. Sitting in his small home in Bariire, in southern Somalia, the farm administrator had been recording the names of the laborers who had worked the day before. Stacks of accounting books sprawled on the floor around him. Across the room, his wife sat with their 3-year-old son who dozed as his mother rocked him back and forth in her arms.

When the sound of gunshots began, Abdullahi thought they were too far away to be heading toward his farm. But within seconds they seemed to grow louder, and closer, sending Abdullahi and his wife, carrying their young son, sprinting through the nearby forest of banana trees in search of safety.

Sheltering beneath the long leaves, Abdullahi came across his neighbor, Goomey Hassan, who had also sprinted into the banana grove with his wife when he heard the barrage of gunfire. The two families waited for 20 minutes before they decided it was safe to return, and began walking cautiously back to their homes, both Abdullahi and Goomey careful to walk in front of their wives in case the gunfire returned.

As the women entered their houses, the two men stood outside to see what had happened, eventually spotting Somali National Army soldiers walking in the distance. At first Abdullahi was relieved, the national army must have come to stop their rival clan from attacking their farm, he thought. But as the soldiers saw the men, they raised their weapons, ordering Hassan and Elmi to get down on the ground.

“Blood from a gunshot wound poured into the earth around him.”

“I put my hands up and they told us you are under arrest, then I heard the noise from their big cars and I knew this was more than just a clan fight,” Elmi said. “They told my wife to go back in our home and then they went inside to search. I was pleading with them not to take anything.”

When the soldiers finished their search, they ordered the men to move with them toward the scene of the shooting. There Abdullahi and Goomey saw their fellow farmers’ bodies sprawled across the ground. The small pot that one of them had been using to make tea still stood upright near the corpses. And they also saw what they later estimated to be around 20 American soldiers standing around the bodies. A Somali National Army soldier who was at the scene estimated 10 to 12 Americans were there. Abdullahi felt his chest tighten as he heard his friend, Ali-waay, calling for help, blood from a gunshot wound pouring into the earth around him.

One of the Somali soldiers ordered Abdullahi to put his head on the ground. The bottom of a boot belonging to an American soldier kept it there.

THE U.S.-LED OPERATION on Aug. 25 would result in the death of 10 civilians, including at least one child, and become the largest stain on U.S. ground operations in the country since the infamous Black Hawk Down incident in 1993.

In the operation’s aftermath, hundreds of people in the nearby town Afgoye flooded the city’s streets demanding justice for those killed, and survivors on the farm refused to bury their deaduntil the Somali government recanted its allegations that they were members Al Shabaab, and offered an apology.

The Daily Beast conducted an investigation into the Bariire operation and its aftermath, interviewing three of the operation’s survivors over the phone from Mogadishu and meeting in person with the Somali National Army Commander in charge of the Somali soldiers who assisted in the operation under the command of soldiers from U.S. Special Operations Forces.

The Daily Beast also met in Mogadishu with over two dozen Somali intelligence officers, political analysts, local leaders, and former and current government officials familiar with the incident. Two of these individuals are also involved in an ongoing local, non-government-sponsored investigation into the incident.

The Daily Beast also met in person with the commander of the Ugandan People’s Defense Forces whose purview under the mandate of the United Nations peacekeeping force includes Bariire, and who was approached by the Americans about their plan to re-capture and hold Bariire.

The vast majority of these sources preferred to speak anonymously, either because they were not authorized to discuss the incident or because they feared possible retribution from either the Somali Federal Government or the Americans for doing so.

The details that emerged paint a damning picture of at least one U.S. ground operation in the African nation. This includes U.S. Special Operators firing upon unarmed civilians, using human intelligence from sources widely considered untrustworthy to Somalis in the region as well as government officials, and instructing their Somali counterparts to collect weapons that were being stored inside a home—not displaced on the field in the course of the firefight—and placing them beside the bodies of those killed prior to photographing them. In the aftermath of the incident, according to our sources, American diplomats also pressured the Somali government to bury the unfavorable findings of a Somali Federal Government-led investigation.

Hours after the operation, AFRICOM released a statement noting that it was aware of allegations of civilian casualties in the operation and that AFRICOM was “conducting an assessment into the situation to determine the facts on the ground.” The AFRICOM press release also stated that “the Somali National Army was conducting an operation in the area with U.S. forces in a supporting role.”

Yet a majority of bullet casings collected from the farm that was attacked, which were seen by The Daily Beast, were from American—not Somali National Army—weapons. This appears to confirm that the Special Operations team did not command SNA while remaining behind during the operation, as the AFRICOM statement would have the public believe, but rather were responsible themselves for firing upon and killing unarmed civilians.

