Investigative Reports

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Civilian Deaths in Turkish Drone Strike Could Pose Legal Challenges for Turkey and Qatar

A drone strike outside of Mogadishu has resulted in the tragic loss of over 22 lives and left 21 others wounded, many of whom are children. According to The Washington Post, citing two anonymous security sources, the attack was executed by a Turkish drone.

The strike targeted a residential dwelling in Baghdad village in an agricultural district about 25 kilometers northeast of the Somali capital, during the evening after Ramadan Iftar. The area was reportedly quiet at the time, following clashes on the preceding day between NISA forces and Somali armed forces. Eyewitness accounts describe a harrowing scene as multiple strikes continued to hit, even as rescuers attempted to aid the initial victims of the trike, leading to a devastating toll on women and children in particular. At the time of reporting, neither the Somali nor the Turkish government had provided comments on the strike, while the U.S. Africa Command has refuted any involvement.

Turkey’s military presence in Somalia has been increasing, with forces there to train and bolster the Somali government’s campaign against Al-Shabab. This incident is likely to heighten scrutiny over Somalia’s dependency on drones from international allies in the fight against Al-Shabab and the consequences for civilian casualty. Marking a significant escalation, this is the first reported case of a Turkish-backed operation resulting in a massive civilian casualty. Human rights organizations and investigative journalists have previously documented civilian losses due to Pentagon-operated drones in Somalia.

Qatar’s Support to Drone Operations in Somalia 

Information obtained by The Somaliland Chronicle suggests that Qatari military personnel have been actively involved in drone operations in Somalia, collaborating with Turkish and Somali forces in training and execution of both surveillance and active strikes. It’s not clear if any Qatar personnel were involved in this specific operation. The United Nations panel of experts indicated that Turkey delivered Bayraktar TB2 drones to Mogadishu on December 6, 2021 via two Airbus A400M military cargo planes operated by the Turkish Air Force.

Two sources familiar with the operations disclosed to Somaliland Chronicle that Turkey supplies the drone technology and associated training, while Qatar finances the cost of operations, enabling Qatari military personnel to train in active combat operations to acquire hands-on combat experience. Meanwhile, the Somali Armed Forces receive training and contribute intelligence for the operations. As Somalia contends with a lingering conflict, this approach of international support—potentially more effective—raises complex issues of transparency and accountability. 

The UN investigators alleged that Turkey violated international sanctions on Somalia by supplying armed drones without notification to and approval of the UN. In response to letters of inquiry from the UN, Turkey claimed it had delivered the drones to a Turkish base in Mogadishu and that the goal was to contribute to the fight against terrorism. “Turkey informed the Panel that it has not delivered any type of unmanned combat aerial vehicles to the Somali authorities and that the systems in question are assigned to be used by Türkiye in the fight against terrorism in Somalia,” the report issued by the UN experts on October 18, 2022 stated. After 2017 diplomatic crisis between Qatar and other Gulf countries, Turkey and Qatar increased joint effort to compete with other Gulf countries by funding and supporting different political factions in Somalia. 

Since 2011, Somali military forces have been heavily reliant on U.S. aerial support. While this assistance saw a temporary halt in the final year of President Trump’s administration, President Biden’s resumption of military support in mid 2022, including drone strikes, has been cautious and measured to prevent civilian casualties. Somalia lobbied for more aerial support and other force multipliers from Turkey and other countries as it started a major offensive against Al-shabab. 

The accidental harm to civilians by drone strikes, involving forces from multiple nations, muddies accountability and legal compliance. International law requires combatants to differentiate between military and civilian targets. When non-combatants are inadvertently caught in the crossfire, the legality and culpability of these actions are fiercely debated. With the rules of engagement for these operations unclear, such incidents only deepen the existing complexities of warfare legality.

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