The leaflet depicts an airstrike in progress, with militants scattering as a missile streaks toward the ground.
In the foreground, a fighter in a military uniform, holding an assault rifle, tries to flee. He looks terrified. The caption, printed in Somali, reads: “Life is a gift.”
On the other side, the same man is shown sans weapon and wearing civilian clothes, smiling at a grinning child and a woman with outstretched arms. “Don’t play with this gift,” reads the text.
Another leaflet depicts a fierce-looking hyena menacing a goat above the text: “If a hyena becomes the judge, goats will not get justice.” The other side reads, “Be part of eliminating injustice by reporting al-Shabab movements.”
A third flyer shows five women and a girl standing together in front of the Somali flag. “Our security is our responsibility,” reads the front side. The back asks for information about al-Shabab, a Somali militant group.
The three leaflets, obtained by The Intercept via the Freedom of Information Act, were part of a previously unreported and wildly successful U.S. military program designed to gather intelligence from Somali civilians. The propaganda campaign aimed at weakening al-Shabab was so effective and produced so many defectors, according to U.S. Africa Command spokesperson John Manley, that it overwhelmed Somali authorities and had to be suspended. Manley did not provide the exact dates of the leaflet program prior to publication, but records show that it took place sometime between 2017 and 2020.
The success of the leaflets, however, underscores the failures of another system ostensibly designed to engage Somalis: an obscure online portal they can now use to report civilian casualties from U.S. drone strikes.
“The flyers make clear that the U.S. government knows how to communicate effectively with Somalis in areas controlled by al Shabaab if it wants to,” Daphne Eviatar, director of the Security With Human Rights program at Amnesty International USA, told The Intercept. “That the U.S. has not created an effective means for Somalis harmed by U.S. military actions to communicate their experiences and needs to the U.S. government suggests that learning about and responding constructively to the impact of U.S. actions is not a high priority for U.S. officials.”
For more than a decade after the U.S. began counterterrorism airstrikes in Somalia, there was no mechanism for locals to report civilian casualties directly to Africa Command. Last June, that changed when AFRICOM finally created a web portal to field allegations. But there was a catch — actually, several.
You need a computer or smartphone as well as internet access to communicate with AFRICOM. But Somalia is the least wired country on Earth, with just 2 percent of people regularly using the internet in 2017, the last year for which such statistics are available, according to the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency. Where al-Shabab holds sway, there is almost no online access as the group has “prohibited companies from providing access to the internet and forced telecommunication companies to shut data services in al-Shabaab-controlled areas,” according to the U.S. State Department.
The command added a feature to its website that allows it to be read in the Somali language, but — in addition to accessing the internet — you need to know the English word “translate” and locate it on the tiny toolbar at the top of the webpage.
The results of the initiative have been predictably underwhelming: AFRICOM has received roughly 70 responses over the last year, only seven of which, according to Manley, were related to civilian casualties. “Six were about one incident we were already assessing, and one was about another incident we were already assessing,” he told The Intercept. “Both incidents were assessed unsubstantiated.”
The complexity of AFRICOM’s online civilian casualty reporting process stands in stark contrast to the simpler mechanism used to turn Somalis into government boosters and informants. In recent years, Special Operations Command Africa, or SOCAFRICA, began producing propaganda leaflets meant to induce members of al-Shabab to defect and encourage Somalis to provide information about militants. All are written in Somali and include local telephone numbers to contact authorities.
“These leaflets were produced by SOCAFRICA to inform populations of tip-lines and influence local populations to use the tip-lines,” Manley told The Intercept.
SOCAFRICA produced four to five versions of eight different leaflets, each microtargeted to specific locales and providing local phone numbers for authorities in the cities of Bosaso, Galkayo, Kismayo, Mogadishu, or Wanlaweyn. Some leaflets even provide a second number for people to call or text for “assistance.”
Assessments by AFRICOM and SOCAFRICA found that the flyers “were very effective, but there were too many people defecting, leading to overcrowding at the defection centers,” according to Manley. “The program was eventually placed on hold by the Government of Somalia until the defection centers were able to manage the large number of defectors.”
Manley told The Intercept that the centers will reopen “once fully approved by the Government of Somalia and the U.S. Embassy.” State Department spokesperson Gregory W. Pfleger declined to comment, adding: “The referral to State must have been a mistake.”
The U.S. military rarely conducts site visits during investigations of airstrikes or ground raids, and AFRICOM, says Manley, has never even interviewed the family member of a drone strike victim as part of an inquiry into civilian casualties. The military almost never explains its reasons for eschewing site visits either, but when it has, according to a researchers from Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute and the Center for Civilians in Conflict, it “most often cited security threats to U.S. forces and local nationals.”
“Witnesses may refuse to cooperate [with investigations] because they are afraid of retribution,” reads one military guide dealing with the protection of civilians. “Individual U.S. and host-nation sources should be protected from possible retaliation.”
