Madogaz Musa Abdullah is still able to recall the phone call. The next part was blurred. He drove for hours in the Libyan desert, speeding to the Algerian border. His mind buckled, his thoughts reeled, and more than three years later, he’s still not certain how he made that six-hour journey.
He called me to talk about his younger brother, Nasser. He told me that he was more than just a sibling. He was also a close friend. Nasser was polite, caring, and kind. He loved music and sang. He loved Jimi Hendrix as well as Carlos Santana and Bob Marley.
Abdullah finally found Nasser close to Al Awaynat. Or, rather, he found everything that was left of him. Nasser and 10 other men from Ubari had been riding three SUVs that were now charred. The 11 men were incinerated. Abdullah knew that one of the charred corpses belonged to his brother, but he couldn’t identify which one.
If these bodies were found recently in the village of Staryi BykivIn the streets of Bucha, outside a train station in Kramatorsk, or elsewhere in Ukraine where Russian forces have regularly killed civilians, the images would have been splashed across the Internet, earning worldwide attention and prompting fierce — and justified — outrage. Instead, the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), issued a statement the day following the attack. It was met almost universal silence.
“In coordination with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), U.S. Africa Command conducted a precision airstrike near Al Awaynat, Libya, November 29, 2018, killing eleven (11) al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) terrorists and destroying three (3) vehicles,” it read. “At this time, we assess no civilians were injured or killed in this strike.” Photos of the aftermath of the attackThese tweets, which were shared on Twitter the same day, were retweeted a mere 30 times over the past three years.
Abdullah and the Tuareg community of Ubari have insisted that Nasser and others who were riding in those vehicles are civilians since then. GNA veterans who fought terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, and even the Islamic State in Sirte two years prior, were not civilians. Despite protests by the public and pleas to Libyan government for impartial investigations, Ubari residents have been ignored for over three years. “Before the strike, we trusted AFRICOM. We believed that they worked for the Libyan people,” Abdullah told me. “Now, they have no credibility. Now, we know that they kill innocent people.”
Hellfire in Libya
Earlier this month, Abdullah, along with a spokesperson for his ethnic Tuareg community and representatives of three nongovernmental organizations — the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, Italy’s Rete Italiana Pace e Disarmo, and Reprieve, a human rights advocacy group — filed a criminal complaintColonel Gianluca Ciriatti was the former commander of the Italian Air Base in Sigonella, Italy from which the American drone took flight. They sought to hold him responsible for the murder of Nasser and the other 10 men. The complainants requested that the public prosecutor’s office in Siracusa, where the base is located, prosecute Colonel Chiriatti and other Italian officials involved in that air strike for the crime of murder.
“The drone attack of 29 November 2018 where 11 innocent people lost their lives in Libya is part of the broader U.S. program of extrajudicial killings. This program is based upon a notion that pre-emptive self defense is not legal. The state can only use lethal attacks of this type to protect itself against an imminent danger to its life. In this circumstance, the victims posed no threat,” reads the criminal complaint. “In light of this premise, the drone attack on Al Awaynat on 29 November 2018 stands in frontal contrast to the discipline, Italian and international, regarding the use of lethal force in the context of law enforcement operations.”
The United States has been conducting an undeclared War across most of the globe for the past two decades. They have deployed proxy forces from Asia to Africa, deployed commandos from the Philippines and West Africa nation of Burkina Faso, as well as conducting air strikes in Libya. Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, Yemen. Over the years, U.S. Military has worked hard to normalize drone warfare outside of war zones. While relying on allies around (such as that Italian base at Siracusa), to help it conduct its global war,
“Clearly, a drone operation employing lethal force is not routine,” said Chantal Meloni, legal advisor at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights. “While AFRICOM is directly responsible, the Italian commander must have known about and approved the operation and can therefore be criminally responsible as an accomplice for having allowed the unlawful lethal attack.”
