Translate page with Google

Pulitzer Center Update March 27, 2024

Grantee's Drone Strike Investigation Ignites Calls for Somali Family's Compensation



An exclusive investigation into the U.S. shadow war in Somalia and the toll its taken on innocent...

Nick Turse’s investigation into civilians killed by U.S. drone strikes in Somalia has catalyzed calls for compensation from international organizations and American legislators

United States drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Somalia have killed thousands of people since 2001. Among those killed, it’s unclear how many are civilians, since the Department of Defense (DoD) hasn’t always been required to release accurate data on civilian casualties, let alone rectify wrongdoing. 

Journalists like Pulitzer Center grantee Nick Turse have been crucial in identifying those civilians and revealing the Pentagon’s flawed intelligence and legacy of impunity. He is part of a wave of investigative reporters, including Pulitzer Center board member Azmat Khan, who have turned their focus to the human toll of U.S. airstrikes. 

Air strikes have killed at least 1,000 people in Somalia alone since the U.S. began anti-terrorism drone operations there in 2007. Five of those individuals — likely a severe undercount — have been identified as civilians, but the DoD claims it doesn’t know their identities. 

Turse’s Pulitzer Center-supported investigation, "Civilian Harm," for The Intercept, identified two of those victims — Luul Dahir Mohamed and her 4-year-old daughter, Mariam Shilow Muse, both killed in a 2018 strike. 

After obtaining a previously classified investigation into the strike through the Freedom of Information Act, Turse contacted dozens of experts and officials, including an anonymous U.S. drone pilot and strike cell analyst who worked in Somalia in 2018, to help him decipher the documents. Then, he traveled to Somalia to meet Luul’s family. He was hardly the first to do so, he said. 

“There's a pretty robust and vocal press in Somalia,” Turse said. “There's generally a follow-up after these strikes. After this strike, I recall, there was a very quick response in the Somali press, saying that civilians were killed in the strike and there were a lot of details about it—a woman and a child. Alarm bells went off for me.” 

Many cases of civilian casualties from U.S. drone strikes go unaccounted for, and follow-up investigations are rare. What makes the Somalia case unique, Turse said, was that the DoD had filed an investigation, which determined that “one of the individuals targeted in the strike was misidentified [redacted] as an adult male, and was actually an adult female with a child.” Furthermore, it determined that the crew was inexperienced, but “the strike complied with the applicable rules of engagement.” No one was held responsible. 

Even rarer, Luul and Mariam’s family had attempted to contact the U.S. government multiple times through the United States Africa Command’s online portal. They expected a response and compensation, perhaps from the $3 million pre-existing fund appropriated by Congress for condolence payments to drone strike victims and their families. To date, they’ve received no apology or amends. 

Turse isn’t new to investigating civilian deaths at the hands of the U.S. military. He’s written several books, notably Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, which details the systemic nature of violence against non-combatants that is often buried in secret U.S. military documents. Across U.S. departments and agencies, Turse estimates he has around 4,000 pending document requests, some dating back 10 years. Why did the Somalia ones happen to come through? Potentially because he sued for them. 

“I get batches of documents from time to time,” Turse explained. “I'm not sure why this one over the others. I fought hard for it. And I think I crafted pretty difficult appeals for them to try to get around.” 

Turse’s persistence has gained notice. Fourteen Somali groups and 10 international human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International USA, signed a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in December demanding compensation for Luul and Mariam’s family. In the halls of Congress, four representatives—Barbara Lee, D-Calif.; Jim McGovern, D-Mass.; Sara Jacobs, D-Calif.; and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.—and one senator, Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., have made the same call, most recently at the beginning of March. 

Jacobs and Omar, who is Somali American, led the initial charge in bringing the issue to lawmakers in January. “We owe it to the families of victims to acknowledge the truth of what happened, provide the compensation that Congress has repeatedly authorized, and allow independent investigations into these attacks,” Omar told The Intercept. 

Many drone strike victims face a difficult path to recognition and compensation simply because the U.S. won’t acknowledge they killed civilians. In the case of Luul and Mariam, where the DoD has admitted its mistake, Turse said it’s simply a matter of attention and pressure to get the government to act. The U.S. Africa Command, known as AFRICOM, has yet to comment further on Turse’s findings and, aside from the investigation, has remained relatively silent on the case. 

When Turse left Somalia, he gave Luul and Mariam’s family copies of the documents he acquired. “I cannot understand the explanation in the investigation,” Luul’s husband, Shilow Muse Ali, told Turse as he read them. “How can you admit that you killed two civilians and also say the rules were followed?” 

Turse is used to contacting victims and collecting evidence where the military won’t. 

“It's something I've done my entire career,” Turse said. “My first big story as an investigative reporter was investigating U.S war crimes and civilian harm in Vietnam … It's always a humbling experience when people will speak about what's often the worst and most traumatic days of their lives and share that with you. They're always the stories that I most wanted to tell because, while it's often painful for people, I've found that these are stories that people want to be known.” 

In Somali culture, Turse found, compensation is just one part of making amends; no amount of money can take away the pain of losing a loved one. For Luul and Mariam’s family, compensation would be the beginning signal that the U.S. is truly apologetic. 

“But the fact that five years have gone by, and they've just been ignored—they've been reaching out to the U.S. military and have been rebuffed over and over again,” Turse said. “They thought it was the ultimate insult to their family and to the family members that they lost. The United States will admit to gaffes, but not even reach out, and then have the audacity to claim in the investigation that the identities of those killed would never be known … It was deeply hurtful to them.”


war and conflict reporting


War and Conflict

War and Conflict