Dangers to civilians do not seem to have been a major concern when SOCAFRICA developed the leaflet program asking people to call in tips that could put them at risk of being outed as snitches. “We’ve heard [from the U.S. military] that communicating with civilians about civilian casualties would expose them to security risks, namely the risk of reprisal by al Shabaab,” said Daniel Mahanty, the head of the U.S. program at the Center for Civilians in Conflict, or CIVIC. “And here we have a program that encourages just that.”
While SOCAFRICA produced 39 leaflets that promote loyalty to the Somali government, encourage members of al-Shabab to leave the group, and urge Somali civilians to inform on militants, they apparently failed to produce even one to ease the reporting of civilian casualties from U.S. drone strikes. Somali civilians are, instead, left with a cumbersome online portal that, according to Abdullahi Hassan, the Somalia Researcher at Amnesty International, people living in impacted areas are unlikely to know about, let alone use.
Experts see online civilian casualty reporting as a positive initial effort but say the United States must do more. “Many Somalis are not able to access the Web,” Chris Woods, the director of Airwars, a U.K.-based airstrike monitoring group, told The Intercept. “So there would certainly be value in AFRICOM using more traditional routes such as flyers to reach affected communities.”
Amnesty’s Hassan also sees AFRICOM’s online civilian casualty portal as beneficial but noted that most people impacted by AFRICOM operations in Somalia live in al-Shabab-controlled areas, where the group bans smartphones, making it harder for them to use the internet safely.
“This makes the online reporting portal only useful to a small portion of the Somali population,” Hassan said.
The leaflets, by contrast, “are written in Somali language and contain telephone numbers where members of the public can easily contact authorities to report and share information. This is a clear indication that AFRICOM was, from the onset, less interested in setting up safe and accessible civilian casualty reporting mechanisms for families and victims of their operations in Somalia.”
Hassan suggested several additional steps AFRICOM could take to improve civilian casualty reporting, including a secure, toll-free phone number that allows Somalis to provide allegations of civilian casualties directly to the command, as well as a physical location in a government-controlled area — like the capital, Mogadishu — where reports could be submitted. He also urged AFRICOM and the U.S. embassy in Mogadishu to proactively seek out and collect allegations of civilian harm from members of parliament, clan representatives, and government officials, as well as local human rights groups.
Africa Command has made recent strides in terms of transparency concerning reports of civilian harm. In April 2020, AFRICOM began issuing quarterly Civilian Casualty Assessment reports chronicling allegations and reviews. The command’s latest assessment, published in March, noted that AFRICOM had received no new reports of civilian casualties during the quarter ending on December 31, 2020, and closed out two of its three open cases as “unsubstantiated.” After the report was finished, but before it was publicly released, at least two more casualty allegations, relating to strikes conducted on January 1 and January 19, 2021, came to light. AFRICOM is currently assessing those reports.
“Even as we maintain pressure on al-Shabaab’s terrorist network, we continue to minimize risk to civilians during our operations,” U.S. Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of AFRICOM, wrote in the last quarterly report. “Transparency, abiding by the rule of law, and promoting security and stability are foundational to how we operate.”
Still, AFRICOM has only ever acknowledged five deaths and eight injuries resulting from four airstrikes. Airwars, by contrast, reports that up to 143 civilians have been killed in 30 separate attacks in Somalia over the last 14 years.
“Airwars and our partners have called on AFRICOM to go back and comprehensively review dozens of historical allegations against U.S. forces in Somalia dating back to 2007,” said Woods. “Doing so would, we believe, send a clear message that AFRICOM takes Somali civilian harm concerns seriously and that it is willing to concede both current and past mistakes.”
Transparency and accountability have not been defining aspects of U.S. military efforts in Africa, from counting civilian injuries and deaths to air-dropping leaflets. In 2016, for example, The Intercept filed a Freedom of Information Act request for leaflets used in the campaign against Joseph Kony and his murderous Lord’s Resistance Army. Special Operations Command told The Intercept that it could not locate any of the fliers, instead sending a collection of tiny blurry images. Meanwhile, some of the fliers were sitting at a U.S. outpost in Africa, where they were incinerated instead of being released under the FOIA.
If accountability for civilian harm is truly a priority, experts say that Africa Command needs to ditch its two-tiered reporting system and develop one that makes it as easy for Somalis to tell the U.S. military when it has killed or wounded civilians as it does to inform on al-Shabab.
“From our perspective,” CIVIC’s Mahanty told The Intercept, “the U.S. and the government of Somalia, and frankly all of the many international armed actors in Somalia, should have a unified, or at least compatible, approach that enables, and in fact encourages, civilians to safely report civilian casualties and to expect an appropriate response, including condolence payments when warranted and where civilians themselves so prefer.”