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Obama Administration To Justify Drone Strikes With Casualty Counts

President Barack Obama’s administration bombed what the Pentagon claimed was an al Shabab training camp and killed 150 people. The death toll from the air and drone strikes was higher than any strikes in America’s covert drone wars thus far.

The number of deaths was higher than the death toll in the al Majalah strike in Yemen, which killed 55 people, including 41 civilians on December 17, 2009. It was higher than a CIA drone strike in Pakistan, which killed 80 children and a man in a religious school.

But the Pentagon and anonymous “intelligence officials” maintained in the aftermath that all of the 150 people killed were “militants” or al Shabab members. There was absolutely no reason to doubt that each person dead from drone missiles and aircraft bombs were bad people, who the U.S. was justified in attacking.

Nearly every establishment media outlet in the U.S. raised little to no concerns about the death toll and the scale of the attack in Somalia in their coverage.

There is nothing in the Associated Press’ report about the Shabab militants posing an “imminent threat” to Americans. The New York Times reported the strikes were launched to prevent “an imminent attack against American troops and their allies in East Africa.” The Washington Post reported the fighters were a threat to “both U.S. and African Union troops stationed in the war-torn country.”

Sarah Knuckey, associate clinical professor of law at Columbia Law School, has pointed out that in Somalia, the U.S. supposedly follows rules for “use of force in counterterrorism operations outside of active hostilities.” In other words, these are supposed restrictions on use of force in places away from Afghanistan or Iraq, where war has not been declared.

The Obama administration claims to follow the guideline that the U.S. “will use lethal force only against a target that poses a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons.” What rules were being followed in launching these strikes?

Previously, in October 2013, Obama deployed a Navy Seals team in Somalia to carry out a “kill or capture” mission. There were questions then about whether Obama had war powers to launch such an operation.

What rules are being followed with these strikes in Somalia? Does it matter? If it does not matter, what about the potential blowback? How about the concern that this kind of action draws the U.S. further into the destruction of another country and that the results could very well end up being as destabilizing as in Libya?

Journalist Jeremy Scahill detailed in his book, “Dirty Wars,” the extent to which actions by the U.S. have transformed “al Shabab and its al Qaeda allies” into groups “more powerful in Somalia than it—or the CIA—could ever have imagined.”

Briefly, CIA-backed Somali warlords were defeated by the Islamic Courts Union in the mid-2000s. “Blowback sparked by US policies in Somalia and abroad,” further inspired al Qaeda activity. “The civilian tolls the wars were taking in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, gave credence to the perception that the United States was waging a war against Islam,” according to Scahill.

“While the United States backed its own warlords in Mogadishu, Washington’s post-9/11 actions led to the formation of a coalition of former warlords and religious movements that would challenge the rule of the U.S. proxies in Somalia.” Ethiopia joined the conflict, and the escalation helped Shabab reinvigorate itself.

To what extent will this attack fan the flames of militant operations in Somalia?

Additionally, on the same day that the Obama administration killed more alleged fighters in counterterrorism operations than in any of its operation thus far, the administration made an announcement that it would finally disclose the number of people killed by U.S. drone and other air strikes since 2009.

The AP reported the disclosed casualty counts would include combatants and civilians. It would not cover war zones like Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan. These reports of casualties would focus on Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and other locations where extralegal and undeclared warfare is being waged.

There is an element of propaganda to this announcement. Not only did Lisa Monaco, a counterterrorism and homeland security adviser to Obama, say this is “the best way to maintain the legitimacy of our counterterrorism actions and the broad support of our allies,” but the announcement came as 150 alleged Shabab fighters were killed.

The Obama administration clearly intended to create the perception that it would disclose numbers, thereby diminishing concerns about human rights violations. The U.S. can argue it only kills terrorists now, as it did with this attack on a training camp.

A key issue is how the Obama administration defines “combatants” or “militants,” and how it defines “civilians.” There has been much controversy over the fact that the Obama administration used a criteria, which counted any “military-age male” in a strike zone as a “militant.” A drone whistleblower also revealed last year that the U.S. has killed hundreds of people in strikes, who were not “targets, and government officials have often lied or concealed the true number.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which has been fighting in court to force the Obama administration to be transparent about drone operations, said the administration should “release the legal memos that supply the purported legal basis for drone strikes—particularly those carried out away from recognized battlefields. It should acknowledge individual strikes, and it should investigate and explain strikes that kill innocent bystanders.”

Naureen Shah of Amnesty International stated the information disclosed on strikes must “include information on the U.S. government’s definitions and legal standards for these strikes.”

Whatever is released, the larger concern should be how the released data may be used to justify further military operations or regime change, which have the effect of destabilizing and destroying states like Libya or Somalia.

Screenshot from The IT Crowd
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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."