A new congressional caucus called on Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III Thursday to disclose details of the U.S. role in an airstrike that killed more than 160 Nigerian civilians at a displaced persons’ camp, including many children.
The group, known as the Protection of Civilians in Conflict Caucus, asked Austin to turn over classified documents and answer questions about the U.S. military’s involvement, which was first revealed by The Intercept in July.
While the Nigerian air force expressed regret for carrying out the 2017 strike, which also seriously wounded more than 120 people, the attack was referred to as an instance of “U.S.-Nigerian operations” in a formerly secret U.S. military document. Just days after the attack, U.S. Africa Command secretly commissioned Brig. Gen. Frank J. Stokes to undertake an “investigation to determine the facts and circumstances of a kinetic air strike (‘strike’) conducted by Nigerian military forces in the vicinity of Rann, Nigeria,” according to the document, which The Intercept obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. Stokes’s findings were never made public.
The document, reporting by Nigerian journalists, and interviews with experts suggest that the U.S. may have launched this rare internal investigation because it secretly provided intelligence or other support to the Nigerian armed forces who carried out the deadly strike. The U.S. inquiry was ordered by the then-top American general overseeing troops in Africa; Stokes was specifically told to avoid questions of wrongdoing or recommendations for disciplinary action, according to the document.
The group that sent the letter was formed late last month, following the Pentagon’s release of its Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan, which calls for broad changes to military doctrine to reduce risks to noncombatants. Reps. Sara Jacobs, D-Calif.; Jason Crow, D-Colo.; Ro Khanna, D-Calif.; Andy Kim, D-N.J.; and Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., launched the Protection of Civilians in Conflict Caucus to provide oversight of the Pentagon and advance policies that prevent and respond to civilian casualties from military operations conducted by the United States and its allies.
“Given the previously unreported nature of the U.S. military’s involvement in this strike and subsequent investigation, and your recent commitments to transparently responding to civilian harm, we request that the Department make available the investigation and all accompanying documentation to Members of the House Armed Services Committee,” reads the group’s letter to Austin, asking for the information to be furnished within 90 days.
The letter raises questions about the nature of U.S. involvement in the 2017 attack, including about the circumstances that led to targeting of the displaced persons’ camp; whether corrective action was taken by the Nigerian or U.S. militaries; if AFRICOM or the State Department had knowledge of the U.S. role in the attack; and whether the United States has continued to assist the Nigerian military in airstrikes or ground operations.
“Congress has a critical role to play in ensuring that the United States prevents, mitigates, and responds to civilian harm with transparency and accountability — and that includes harm committed when working by, with and through partners,” said Annie Shiel, the senior adviser for U.S. policy and advocacy at the Center for Civilians in Conflict. “Given that AFRICOM has apparently investigated the strike already, I hope the Defense Department will respond transparently to this inquiry — and to the demands of civil society groups — by publicly releasing the investigation and acknowledging any U.S. role in the strike and its impact.”
In July, AFRICOM spokesperson Kelly Cahalan did not answer The Intercept’s questions about the results of Stokes’s investigation; she also did not respond to more recent questions about whether the command would turn over information on the strike to members of Congress.
“The United States has a duty to provide clear information on the extent of support provided to the Nigerian military for the Rann airstrike and the consequences of this support,” said Anietie Ewang, Human Rights Watch’s Nigeria researcher. “If their collaboration with the Nigerian authorities in any way contributed to the killing of civilians during the strike, they should acknowledge this and share in the responsibility to ensure accountability and redress for victims, which the Nigerian authorities have failed to do.”
Secret U.S. involvement in other nations’ errant airstrikes is an underreported form of civilian harm. Earlier this year, The Intercept revealed how U.S. targeting assessments carried out for the Dutch military led to a 2015 airstrike on an ISIS bomb factory in Hawija, Iraq, that touched off secondary explosions, killing at least 85 civilians. No Americans were held accountable for the civilian deaths in the Hawija strike, in keeping with a litany of attacks from Somalia to Libya and from Syria to Yemen that the Pentagon has failed to investigate or reinvestigate despite civilian casualty allegations. The U.S. has conducted more than 91,000 airstrikes across seven major conflict zones and killed as many as 48,308 civilians, according to a 2021 analysis by Airwars, a U.K.-based airstrike monitoring group.
The Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan — written at the direction of Austin in response to reporting by the New York Times and others — provides a blueprint for improving how the Pentagon addresses civilian casualties. The plan requires military personnel to consider potential harm to civilians in any airstrike, ground raid, or other type of combat. It also signals a more nuanced understanding of how civilian harm extends beyond deaths and injuries to include damage to infrastructure and essential services on which civilians depend, but experts say the plan is light on the question of accountability. That, potentially, is where Congress can play a key role.
“The Protection of Civilians in Conflict Caucus can make a mark with how they proceed on this case by ensuring they leave no stone unturned,” said Ewang. “They should go beyond uncovering the extent of U.S. involvement in the airstrike to asking critical questions about civilian casualty assessments and push for accountability and redress if there is any indication of U.S. responsibility.”