Glenn Greenwald: US killed 150 in Somali air strikes -- but no one knows who they are

March 11, 2016
US government documents prove that, in most cases, its drone strikes kill people other than the intended targets.

The United States used drones and manned aircraft on March 8 to drop bombs and missiles on Somalia, ending the lives of at least 150 people.

As it virtually always does, the Obama administration instantly claimed the people killed were “terrorists” and militants — members of the Somali group al-Shabaab — but provided no evidence.

Nonetheless, most US media reports contained nothing more than quotes from US officials about what happened, conveyed uncritically and with no scepticism of their accuracy. The dead “fighters … were assembled for what American officials believe was a graduation ceremony and prelude to an imminent attack against American troops,” pronounced the New York Times.

So, the official story goes, The Terrorists were that very moment “graduating” — receiving their Terrorist degrees — and about to attack US troops when the US killed them.

With that boilerplate set of claims in place, huge numbers of people today who have absolutely no idea who was killed are certain that they all deserved it.

As my colleague Murtaza Hussain said of the 150 dead people: “We don't know who they are, but luckily they were all bad.”


For mindless authoritarians, the words “terrorist” and “militant” have no meaning other than anyone who dies when my government drops bombs, or, at best, a “terrorist” is anyone my government tells me is a terrorist.

Watch how many people today are defending this strike by claiming “terrorists” and “militants” were killed using those definitions even though they have literally no idea who was killed.

Other than the higher-than-normal death toll, this mass killing is an incredibly common event under the presidency of the 2009 Nobel Peace laureate, who has so far bombed seven predominantly Muslim countries.

As Nick Turse has The Intercept, Obama has aggressively expanded the stealth drone program and secret war in Africa.

This particular mass killing is unlikely to get much attention in the US due to:

1. the election season obsession with horserace analysis and pressing matters such as the size of Donald Trump's hands;
2. widespread Democratic indifference to the killing of foreigners where there is no partisan advantage to be had against the Republicans from pretending to care;
3. the invisibility of places like Somalia and the implicit devaluing of lives there; and
4. the complete normalisation of the model whereby the US president kills whoever he wants, wherever he wants, without regard for any semblance of law, process, accountability or evidence.

The lack of attention notwithstanding, there are several important points highlighted by the bombing and reactions to it.


Firstly, US is not at war in Somalia. Congress has never declared war on Somalia nor has it authorised the use of military force there.

Morality and ethics to the side for the moment: What legal authority does Obama even possess to bomb this country? I assume we can all agree that presidents should not be permitted to just go around killing people they suspect are “bad” — they need some type of legal authority to do the killing.

Since 2001, the US government has legally justified its “we-bomb-wherever-we-want” approach by pointing to the 2001 Authorisation for Use of Military Force (AUMF), enacted by Congress in the wake of 9/11 to authorise the targeting of al-Qaeda and “affiliated” forces.

But al-Shabaab did not exist in 2001 and had nothing to do with 9/11. Indeed, the group has not tried to attack the US, but instead, as the NYT's Charlie Savage noted in 2011, “is focused on a parochial insurgency in Somalia”.

As a result, reported Savage, even “the [Obama] administration does not consider the United States to be at war with every member of the Shabaab”.

Instead, in the Obama administration's view, specific senior members of al-Shabaab can be treated as enemy combatants under the AUMF only if they adhere to al-Qaeda's ideology, are “integrated” into its command structure, and could conduct operations outside of Somalia.

That is why the US government claimed on March 8 that all the people it killed were about to launch attacks on US soldiers: because, even under its own incredibly expansive view of the AUMF, it would be illegal to kill them merely on the ground that they were all members of al-Shabaab. The government thus needs a claim of “self-defence” to legally justify this.

But even under the “self-defence” theory that the US government invoked, it is allowed — under its own policies promulgated in 2013 — to use lethal force away from an active war zone (for example, Afghanistan) “only against a target that poses a continuing, imminent threat to US persons”.