According to Maj. Audricia Harris, a spokesperson for the Department of Defense, “this incident remains under investigation” and the DOD cannot comment on any specifics of the employment of U.S. Special Operations forces. She noted that U.S. Special Operations “take all measures during the targeting process to avoid or minimize civilian casualties or collateral damage and to comply with the principles of the Law of Armed Conflict.” (The complete list of queries and responses can be viewed here.)

The details surrounding the planning of this incident collected by The Daily Beast suggest, however, that the Special Operations Forces involved in this mission did not sufficiently vet the information they were presented with prior to carrying out this operation.

LOWER SHABELLE has long been a hotspot in Somalia’s decades of conflict, with Bariire town at its heart. The area is one of the most fertile regions in the otherwise barren Somali landscape: here farmers cultivate green fields of bananas, mangos, and tomatoes running parallel to the Shabelle River while businessmen sell the produce in the nearby capital Mogadishu.

But the same lushness that makes the region attractive to farmers has also made it desirable real estate for Al Shabaab: the plentiful crops are ripe for taxation, the vegetation is good for taking cover from drone surveillance, and the Shebelle River creates a natural barrier between Al Shabaab and enemy forces, while its bridges create opportunities for Al Shabaab’s hit and run attacks.

The Islamic extremist group has held sporadic control throughout the region since January 2009, when the Ethiopian forces that had helped oust the Islamic Courts Union, a confederation of Sharia courts that rose to power in southern Somalia in 2006, withdrew from the region. Though in the years following the African Union Peacekeeping Mission in Somalia or AMISOM retook some large towns and established Forward Operating Bases throughout Lower Shabelle, the area remains one of the last large swaths of territory where Al Shabaab maintains pockets of control.

For years the heart of Al Shabaab’s dominance in the area of Lower Shabelle near Mogadishu could be found in Bariire town, located just 45 kilometers from the capital. From this town the group ran courts they used to implement Sharia law in the region and organized attacks carried out in Mogadishu. According to Minister of Parliament Ahmed Moalim Fiqi, the town had acted as Al Shabaab’s “small capital” near Mogadishu. “[Bariire] had become a nightmare for the Somali government and created problems for Somalia’s security partners,” Fiqi says. “Every security report [Somali Parliament’s Security Committee] received, Bariire was included.”

“The Americans appeared woefully unaware that in this vast and forest-rich region, Al Shabaab isn’t the only factor contributing to instability.”

And the Somali Parliament wasn’t the only one taking note of Bariire. U.S. Special Operators recognized the town’s strategic significance as well, which is why in July this year they approached the Ugandan People’s Defense Force or UPDF Brig. Gen. Kayanja Muhanga, whose responsibilities under AMISOM include Lower Shabelle, about a plan they had developed to retake Bariire town and the surrounding region. Unlike U.S. operations in years past, this campaign wouldn’t consist of targeted airstrikes or raids, both of which have seen relative success in Somalia. Instead, the U.S. wanted to hold the land they would capture and provide intermittent on-the-ground support with the local force in charge of maintaining control of the territory.

According to Brig. Gen. Muhanga, the Americans were requesting the Department of State sponsored equipment for building Forward Operating Bases or FOBs, such as caterpillars and graders, from a nearby AMISOM FOB, as well as UPDF troops to be retasked with the Somali National Army to hold the terrain in Bariire and beyond. The UPDF general was skeptical of this plan. His troops were already overstretched across the region; not only would they not be able to provide adequate security for the FOB building equipment, but he questioned whether he could lend enough troops to hold a new FOB with the Somali National Army, which he knew to be under-trained, under-equipped, and likely unable to hold any outposts themselves.

And in addition to foolhardy planning of the hold-terrain operation, the Americans also appeared to be woefully unaware that in this vast and forest-rich region, Al Shabaab isn’t the only factor contributing to instability. Further complicating the security landscape is the ongoing conflict among Somali clans, primarily the Habar Gidr and Biyomal. The rivalry between them, like most clan conflict in the country, revolves around land and, with the emergence of a functioning Somali state, power.

Though clan alliances and clan conflicts span centuries, the current flare up in Lower Shabelle dates back five years when Biyomal and Habar Gidr renewed their fight over the majority Habar- Gidr-controlled land. The Biyomal, a smaller clan which have traditionally lived in Lower Shabelle, claim the land is rightfully theirs given their historic presence in the region, while the Habar Gidr began to migrate south to the fertile Lower Shabelle in the 1990s when civil war broke out and their clan won authority in the region. They maintain that having lived on the land for decades they can legitimately call it their own.

But unlike centuries past, clan conflicts in modern Somalia have been complicated first by Al Shabaab and later by the presence of AMISOM, American Special Operations, and other foreign militaries operating in the country.