The November 2018 drone attack on Libya was far from a one-off. During just six months in 2011, alone, U.S. MQ-1 Predator drones flying from Sigonella conducted 241 air strikes in Libya during Operation Unified Protector — the NATO air campaign against then-Libyan autocrat Muammar Gaddafi — according to retired Lt. Col. Gary Peppers, the former commander of the 324th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron. He said that the unit was responsible. The Intercept in 2018, for “over 20 percent of the total of all Hellfire [missiles] expended in the 14 years of the system’s deployment.”
Operation Odyssey Lightning was the 2016 catalyst for the U.S. air campaign in Libya. The Libyan Government of National Accord asked for American assistance to dislodge Islamic State fighters from Sirte in the summer of 2016. Obama administration designated the city an “area of active hostilities,” loosening guidelines designed to prevent civilian casualties. According to an AFRICOM press release the U.S. suffered a series of civilian casualties between August and December that year. carried out in Sirte alone “495 precision airstrikes against Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices, heavy guns, tanks, command and control centers, and fighting positions.”
The Shores of Tripoli
These military strikes were not new. The United States has been conducting attacks in Libya since before there even was a Libya — and almost a United States. In his first address to Congress in 1801, President Thomas Jefferson spoke of coastal kingdoms in North Africa, including the “least considerable of the Barbary States,” Tripoli (now, the capital of modern Libya). He refused to pay tribute to the rulers these kingdoms to stop their state-sponsored privaters seizing American sailors. This started the Barbary Wars. In 1804, Lieutenant Stephen DecaturA daring nighttime mission led by a brave Marine, led by a host of allied mercenaries, to board a U.S. vessel captured and destroyed. And an attack the next year by nine Marines and a host of allied mercenaries on the North African city of Derna ensured that “the shores of Tripoli” would have prime placement in the Marine Corps hymn.
Libya has been a long-standing test ground for new forms air war. In November 1911 — 107 years to the month before that drone attack killed Nasser Musa Abdullah — Italian Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti conducted the world’s first modern airstrike. “Today I have decided to try to throw bombs from the aeroplane,” he wroteHe wrote his father a letter while deployed in Libya to combat forces loyal to the Ottoman empire. “I take the bomb with my right hand, pull off the security tag and throw the bomb out, avoiding the wing.”
Gavotti was not only the pioneer in the idea of air raids targeting troops far from the traditional frontlines of war, but also the targeting civilian infrastructure when it came to bombing an oasis that was a social or economic center. Thomas Hippler stated it in his book Governing from the Skies, Gavotti introduced aerial attacks on “hybrid target[s]” that “indifferently mingled civilian and military objectives.”
More than a century later, in 2016, Operation Odyssey Lightning again made Libya ground zero for the testing of new air-war concepts — in this case, urban combat involving multiple drones working in combination with local troops and U.S. Special Operations forces. One of the drone pilots involved was quoted: saying in an Air Force news release: “Some of the tactics were created and some of the persistent attack capabilities that hadn’t been used widely before were developed because of this operation.”
According to Colonel Case Cunningham, commander of the 432nd Expeditionary Wing at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada — the headquarters of the Air Force’s drone operations — about 70% of the MQ-9 Reaper drone strikes conducted during Odyssey Lightning were close-air-support missions backing up local Libyan forces engaged in street-to-street combat. He said that drones often worked in tandem with each other, as well with Marine Corps attack jets and jets, which helped guide the airstrikes on conventional aircraft.
“The Deaths of Thousands of Civilians”
Despite hundreds of terrorist attacks against the Libyan Government of National Accord (GGNA), the employment of U.S. proxiesIn counterterrorism missions combatAmerican commandos and more $850 millionLibya is still the country that has received the most U.S. assistance since 2011. fragileThere are a total of 67 states on the planet. Earlier this year, President Biden renewed its “national emergency” status (first invoked by President Barack Obama in 2011). “Civil conflict in Libya will continue until Libyans resolve their political divisions and foreign military intervention ends,” wrote Biden, failing to mention the U.S. “foreign military intervention” there, including that November 2018 airstrike. “The situation in Libya continues to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”
In early 2021, the Biden administration imposed limits on drone strikes and commando raids outside of conventional war zones, while launching a review of all such missions, and began writing a new “playbook” to govern counterterrorism operations. The results, or lack thereof – are not yet publicized more than a year later. In January, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin directed subordinates to draw up a “Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Plan” within 90 days. This, too, is still to be released.