Perhaps these Terrorists were about to imminently attack US troops stationed in the region — immediately after the tassel on their graduation cap was turned at the “graduation ceremony”, they were going on the attack — but again, there is literally no evidence that any of that is true.

Given what is at stake — namely, the conclusion that Obama's killing of 150 people was illegal — should we not be demanding to see evidence that the assertions of his government are actually true? Were these really all al-Shabaab fighters and terrorists who were killed? Were they really about to carry out some sort of imminent, dangerous attack on US personnel?

Why would anyone be content to blindly believe the self-serving assertions of the US government on these questions without seeing evidence? If you are willing to make excuses for why you do not want to see any evidence, why would you possibly think you know what happened here — who was killed and under what circumstances — if all you have are evidence-free assertions from those who carried out the killings?

Secondly, there are several compelling reasons demanding scepticism of US government claims about who it kills in airstrikes. To begin with, the Obama administration has formally re-defined the term “militant” to mean: “all military-age males in a strike zone” unless “there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent”.

In other words, the US government presumptively regards all adult males it kills as “militants” unless evidence emerges that they were not. It is an empty, manipulative term of propaganda and nothing else.

Drone killings

Beyond that, the US government's own documents prove that in the vast majority of cases — nine out of 10 in fact — it is killing people other than its intended targets. Last April, the NYT published an article under the headline “Drone Strikes Reveal Uncomfortable Truth: US Is Often Unsure About Who Will Die.”

It quoted the scholar Micah Zenko saying: “Most individuals killed are not on a kill list, and the government does not know their names.”

Moreover, the US government has repeatedly been caught lying about the identities of its bombings victims. As the NYT article put it: “Every independent investigation of the strikes has found far more civilian casualties than administration officials admit.”

Given that clear record of deliberate deceit, why would any rational person blindly swallow evidence-free assertions from the US government about who it is killing? To put it mildly, extreme scepticism is warranted (after being criticised for its stenography, the final NYT story on the March 8 attacks at least included this phrase about the Pentagon's claims about who it killed: “There was no independent way to verify the claim”).

Thirdly, why does the US have troops stationed in this part of Africa? Remember, even the Obama administration says it is not at war with al Shabaab.

Consider how circular this entire rationale is: The US, like all countries, obviously has a legitimate interest in protecting its troops from attack. But why does it have troops there at all in need of protection?

The answer: The troops are there to operate drone bases and attack people they regard as a threat to them. But if they were not there in the first place, these groups could not pose a threat to them.

In sum: We need US troops in Africa to launch drone strikes at groups that are trying to attack US troops in Africa. It is the ultimate self-perpetuating circle of imperialism: We need to deploy troops to other countries in order to attack those who are trying to kill US troops who are deployed there.

Extreme behaviour

Fourthly, if you are an American who has lived under the war on terror, it is easy to forget how extreme this behaviour is. Most countries on the planet do not routinely run around dropping bombs and killing dozens of people in multiple other countries at once, let alone do so in countries where they are not at war.

But for Americans, this is now all perfectly normalised. We just view our president as vested with the intrinsic, divine right, grounded in American exceptionalism, to deem whomever he wants “Bad Guys” and then — with no trial, no process, no accountability — order them killed. He is the roving Global Judge, Jury, and Executioner.

And we see nothing disturbing or dangerous or even odd about that. We have been inculcated to view the world the way a six-year-old watches cartoons: Bad Guys should be killed, and that is the end of the story.

So on March 8, the president killed roughly 150 people in a country where the US is not at war. The Pentagon issued a five-sentence boilerplate statement declaring them all “terrorists.” And that is pretty much the end of that.

Within literally hours, virtually everyone was ready to forget about the whole thing and move on, content in the knowledge — even without a shred of evidence or information about the people killed — that their government and president did the right thing. Now that is a pacified public and malleable media.

[Reprinted from The Intercept.]

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