Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Trump Escalates Killer Drone War and No One Seems to Care

There is no evidence that it's improved anyone’s security in the Horn of Africa or in the U.S.

America’s drone wars have become even more destructive at the same time they have become increasingly opaque.

The Trump administration has significantly increased the tempo of drone strikes in a number of countries, and it has relaxed the rules governing the targeting of these strikes. The result has been an increased number of civilian casualties with even less accountability than before and no redress for the innocent people caught in the middle of our endless wars.

The U.S. government restricts the information that is publicly available about these attacks, and that in turn ensures that there is very little public scrutiny or criticism of an open-ended military campaign. To make matters worse, the additional strikes seem to have done nothing to reduce the activities of Al-Shabaab, and instead the threat posed by the group is greater than before.

The drone war in Somalia is just one part of this campaign, and it exemplifies what is wrong with the open-ended “war on terror.” Like the other wars he inherited, President Trump has significantly escalated it. Through the end of 2019, there had already been 148 U.S. strikes launched in Somalia since Trump took office. In just the first half of 2020, there have been as many U.S. drone strikes in Somalia (40) as there were between 2007 and 2016. In less than three and a half years, Trump has more than quadrupled the number of attacks in Somalia ordered by his last two predecessors.

There is no evidence that this has improved anyone’s security in the Horn of Africa or in the U.S., but it has led to a rise in civilian deaths. As Elizabeth Shackelford put it in a recent article for Responsible Statecraft, “Here, as elsewhere, we have no evidence to suggest that our increased counterterrorism activity hasn’t in fact had the opposite effect. But in the current foreign policy climate in the United States, forging ahead with our military is reflexive, so forge ahead is what we do.”

Some of these strikes have been on civilian targets, killing and maiming innocent people in their homes or their vehicles as they went about their business. The victims of these attacks had no connections to Al-Shabaab. U.S. AFRICOM has not acknowledged these civilian deaths and has not seriously investigated the attacks. According to a new report from Human Rights Watch, there has been no effort to redress the wrongs that have been committed against Somali civilians. HRW’s Horn of Africa director Laetitia Bader criticized AFRICOM for this: “AFRICOM seems determined not to uncover whether its airstrikes killed civilians or violated the laws of war. The military chain of command should recognize that not only does it have a legal obligation to investigate, but that basic decency toward the families of those harmed means providing financial assistance and an apology, not silence.”

In at least two of these attacks, the U.S. appears to have carried out unlawful strikes that resulted in the deaths of seven people and the wounding of three more. The airstrike on a minibus near Janaale in March was responsible for killing six people, including one child. AFRICOM claimed that the strike had killed five “terrorists,” but the HRW investigators found no evidence that these people were anything other than unfortunate travelers on their way to Mogadishu. Mahad Dhoore, the local member of parliament, spoke out against the claim that the victims had been terrorists:

“They killed civilians. They are not telling the truth when they say they killed terrorists. These people are my constituents,” Mahad told Al Jazeera.

“Civilians are paying a heavy price. On one hand, they are being punished by al-Shabab. On the other, American drone strikes are killing them,” he added.

The son of one of the victims of the strike spoke to PRI about his father: “Let me tell you, al-Shabab is evil,” Waadhoor said. “But you can’t kill innocent people. [A] 70-year-old who is innocent and who is a disabled man who never did anything wrong all his life.”

The rush to classify the victims of these strikes as “terrorists” is an unacceptable attempt to duck responsibility, and it reflects the carelessness with which these attacks are carried out. Targeting a minibus taxi filled with civilians is more than a regrettable mistake. It is a product of a policy that disregards the importance of Somali civilian lives.

Journalist and analyst Kelsey Atherton also commented on the attack in an article earlier this year: “The Janaale airstrike is the drone war in microcosm. To the extent that there is transparency, it is voluntary, not mandated. Tracking civilian harm is done—at least at first—by people outside government. And, as with all news save the most dramatic or scandalous in the Trump administration, it is largely absent from public awareness, a boring holdover of past consensus politics that leaves a trail of corpses and mangled limbs behind it worldwide.”

AFRICOM has consistently minimized the number of civilians killed by U.S. military action in its area of responsibility. According to the independent monitoring group Airwars, the number of civilians killed by U.S. attacks is far higher than what the military is willing to admit. Nick Turse reported on the military’s undercounting of civilian casualties earlier this year: “All told, the monitoring group found that in these 31 cases, between 71 and 139 civilians have been killed, a figure that far exceeds AFRICOM’s official count of two dead.”

The rise in civilian casualties in Somalia is not an accident, but stems from a loosening in the restrictions placed on these attacks. Early in Trump’s presidency, the rules were changed to permit much greater leeway in when and where drone strikes could be carried out:

In March 2017, President Donald Trump reportedly designated parts of Somalia as “areas of active hostilities,” removing Obama-era rules requiring that there be near certainty that strikes will not injure or kill noncombatants. The White House refuses to explicitly confirm or deny this, but retired Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc, who headed Special Operations Command Africa at the time, was more forthcoming. “The burden of proof as to who could be targeted and for what reason changed dramatically,” he told The Intercept. That change, he added, led AFRICOM to conduct airstrikes that previously would not have been carried out.

The Trump administration is taking the misguided assumptions of the “war on terror” to their logical conclusion. They have taken an already militarized response and made it more violent and careless. They have intensified the drone war in the belief that more strikes lead to less terrorism when the strikes have produced the opposite result. The longer this goes on, the more incinerated minibuses filled with innocent victims there will be. The reality is that the drone war creates more of the very thing it is supposed to be destroying. Michael Scott Moore sums up one of the main arguments of Hellfire from Paradise Ranch, a new book by Joseba Zulaika that attacks the drone war:

The most persuasive part of his book is his argument that drone strikes are not surgical, contrary to public opinion — or even very efficient. They’re sloppy and counterproductive. They kill civilians, who tend to view the modern miracle of Hellfires raining from a clear blue sky as murder, not warfare — and they create more terrorists than they kill, according to some of Obama’s own counterterrorism experts.

Drone strikes have become such a routinized and normalized part of our endless war policy that they barely register here at home. A lack of transparency ensures that they receive even less attention. The strikes and their victims remain invisible, and the wars they are being used to fight go unnoticed and unchecked.

All of this escalating military activity takes place under an umbrella authorization for the use of force that has become a permanent license to kill people on the far side of the world at will. This is happening without any meaningful accountability when innocents are harmed, and it doesn’t appear to be achieving anything in terms of reducing the threat from terrorist groups. It is time that we acknowledged that militarized counter-terrorism does an exceptionally bad job of countering terrorism. The endless war has failed to make anyone more secure, and it has killed far too many innocent bystanders. It is time that the U.S. brought the war to an end.