Since Al Shabaab formed in 2007, the group has thrived on local conflicts, offering support to the militias in their clan wars in exchange for their firepower when Al Shabaab confronts government forces. But farmers in the region, who aren’t part of these militias, though they are often armed to protect their land and livestock, aren’t as lucky. When their territory is taken over by Al Shabaab, they don’t have a choice: either agree to pay taxes to the group and to live under their authority or risk disarmament and death.

This modus operandi creates a military landscape ripe for confusion, where distinguishing Al Shabaab militants from armed farmers in Al Shabaab controlled territories requires accurate, unbiased, on-the-ground intelligence.

Yet because foreign militaries, including U.S. Special Operations, often rely either on clan militias, or the Somali security forces which have incorporated some of these militias into their ranks, for human intelligence, there is ample opportunity for clansmen to label their rivals falsely as “Al Shabaab,” and garner the support of foreign forces, and their much more sophisticated weaponry, in their own clan wars.

When the UPDF commander, cognizant of the difficulties of terrain and this kind of operation, turned down the American’s request for UPDF support and advised against the mission, the Americans turned instead to the Somali National Army’s 20th Brigade, a poor semblance of a military at best.

“These American guys are our friends, but they came in rushing into operations without understanding the SNA capability.”
— UPDF Brig. Gen. Kayanja Muhanga

“I told the U.S. guys the SNA can’t hold ground, they don’t have the weapons to hold ground,” Gen. Muhanga said. “These American guys are our friends, but they came in rushing into operations without understanding the SNA capability because they wanted to achieve something themselves.”

Unlike the SNA’s special forces unit, Danab, which has been trained by the Americans to operate alongside them in ground operations, the SNA brigade this U.S. team approached had not only never been trained by any U.S. Special Operators but also was led by a former Al Shabaab commander, Sheegow Ahmed Ali, who had worked closely with the Biyomal militia in the region, led by Abdullahi Ali Ahmed also known as “Wafo,” in the lead-up to this operation.

The Americans seemingly worked with them ignorant of both the clan dynamics pitting Wafo’s militia against Habargidir clansmen like those on the farm and of a complaint, obtained by The Daily Beast, made by the Lower Shabelle Community Elders committee to the regional president, the minister of interior, the United Nations mission, the U.S. Embassy, the E.U. Delegation and the African Union representative last year about Wafo’s Biyomal militia attacking civilians and using AMISOM protection to do so. The letter stated that “AMISOM is sheltering and providing logistical support to Biyomal militia forces….while Biyomal Militia is burning farms, looting properties and killing innocent civilians without discrimination (elders, children, women and youth) under the AMISOM protection in their barracks.”

The Daily Beast also learned from multiple Somali government and security officials, that the Americans were using a translator who had a history of suspected manipulation of U.S. Forces.

The translator, known as Bashir, had been involved in a 2016 operation in Galkayo, northern Somalia, in which a U.S. drone strike targeted and killed 22 members of a local militia which had been working in collaboration with U.S. forces, according to the Bureau for Investigative Journalism. After the incident, many believed Bashir was complicit in providing inaccurate intelligence to the American forces because the local force was from a rival clan to his own. Given that his wife is from the Biyomal clan, many suspect Bashir had helped persuade the Americans that the Habar Gidr on the farm were Al Shabaab as well, though the reason the U.S. would use a translator suspected previously of manipulating them into killing non-Al Shabaab combatants is unclear.

“We don’t believe the Americans have any agenda to kill us, they don’t have an agenda to support one clan against another,” says Ali Osman Diblawe, one of the farmers who was attacked in the operation. “But the Biyomal clan used misinformation and propaganda to wrongly kill us. They persuaded the Somali government and the Americans that we are Al Shabaab, which we are not.”

The fighting he and other villagers heard was in Bariire town, where even without the UPDF support, the American Special Operations team had begun their campaign to retake and hold first Bariire and then the surrounding area, according to UPDF Gen. Muhanga. At first, the strategy appeared to be working: the U.S. and SNA team successfully retook Bariire and set up four outposts on each corner of the city in order to hold it against Al Shabaab as planned.

With their farm just one kilometer away from Bariire town, now seemingly under government control, Diblawe decided to meet with the SNA in Bariire and explain the ongoing clan conflict in the nearly liberated area. Diblawe and some of his fellow villagers owned small arms, mostly old AK-47s, to protect their land against the Biyomal, which he feared the SNA might misinterpret as the farmers being fighters for Al Shabaab.

Diblawe walked with a friend and fellow villager, Ali-waay, to Bariire town where he met with Gen. Sheegow. A rotund man who stands roughly five foot five inches tall, Sheegow didn’t give Diblawe the impression of a feared military commander.

