U.S. War Crimes in Somalia
Published on: Feb 28, 2007

The Policy of Excessive Force

Abuses by the U.S. forces in Somalia were not the out-of-control excesses of frustrated front-line troops. They were the direct and inevitable outcome of decisions taken high up in the military command. Probably for this reason, the U.S. has been conspicuously unwilling to open any sort of inquiry into the conduct of its forces, comparable to the efforts in Canada, or even the half-hearted attempts in Belgium and Italy. On the contrary, the U.S. soldiers have been portrayed as the victims of Mogadishu. In a sense, they were—but some of them were also responsible for gross abuses, either on their own account or in carrying out orders. Enormous attention has been paid to the U.S. Rangers and other service people who fought and died in Somalia. And there has been a process of ‘lesson learning’ and accountability—of sorts. The lesson learned was that the U.S. should not intervene unless its national interests were at stake; that better military coordination was required; and that the U.S. should not entrust command to other nationalities within a UN structure—despite the dominant U.S. role in the UN structure in Somalia.

Secretary of Defense Les Aspin took the blame for not sending armoured vehicles and C130 aircraft with precision bombing capabilities, which had been requested by the commander in Mogadishu in August 1993, in anticipation of events such as those of 3 October. He resigned in 1994. The ground force commander also took responsibility for the operation going wrong. He left the army in 1996. But who will take responsibility for the violations of international humanitarian law committed during the Somali operation?

The first indication of a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions by U.S. forces—in lay language, a war crime—was on 17 June.16 On this day, twelve days after the ambush in which twenty-three Pakistanis had died, a combined UN force—U.S. helicopters, Moroccan, French, Italian and other ground forces—tried to overrun Aidid’s headquarters in South Mogadishu. They ran into much fiercer resistance than they had expected and the Moroccans in particular suffered heavy losses. For a while, the UN force commanders suspected that General Aidid had taken refuge in Digfer Hospital, Mogadishu’s largest hospital, which is about half a mile from his headquarters. No evidence was ever produced to support this, but some snipers certainly took up positions on the roof of the building for a while.

In response, the hospital was attacked by UN forces.17 There were approximately 380 patients in the hospital, plus about 230 hospital staff including 19 doctors. Dr. Aweys Abdi Omar was operating on a woman admitted with a bullet wound in her abdomen, when the entire building shook with the force of explosions:

I was conducting an exploratory laparotomy on one of the patients who had been brought in overnight. She had a bullet wound. I heard someone say that the Moroccans were coming up the road from Benadir, and the militia were at the crossroads in front of Digfer. Just after that I heard the first missile explosion…. The staff started to run, to flee to the basement. I continued my operation. I had to stay with the patient, but I could do nothing without the other staff. I was crying. I don’t know where that missile hit, but I could feel the vibrations. Windows were breaking, a light fell from the ceiling. Then there were some explosions, and staff came and said that three patients in the recovery room had been killed. People were running. I finished the operation and stitched up the woman and put her in the ward. But there was no-one to take care of her… 18

Dr. Aweys then sought safety in the basement, along with most of the staff and those patients who could move. Those who could not move were not so fortunate. In all, eleven artillery shells and helicopter rockets struck the hospital. One missile hit the operating theatre, passing over the head of a doctor as a patient was being prepared for an operation. Four missiles hit the orthopaedic ward, killing at least two people. The total number of casualties is unknown, as most; people fled as the attack began. Later in the day, French troops stormed the by then largely deserted building, searched it, breaking down doors and ransacking offices. A depressing but common feature of the search was the theft of money and other valuables by the foreign troops.

An inspection of the building and careful analysis of the impacts—which shows that some of the missiles were travelling downwards when they struck the building—demonstrates that at least some of the missiles were fired from helicopters—which means tow anti-tank missiles from U.S. Cobra helicopters, since no other contingent possessed attack helicopters. However, this was denied by a U.S. military spokesman the following day. Lt.-Col. Trevor Jones told reporters, ‘I can assure you that no tow missiles were fired at Digfer hospital and there was no artillery used by UN forces at all.’ Declining to say what types of weapons were used, Major Frank Fountain, a U.S. military attorney, told the author that the U.S., Moroccan and French troops had fired solely in self-defence and had used minimum force and the most accurate weaponry available.19

But the official accounts of the battle are so contradictory and at variance with the evidence that they cannot be taken seriously. The physical evidence from the hospital, Somali eyewitness accounts, and the statement by the Italian General Bruno Loi that a major assault on the hospital was planned,20 all contradict the official claim of restraint and self-defence. One U.S. officer admitted to me in confidence that artillery and helicopter missiles had been fired at the building. It later transpired that U.S. helicopters had fired eleven tow missiles during the battle of 17 June, of which five had malfunctioned or missed their targets. Most of the impacts were also several stories below the roof where the snipers were stationed—the term ‘most accurate weaponry’ is a relative one.

Under the Geneva Conventions, a hospital should be protected. If one belligerent party violates the neutrality of a hospital by, for example, stationing snipers there, the other party cannot simply attack; it must give warning and provide some protection for civilians. The UN forces did not do that: they just attacked, almost certainly with excessive force. The presence of a few snipers on the roof of a crowded hospital is no justification for firing heavy artillery and anti-tank missiles into the fabric of the building without warning.

