The ongoing US assassination program just completed one of its most deadly strikes on record in the country of Somalia, killing an estimated 150 people. Rest assured though, the US government said that all the victims were “militants”. The US government also stated that the airstrikes were in self-defense, so you know, no big deal.
Of course, the US isn’t actually at war in Somalia. No evidence has been provided as to the identity of any of the dead. And no details have been provided as to precisely who these 150 people were allegedly threatening that necessitated their execution. The Pentagon press release merely indicated that the attack was on an al Shabaab training camp.
Yet in spite of the clear lack of information, the killing of 150 people in a neutral country does not entail a scandal or even warrant comments from the President of the United States. It’s just a normal event. The Pentagon’s version of events was reported uncritically throughout most of the US media. Not enough details were offered to really corroborate the story, and no major US outlet bothered to try. Somalia is pretty far away, after all.
If this sounds problematic, it should. A few important questions come to mind:
- What is al Shabaab and why is the US trying to kill its members?
- How can we assume all 150 people were not civilians given that the US government has a policy of labeling all fighting-age males as militants, until proven otherwise?
- How can we exclusively trust the US government’s version of events, given that it has a vested interest in how the story gets reported?
- Why are there US troops in Somalia to be threatened in the first place?
- Is it remotely legal for a country to assassinate people in a foreign country with which it is not at war?
On the question of al Shabaab, the background is both important and informative. When the War on Terror kicked off in 2001, Somalia remained largely ungoverned. In this void, the US backed local warlords in Somalia to engage in counterterrorism activities, even though none of the 9/11 hijackers were from Somalia. Being warlords, however, they grabbed what power they could and committed various forms of brutality. After a few years of escalating civil war, a group of Somali religious leaders put together a coalition of groups that was finally able to marginalize the warlords and establish some semblance of authority and stability in Somalia. This coalition was called the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), and al Shabaab, which means “the youth,” was a minor subgroup within this coalition.
Unfortunately, the US government was unwilling to tolerate Islamic self-government in Somalia. So the US supported neighboring Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia, in an attempt to weaken or overthrow the new Somali government. After two more years of chaos and violence, Somalia eventually drove the Ethiopians out in 2008, led by the fighters of Al Shabaab. With Ethiopia out, the leaders of the ICU agreed to make a deal with the US and use a secular form of government that the US preferred. But the Al Shabaab movement denounced the deal as betrayal, and effectively declared another round of civil war. At this point, after being emboldened and radicalized by years of fighting, Al Shabaab also declared allegiance to Al Qaeda and thus made its way onto the US hit list, where it remains today. In effect, Al Shabaab is the perfect example of how the US War on Terror can be counterproductive.
Though it seems impossible, the story of Somalia actually gets worse from then on, eventually culminating in a famine that killed hundreds of thousands of people. If you’re interested to know more, check out this excellent summary by Scott Horton in The Future of Freedom.
And to answer the rest of the questions posed above, check out this great write-up from Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept, which explores them in-depth.
Eric Schuler is the author of The Daily Face Palm blog, which focuses mostly on foreign policy and bad economics.