Civilians will continue to die from airstrike attacks unless the Defense Department reforms its airstrike policy. “The U.S. military has a systemic targeting problem that will continue to cost civilians their lives,” said Marc Garlasco, formerly the Pentagon’s chief of high-value targeting — in charge, that is, of the effort to kill Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein in 2003 — and now, the military adviser for PAX, a Dutch civilian protection organization. “Civilian deaths are not discrete events; they are symptoms of larger problems such as a lack of proper investigations, a faulty collateral-damage estimation methodology, overreliance on intelligence without considering open-source data, and a policy that does not recognize the presumption of civilian status.”
Such “larger problems” have been revealed again and again. For example, the Yemeni-based group was dissolved last March Mwatana for Human RightsThe U.S. released a report that looked at 12 U.S. airstrikes in Yemen between January 2017-January 2019. Its researchers discovered that at least 38 Yemeni civilians were killed in the attacks and seven more were injured.
A June 2021 Pentagon reportOne incident that resulted in civilian casualties was recognized, the death on January 22, 2019 of a civilian in al-Bayda (Yemen). Mwatana’s investigation determined that the attack killed Saleh Ahmed Mohamed al Qaisi, a 67-year-old farmer who locals said had no terrorist affiliations. The U.S. previously acknowledged four to twelve civilian deaths in a previous incident. raid by Navy SEALsMwatana reported the events on January 29, 2017. It also reported a higher death count. Mwatana was told by Central Command, which oversees U.S. operations in the Middle East. April 2021 letter that it was “confident that each airstrike hit its intended Al Qaeda targets and nothing else.”
The rigourous investigative reporting of the New York TimesOn the last U.S. drone strikeThe Pentagon was forced to admit that the Afghan War of August 2021 had occurred. What General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had originally deemed a “righteous strike” had actually killed 10 civilians, seven of them children. A subsequent TimesInvestigative work revealed that a U.S. Airstrike in Baghuz, Syria in 2019 had occurred. killed up to 64 noncombatantsThis is a new toll that was previously hidden by a multilayered covering-up. The TimesThen, we did an investigation into 1,300 reports of civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria, demonstrating, wrote reporter Azmat Khan, that the American air war in those countries was “marked by deeply flawed intelligence, rushed and often imprecise targeting, and the deaths of thousands of civilians, many of them children, a sharp contrast to the American government’s image of war waged by all-seeing drones and precision bombs.”
U.S. strikes in Libya have slowed significantly since the Sirte campaign in late 2016. In 2017, AFRICOM carried out seven declared airstrikes in Libya. Six of these were in 2017. 2018Four in 2019And there have been no such incidents since. The U.S. military, however, has made little effortto reevaluate previous strikes and the civilian casualties that they caused, including the November 2018 strike that killed Nasser Muja Abdullah. “U.S. Africa Command followed the civilian casualty assessment process in place at the time and determined that the reports were unsubstantiated,” said AFRICOM spokesperson Kelly Cahalan. The command will not reexamine the case, despite the criminal complaint that was filed on April 1. “There is nothing new or different regarding the Nov 30, 2018 airstrike,” Cahalan told me by email.
Africa Command has clearly moved on, but Abdullah can’t. His thoughts about his brother and the charred bodies of his father are ingrained in his brain, but they get stuck in his throat. “I was in shock,” he told me when discussing the phone call that preceeded his dash across the desert. “I’m so sorry, but I can’t explain in words what I felt.”
Abdullah was similarly stumped when he tried explaining the grisly scene that confronted him hours later. He was eloquent in speaking about the justice he seeks and how being branded a “terrorist” robbed his brotherTheir community of dignity. There is nothing that can be said about his final memory of Nasser. “What I saw was so terrible,” he told me, his voice rising, ragged and loaded with pain. “I can’t even describe it.”