Two civilians were killed in Somalia during a U.S. airstrike on Feb. 23, 2019, that also killed two al-Shabab militants, according to U.S. Africa Command’s first casualty assessment released Monday.
“While we follow very precise and rigorous standards, in instances where we fail to meet our expectations, we will admit the mistake,” AFRICOM commander Army Gen. Stephen Townsend said in a statement. “Regrettably two civilians were killed and three others injured in a February 2019 airstrike. We have the highest respect for our Somali friends and we are deeply sorry this occurred.”
The command assesses that the civilians were killed due to U.S. munitions, or as a result of secondary explosions resulting from a trove explosives al-Shabab kept at the site of the strike.
According to AFRICOM, the command received word on Feb. 24, 2019, about the now-substantiated allegation from online media sources who alleged that two civilians were killed and another two civilians were injured due to an AFRICOM airstrike near Kunyo Barrow. A foreign non-government organization also submitted an additional allegation surrounding the strike in January 2020.
The allegation was investigated as part of a review the command is completing examining alleged civilian casualties stemming from the 91 airstrikes AFRICOM conducted between Feb. 1, 2019, and March 31, 2020, in Somalia and Libya.
In order to increase transparency regarding AFRICOM’s activities, Townsend said the command will now release quarterly reports concerning civilian casualty allegations and assessments.
“It is important that our partners and the public understand our commitment to minimizing collateral damage while conducting military operations,” Townsend said. “Where we come up short, we will admit it openly.”
To date, the command has closed 20 cases regarding civilian casualty allegations — including the now-substantiated allegation — and is still investigating seven additional allegations.
Previously, AFRICOM confirmed last year an unidentified woman and a child had been killed during an airstrike on April 1, 2018 as they traveled in a vehicle also carrying multiple al-Shabab militants.
According to AFRICOM spokesman Air Force Col. Chris Karns, al-Shabab militants attempt to integrate into Somali society as they simultaneously hold a variety of jobs ― including bomb making — to advance terrorism.
“Al-Shabab looks for ways to blend in and gain footholds into Somali society,” Karns told Military Times. “Many in al-Shabab have day jobs, only to hide and mask their violent and murderous side…They are very willing to put others at risk and need to be rooted out. “
The command has come under scrutiny from groups including Amnesty International and Airwars, who have alleged civilians have been killed due to U.S. airstrikes in Somalia.
For example, Amnesty International released a report on April 1 assessing that two civilians were killed in U.S. airstrikes in February 2020. The report said a young woman was killed in a Feb. 2, 2020, airstrike and a 53-year-old man was killed in another on Feb. 24, 2020.
These incidents are still being reviewed by AFRICOM.
In total, the U.S. has approximately 6,000 Department of Defense personnel in Africa, and has anywhere between 650 to 800 U.S. forces in Somalia at any point, per the command. AFRICOM estimated there are approximately 5,000 to 7,000 al-Shabab militants in Somalia.
AFRICOM has ramped up airstrikes in Somalia since 2017, and has conducted more than 30 in 2020. Last year the command conducted a record high number of strikes — 63 — against al-Shabab and ISIS-Somalia militants.
Those numbers are up from the 47 strikes conducted in 2018, and the 35 conducted in 2017.