Dr. Mohamed Fuji, the medical director of Digfer, who had been working—like all his staff—as an unpaid volunteer for almost three years, noted that during this time they had received no assistance from the UN. The first UN matériel that arrived in Mogadishu’s largest hospital were the rockets. ‘This was not the reward we were expecting for our work’, he commented.21

Whatever the truth of the matter, the incident required investigation. When on 10 July I questioned a U.S. military attorney about the legality of the attack, his first response was that the UN is not a signatory to the Geneva Conventions and hence not bound by them.22 I objected to this obvious dodge, and he quickly added that the U.S. forces felt themselves morally bound by them. He asked me to return the next day. But the next day, the UN issued instructions for my arrest and detention.23 In the event, the atmosphere of Mogadishu had turned so ugly that I left town that same day. And with regard to the Digfer attack, a UN officer stated that ‘the normal rules of engagement do not apply in this situation’.24

Helicopter Attacks on Civilians

On 12 July, U.S. helicopters fired ten tow rockets into a building where members of Aidid’s political movement were holding a meeting. At least fifty-four people, including clan elders and religious leaders, died in the house of Abdi Kabdiid, one of Aidid’s aides. When journalists arrived to cover the event, an angry crowd turned on them and four were killed.

There is no doubt that the U.S. helicopters attacked a chiefly civilian meeting.25 Admiral Howe defiantly defended his decision to authorize the attack, which killed some intermediaries with whom he himself had been speaking a few days earlier. ‘We knew what we were hitting. It was well-planned.’26 In a familiar ploy, the Admiral attacked the media’s representation of events and argued that ‘the main reason for UNOSOM’s negative image was its poor media strategies’.27 Howe claimed that only twenty people had been killed, as against the Red Cross which said fifty-four had died, and Aidid’s SNA which produced a list of seventy-three people who they claimed had been killed. But Howe could not produce any evidence to back up his claim because, he said, the camera on the U.S. helicopter had jammed. This was the first official admission that U.S. military technology might occasionally malfunction.

Ann Wright, a legal advisor to UNOSOM, sent a memorandum to Admiral Howe the following day. The prose style cannot obscure the seriousness of the charge:

This UNOSOM military operation raises important legal and human rights issues from a UN perspective. The issue boils down to whether the Security Council Resolution’s directive [following the killing of the Pakistanis] authorizing UNOSOM to ‘take all necessary measures’ against those responsible for attacks on UNOSOM forces meant for UNOSOM to use lethal force against all persons without possibility of surrender in any building suspected or known to be SNA/Aidid facilities or did the Security Council allow that persons suspected to be responsible for attacks against UNOSOM forces would have an opportunity to be detained by UNOSOM forces and explain their presence in an SNA/Aidid facility and then be judged in a neutral court of law to determined if they were responsible for attacks against UNOSOM forces or were mere occupants (temporary or permanent) of a building, suspected or known to be an SNA/Aidid facility. 28

It seems that UNOSOM, and in particular its U.S. leadership, had decided that the UN Security Council resolution had indeed authorized it to disregard international humanitarian law and take wholly arbitrary and disproportionate measures. My questions about the Geneva Conventions of two days earlier had struck a sensitive note.

An operation such as this was a wholly U.S. affair. General Montgomery, commander of the QRF, would have consulted with Admiral Howe and almost certainly obtained authorization from CENTCOM in the United States. It needs to be asked how far up the chain of command, which leads ultimately to the White House, such consultation went.

The U.S. position—and that of the increasingly client-like UN—was made clear by two subsequent incidents. In the first, the UN detained fifty-five Somalis without charge, alleging they were key supporters of General Aidid (most of them were). David Ijayala, legal advisor to UNOSOM, said only that the prisoners were being held for security reasons and ‘the authority is under Chapter Seven [of the UN Charter, which authorizes the use of force], no other legal code’.29

The second occurred on 9 September when an SNA ambush disabled a U.S. tank, and the qrf was sent in with helicopters to rescue stranded U.S. soldiers and engineers. One of these helicopters opened fire on a crowd, killing an estimated sixty people—armed and unarmed. The UN spokesman, Major David Stockwell, said ‘There are no sidelines or spectator seats—the people on the ground are considered combatants.’30 In truth, it is often difficult to differentiate between a combatant and a civilian in a counter-guerrilla war—which is one reason why the U.S. has refused to sign the 1977 Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions, which extend legal protection to all civilians, making no distinction between, for example, infants and nursing mothers and workers in munitions factories. But the very foundation of international humanitarian law is the idea that some restraint must be exercised to minimize the danger to civilians, or in legalese, that ‘the methods used in combat are not unlimited’. U.S. helicopter actions disregarded this foundation of the laws of war.

The problem is that the U.S. doctrine of overwhelming force ensuring minimal U.S. casualties is almost wholly inapplicable in a situation of urban warfare where restraint is essential; almost by definition it involved breaches of the Geneva Conventions. The limits of U.S. technology were shown up on almost the first day of the battle, when U.S. military spokesmen proudly announced that bombing by a C130 airplane had destroyed Aidid’s headquarters. In fact, in a remarkable display of precision bombing, the neighbouring house belonging to a businessman named Hassan Hashi had been comprehensively levelled. One stray missile had made a neat hole in Aidid’s roof terrace.

In this context, the tragedy on 3 October, when several hundred people, eighteen of them American, died in a series of battles near the Olympic Hotel, appears as a tragic inevitability. The numbers killed in this battle are a matter for dispute and speculation. Initial estimates of the fatalities among Somalis were 200 dead. One leading Somali businessman in the area considered this number exaggerated, saying that he could only account for sixty dead in the vicinity of the Olympic Hotel.31 But the fighting covered a large area and many of those who died did so in their own compounds, where they were buried. Others came up with higher figures: Bowden’s estimate runs to nearly 500 dead, which is less than some Somali elders’ figures—though some of those estimates may have included earlier battles as well. Doctors in the city’s main hospitals were overwhelmed with hundreds of casualties, and with the poor emergency facilities available—despite the surgical expertise of Mogadishu doctors, who have unparalleled experience with gunshot and shrapnel wounds—the ratio of fatalities to casualties must have been high.