But a glimpse into the 56-year-old’s life before he joined the Somali National Army proves otherwise. Prior to 2012, Sheegow was an Al Shabaab commander who defected to government forces with between 50 and 100 of his fighters. But most suspect it was a defection born from the fear of being imminently captured by Somali government troops than a change of heart. The first battle his brigade fought with Al Shabaab under the SNA flag, they lost—along with a number of arms and military cars that fell into Al Shabaab’s hands. The incident raised questions about whether the general had lost on purpose in an effort to continue supporting the extremist group.

The Daily Beast met Sheegow in Mogadishu, where three government officials say he was to be reprimanded for the emerging pattern of civilian casualties under his leadership in the part of Lower Shabelle, for which his brigade is responsible. Sheegow denied those claims.

According to Diblawe, during his meeting with General Sheegow he explained that the Biyomal and the Habar Gidr had been fighting over land in the area Sheegow was now responsible for and suggested the general either disarm both groups or reconcile the two clans.

“He told us he would reconcile us with the Biyomal and that there wasn’t anything to worry about,” Diblawe says. Upon returning to his village, he told the villagers about his agreement with Sheegow and instructed them to place all of their small arms in one of the village’s corrugated tin homes, per the instructions of Gen. Sheegow.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Sheegow denied having met with Diblawe prior to the operation, although immediately after the incident he told local media that he had “talked with the farmers in the area and instructed them to put their weapons in their homes to avoid confusion” about who was and wasn’t Al Shabaab.

Waiting for the next steps in the reconciliation process, Diblawe and other villagers returned to their fields, hoping to hear word from Sheegow about when the reconciliation efforts would begin. But days later Diblawe and others in the village noticed something strange looming over their farms with a noise that pierced the sky around them. Staring at the sky from outside his home, Diblawe though it looked like a strange crow circling the village. But the loud hum that pierced the otherwise peaceful landscape suggested otherwise. Diblawe knew this wasn’t a bird. It was a drone.

“Sheegow was an Al Shabaab commander who defected to government forces with between 50 and 100 of his fighters.”

It was coming in the morning, around five or six in the morning and again around five in the evening,” Diblawe said. “It was clear the Americans with Sheegow were interested in us, that’s why they were using their spy drone above us.”

Diblawe returned to the general, begging Sheegow to let him speak directly with the Americans so he could clarify who the villagers were. Diblawe suggested the foreign force search their farm so they could see the small arms and Diblawe could explain why the villagers were in possession of them. Again, Sheegow told him to be patient and that the reconciliation process would begin soon. Diblawe returned to his village wary of the general, and feeling disheartened knowing that without the general’s support, he had no chance of trying to communicate with the Americans directly.

The next day villagers spotted the drone hovering overhead again. Diblawe’s concerns grew. He returned to Sheegow for the third time, pleading to speak with the Americans. Again, Sheegow denied him.

That would be Diblawe’s last plea for help. The next morning gunfire tore through his small village and Diblawe’s concerns that the farmers had been mistaken for Al Shabaab were proven true.

AFTER GATHERING with roughly 20 other villagers to say the morning prayer on Friday, Diblawe had crawled back into his bed hoping to rest a bit more before starting his day. Less than 10 minutes later he heard the sound of gunfire and sprinted out of his bed to his doorstep, from which he saw his neighbor, Ali-waay, standing with his hands up and uniformed men in the distance. Diblawe immediately started running toward the forest behind his house.

“I was barefoot and there were a lot of bullets hitting near me but I didn’t stop for one second, I ran and started heading in the direction of Bariire town, I thought the military there could stop the firing,” he said.

Arriving in Bariire, Diblawe first saw an SNA lieutenant, Mohamed Mohamud Abor, and ran up to him, demanding to see Sheegow. The lieutenant brought the winded farmer to Sheegow’s outpost, where looking the general in the eye Diblawe was overcome by a sense of both despair and bewilderment. “I asked him why all of this is happening, we just left him here yesterday and told him our concerns, and now the people were being killed,” Diblawe said. “I told him let us rescue the people who are still alive, let us see if we can save these people.”

Meanwhile on the other side of the farm from Diblawe’s house, Abdullahi and Goomey were being escorted to the center of the village by Somali National Army soldiers. Told to lie down on the ground, the two men could hardly believe the carnage around them. Ten of their friends were sprawled across the ground. Some like Ali-waay—the same man who gone to town with Diblawe the day before—were barely alive and calling weakly for help. The soldiers around them were not listening.

Roughly thirty minutes earlier, Goomey had been praying with most of them, and saw the teapot they had begun to brew still sitting on the ground, the body of a pre-teen boy in a brown t-shirt and dark blue jeans stretched out beside it. He knew the others would have been waiting for the tea when the barrage of gunfire began. The Daily Beast has photographs of the villagers taken after the attack, although many are too graphic for publication. They show the teapot, a black water heater, and a large pot scattered around the boy’s body.

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