U.S. officials this week requested the geographic coordinates of aid groups working in Somalia, according to a document obtained by The Intercept — a move that could indicate an escalation of military action against the Shabab. The notice to NGOs comes a month after President Trump declared portions of the country an “area of active hostilities,” giving the military wider scope to launch strikes that could potentially kill more civilians.
“Due to the need for increased operational security in Somalia, and based on best practices in other complex emergencies, humanitarian and development organizations may want to provide information about their fixed locations in Somalia for deconfliction,” states the letter, written by USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance and intended for “all international and local humanitarian and development organizations with operations in Somalia.” Aid groups have an extensive presence in Somalia, where the government declared a state of disaster in February due to crippling drought and food shortages.
The document, dated April 24, provides instructions for how groups should share coordinates of offices, hospitals, refugee camps, and other facilities. “Please be aware that all information submitted … will be used to inform U.S. military planners about the location of humanitarian and development personnel,” it says. It also includes a bold-type warning that providing the information does not “guarantee the safety of personnel, vehicles, facilities, or sites. Entities operating in this environment continue to do so at their own risk.”
Such deconfliction efforts are not uncommon in the context of intense or prolonged U.S. military operations, such as Afghanistan. This week’s letter is similar in wording to one received by NGOs in 2014, at the outset of the anti-ISIS campaign in Iraq and Syria. In Yemen, the United States briefly shepherded NGO coordinates from nonprofits to the Saudi-led coalition at the start of its military campaign there in early 2015. The Obama administration also requested coordinates in Libya last year, when it similarly declared parts of the country areas of active hostilities.
But for Somalia, such an encompassing request is novel. Taken with Trump’s declaration of active hostilities, the note suggests that it’s a question not of if, but when, more airstrikes will take place.
Since 2001, the U.S. has carried out at least 41 attacks in Somalia — more than half of them in 2015 and 2016 — according to figures maintained by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Both the Pentagon and the CIA are involved. Trump’s new classification, made at the request of the Pentagon, allows military planners to ignore 2013 rules issued by the Obama administration, known as the Presidential Policy Guidance, which put limits on counterterrorism strikes away from the battlefield. The PPG requires “near-certainty” that civilians will not be injured or killed; multiple agencies must vet a proposed strike, and a case made that the target threatens the United States. After Trump lifted the PPG for areas of Yemen, U.S. attacks there increased drastically, with an unprecedented 80 airstrikes aimed at alleged Al Qaeda targets in March and April.
Pentagon officials told The Intercept that no strikes had been carried out thus far in 2017 in Somalia, though the Bureau of Investigation Journalism reports one.
“These operations will be limited to a defined area in Somalia which has been designated as an area of active hostilities such that the PPG does not apply there,” said Pentagon spokesperson Maj. Audricia Harris. Asked about the letter issued this week, Harris only said, “We discuss with NGOs when we are coordinating these military operations.”
“It is not unusual that when there is a ramp up in U.S. military engagement and a bombing campaign somewhere — as is now signaled by the White House with the Somalia announcement — that USAID would reach out to humanitarian partners to get deconfliction information to ensure that the military campaign doesn’t inadvertently target humanitarians,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, director of the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance during Obama’s second term.
The Pentagon may be particularly sensitive after U.S. airstrikes pulverized a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, in late 2015, killing at least 42 patients and staff. Doctors Without Borders, which administered the hospital, had repeatedly supplied the U.S. military with its coordinates prior to the attack — just as the group did in Yemen, where several of its facilities were hit by Saudi coalition bombs.
There is already evidence that before the lifting of the PPG, airstrikes in Somalia were being carried out on weak intelligence. In September, a so-called self-defense strike killed at least 10 members of a local militia that American forces mistook for the Shabab in the Galmudug region. A review conducted by AFRICOM did not find that the Shabab was involved in fighting.
“Access to independent information is extremely challenging, and often dangerous, in Somalia,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. The incident in Galmudug, she said, “highlights the very real risk that an expansion of operations in Somalia may be seen as an opportunity for various actors to sow misinformation.”
Several NGO officials that spoke with The Intercept said the guidance they received, if well intentioned, was a clear indication that the U.S. planned to intensify strikes in Somalia. “It’s the responsible way to go about an irresponsible expansion of the scope of hostilities,” said one official, who requested anonymity because their group works with the U.S. government.
Somalia is already in the throes of a dire humanitarian crisis; 6.2 million people are in need of assistance and the United Nations says it risks famine in 2017. The country is only five years removed from a famine that left more than a quarter million people dead, half of them children under the age of 5.
“Lessons learnt from recent years show that escalation of violence in Somalia may lead to further displacements and human suffering and may negatively impact the humanitarian operating environment,” said Jens Laerke, a spokesperson for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “We continue to advocate for minimizing impact on civilians of any military action in Somalia.”